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#50: We Were Wrong about Everything

#50: We Were Wrong about Everything

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Welcome to another Mindf*ck Monday, the only weekly newsletter that isn’t afraid to make your mother cry. Each week, I send you three potentially life-changing ideas to help you be a slightly less awful human being. This week, we’re talking about: 1) logical fallacies and how they’re the reason we can’t have nice things, 2) The Backfire Effect, or why more information makes us more polarized, and 3) things I’ve changed my mind about. 

Let’s get into it. 

1. Logical fallacies  Readers often ask me where I get the ideas to write what I write. I think sometimes they expect some elaborate system with trunks full of notecards and some indexing software with an algorithm that cross-references everything I’ve ever read with a collection of cocktail napkins I’ve scribbled on. 

It’s actually far simpler than that. I get hundreds of emails from readers per day. At some point, I start noticing patterns in those emails — people with similar problems, or people who make similar mistakes. These emails pile up and eventually I get sick of writing the same response over and over and say, “Fuck it, let’s do an article.” 

One article I’ve wanted to do for months now is about logical fallacies — errors in reasoning and assumptions we make when we’re arguing about something. Given it’s 2020 and shit is hitting the fan and more people are emailing me crazy arguments than ever before, I figured an article on logic was long overdue. Check it out: 

Read: 8 Logical Fallacies that Mess Us All Up (or read it in the iOS app)

Logic doesn’t usually cause people to need to change their underwear, but I hope you brought a spare pair anyway. It’s an incredibly important but hugely under-read topic, so I sprinkled on some Manson flavoring for you. After all, tightening our reasoning skills prevents us from believing stupid things that are then pushed onto other people. Similarly, understanding logic helps defend us from other people’s bad ideas which, if you’ve ever used the internet, you might have noticed there are a few of them floating around out there. 

2. When More Information Makes Things Worse – Last week, I wrote about how I believe social media gets blamed for what is actually just the shittier aspects of human nature scaled across fast information networks known as the “internet.” Actually, that’s what I tried to argue but I don’t think it came out that well. Some readers pushed back saying that even though social media may not be responsible for the litany of mental health and social problems that it gets blamed for, it’s still responsible for public discourse devolving into a cesspool of trolls, flame wars, and Twitter mobs. 

In fact, Tristan Harris, the main focal point of the new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, came out this week and said:

The only source of information for most people now is a machine that is designed to partially inform people, misinform people, spread conspiracy theories and lies faster than facts.”
And this is where I want to try my argument again, because I think what Harris says is inaccurate. Social media algorithms do not manipulate and push users into believing awful things. People already believe the awful things and social media simply spreads them more easily. Critics like Harris imply that tech companies are sitting in Silicon Valley scheming for ways to extract more ad dollars from people’s anxiety and misinformation. 

That’s a caricature of what really happens. Social media does not make us worse people. We already were terrible people. Rather, social media is the mirror that made that terribleness more widespread and apparent for everyone to see. 

This is what I tried to say last week: we are not victims of some evil algorithms that cause us to think and feel in flawed ways. We think and feel in flawed ways already, the algorithms simply amplify those flaws like never before. This is why I wrote in Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope that eventually, we will need algorithms that can compensate for our inherent psychological flaws, rather than simply reflect them back at us. 

There are flaws in the idea that if Twitter and Facebook just showed better information, everything would be fine. How do I know this? Researchers have already tested it. A couple of years ago, researchers at the University of North Carolina ran an experiment. They took people with left-wing beliefs and right-wing beliefs and exposed them to opposing viewpoints on Twitter for a month. In all, they were exposed to over 700 messages and articles of viewpoints that differed from their own. At the end of the month, the researchers went back and surveyed the people again to see if their political views had become more moderate. 

They had not. In fact, they had become even more polarized than they were before. 

This phenomenon has become known as “the backfire effect” — when people are exposed to information that challenges their current beliefs, they do not surrender their current beliefs. Instead, people become more convinced that they are right and others are wrong. In this way, it is possible that giving people more information and access to a wider diversity of ideas does not moderate beliefs or bring people together, but rather it fragments them and drives them apart further. 

That’s not social media’s fault. That’s just human nature. Sure, Big Tech has profited off of it. But they also recognize the problem and have been quietly working towards addressing it. After all, destabilizing modern society and generating political crises is not good for any business. 

3. What I’ve changed my mind about – In the spirit of challenging the natural tendency to double-down on false beliefs and remove the social stigma from changing one’s mind, I mentioned a few weeks ago that I wanted to periodically admit things that I have been wrong about and/or changed my mind about. I want to do this because I believe developing a culture where this is admired or at least respected is incredibly important if we’re going to survive in this day and age. So I encourage you to do it yourself periodically, as well. 

Here’s what I’ve been wrong about: 

  • In crises, leadership matters. For a number of years, I’ve written that people focus too much on leaders they don’t like and instead ignore the larger social trends that are often dictating leaders’ unsavory behavior. I wrote this originally about Trump but it could have been written about many leaders around the world. I argued that leaders have less influence than people perceive. Well, what I didn’t realize when I wrote that was that this is probably only true in good times. When a crisis hits, leadership matters far more. Basic decisions of prioritization have widespread consequences. People look to someone to guide them morally and emotionally. And if your leader sucks, then shit is going to get bad. This is doubly painful because it’s often in crises that the biggest leaps in progress are made. Yet if you have incompetent leadership, that progress never comes, and you inevitably fall behind. 

  • Lockdowns are probably not effective. The data is in and a country’s ability to cope with the pandemic seems to have very little to do with how strict their quarantine was and far more to do with social norms (mask wearing, distancing, etc.), population density, climate and other, far more important policies around testing and tracing. In fact, widespread testing and tracing seem to be the most effective policies and yet, in many countries, they are emphasized the least.

  • I have not changed my mind about vaccines, but after enough emails from vaccine-skeptical readers, I have learned about various risks and policy errors associated with vaccines that I was not aware of before. I now understand some of the criticisms that are made and why some people are skeptical of using them for their families. That said, full-blown anti-vaxxers are still morons. It’s like refusing to ever wear a seatbelt because occasionally they’re installed incorrectly by car manufacturers and hurt people. The understanding of risk/reward is nonsensical. I still believe that vaccines have saved hundreds of millions of lives. And barring exceptional circumstances, you and your loved ones should still get them.

Also, some beliefs of mine that have been strengthened this year, in no particular order: 

  • Science and data should lead policy decisions as much as possible.
  • Culture is quietly the most influential variable in determining the outcomes for populations, even though it is more taboo than ever to talk about it.
  • A healthy and conscious attention diet is more important than ever before.
  • Loneliness is low-key the root of so many of the mental health and social welfare issues today, yet nobody seems to know how to talk about or solve it. 
  • The institutions in the US are more intractable and inefficient than even I had previously thought and things will likely have to get much worse here before they get better.

There are others, but let’s stop there before I start depressing everybody. 

Until next week,