When dialogues become duels

Why did the recent blow-up between Sam Harris and Glenn Greenwald happen? Why was my subsequent discussion with Murtaza Hussain so unproductive? More, why are squanderous squabbles like this so common? Even among intelligent, educated people with similar moral sensibilities?

To a first approximation, the answer is simple: Hussain wrote a sloppy, under-researched hit piece. More worried about Harris’ perceived support for U.S. foreign policy than about Hussain’s journalistic misconduct, Greenwald happily lent Hussain a megaphone. Egos flared and paralyzed discussion, and only a few third parties called Hussain or Greenwald out on their errors. So there the story ended.

But if all we take away from this debacle is ‘well, Those People are crazy and dumb and shouldn’t be listened to’, we’ll have missed an opportunity to hone our own craft. Habitually thinking in such terms is how they fell into error. They thought, ‘Those guys are the Enemy. So they can’t be reasoned with. They don’t deserve to have their views presented with charity and precision! They are simply to be defeated.’

And, of course, recognizing that this way of thinking is harmful still isn’t enough. They think that we are the ones in the throes of us-vs.-them thinking. The parallelism is rather comical.

And the thing is, they’re right. … And so are we.

Both sides are at the mercy of enemythink, even if only one side happens to be right on the points of fact. Even my way of framing this conversation in pugilistic terms, as a ‘conflict’ with ‘sides’, reveals a deep vulnerability to partisan animosity. To make progress, we have to actually internalize these lessons, and not just use them as more excuses to score points against the Other Side.

There are four fundamental lessons I’ve taken away from the Hussain/Greenwald libel scandal. And they really all boil down to: Getting everything wrong is easy, and treating discussions like battles or status competitions makes it worse. Put like that, our task could hardly be more simple — or more demanding.

1. There but for the grace of Rigor go I.

Rationality is hard. It isn’t a matter of getting a couple of simple metaphysical and political questions right and then coasting on your brilliance. It takes constant vigilance, effort, self-awareness. We shouldn’t be surprised to see mostly reasonable people slipping up in big ways. Rather, we should be surprised to observe that a jabbering bipedal ape is capable of being at all reasonable in the first place!

Since we’re all really, really bad at this, we need to work together and form social circles that reinforce good epistemic hygiene. We need to exchange and test ideas for combating our biases. I couldn’t put it better than Julia Galef, who lists seven superb tips for becoming a more careful reasoner and discussant.

We can’t spend all our time just clobbering everyone slightly more unreasonable than we are. We must also look inward, seeking out the deep roots of madness that make humans susceptible to dogmatism in the first place.

2. Reality is nonpartisan.

By this I don’t mean that two sides in a dispute must be equally right. Rather, I mean that falling into reflexive partisanship is dangerous, because the world doesn’t care that you’re a Skeptic, or a Libertarian, or a Consequentialist, or a Christian. You and your ideological allies might have gotten lots of questions right in the past, yet still completely flunk your next empirical test. Reality rewards you for getting particular facts right, not for declaring your allegiance to the right abstract philosophy. And it can punish without mercy those whose operative beliefs exhibit even the smallest error, however noble their intentions.

Beware of associating the truth with a ‘side’. Beware of focusing your discussion on groups of people — ‘neoconservatives’, ‘atheists’… — rather than specific ideas and arguments. In particular, treating someone you’re talking to merely as an avatar of a monolithic Ideology will inevitably lead you to oversimplify both the individual and the ideology. That is perhaps Hussain’s most transparent error. He was convinced that he knew what genus Harris belonged to, hence felt little need to expend effort on research or on parsing new arguments. Too much theory, not enough data. Too much hedgehog, not enough fox.

I think Harris worries about this too. He doesn’t like identifying as an ‘atheist’, because he strongly opposes any tendency to see simply being reasonable as an ideology in its own right.

We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.

[… R]ather than declare ourselves “atheists” in opposition to all religion, I think we should do nothing more than advocate reason and intellectual honesty—and where this advocacy causes us to collide with religion, as it inevitably will, we should observe that the points of impact are always with specific religious beliefs—not with religion in general. There is no religion in general.

I’m not sure this is the best strategy for banding together to save the world. Labels can be useful tools for pooling our efforts. But it’s absolutely a good strategy when it comes to improving our intellectual clarity on an individual level, any time we see ourselves starting to use tribal allegiances as a replacement for analytic vigilance.


Partisan divides lead to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to you committing inferential fallacies. Therefore, don’t just get mad, and don’t just get even; get it right. You have far more to fear from your own errors than from your adversary’s.

3. When you have a criticism, talk it over first.

It sounds banal, but you’d be surprised how much mileage this one gets you. Starting a direct conversation, ideally someplace private, makes it easy for people to change their minds without immediately worrying about their public image. It lets them explain their position, if you’ve misunderstood something. And it establishes a more human connection, encouraging learning and collaboration rather than a clash of egos.

Neither Hussain nor Greenwald extended that basic courtesy to Harris; they went for the throat first. Harris did extend that courtesy to Greenwald; but Greenwald wasn’t interested in talking things out in any detail, preferring to go public immediately.

Like Harris, I tried actually talking to Greenwald and Hussain. The result was revealing, and relatively civil. I still came away disappointed, but it was at least several steps up from the quality of Hussain’s dialogue with Harris. Had we begun with such a conversation, rather than waiting until the disputants were already entrenched in their positions, I suspect that much more progress would have been possible.

If you intensely oppose a view, that makes it all the more important to bracket egos and get clear on the facts right at the outset. All of this is consistent with subsequently bringing the discussion to the public, if the other party doesn’t respond, if you’re left dissatisfied, or if you are satisfied and want to show off how awesome your conversation was.

4. To err is human. To admit it, tremendously healthy.

Everyone screws up sometimes. The trick to really being a competent conversationalist is to notice when you screw up — to attend to it, really ponder it and let it sink in—

— and then to swiftly and mercilessly squish the mistake. Act as though you yourself were pointing out an enemy’s error. Critique it fully, openly, and aggressively.

Making concessions when you’ve screwed up, or when you and your opponent share common ground, makes your other positions stronger and more credible. Because you’ve proven that you can change your mind and notice conflicts between your theory and your data, you’ve also demonstrated that your other views are likely to track the evidence.

Don’t think, ‘Well, I’m right in spirit.’ Don’t think, ‘My mistake isn’t important. This is a distraction. I should keep a laser focus on where I’m right.’ If you ignore too many small errors, they’ll add up to a big error. If you don’t fully recognize when you’ve misjudged the evidence, but just shrug it off and return to the battlefront, then, slowly but surely, you and the facts will drift further and further apart. And you’ll never notice — for what evidence could convince you that you aren’t listening to the evidence?

Constant vigilance! That’s the lesson I take from this. Be uncompromisingly methodical. Be consistently reasonable. Never allow your past intellectual triumphs or your allegiance to the Good Guys to make you sloppy. Always seek the truth — even when the truth is a painful thing.

Realities to which you have anesthetized yourself can damage your person and your mind all the same. You just won’t notice in time to change them.

What can we reasonably concede to unreason?

This post first appeared on the Secular Alliance at Indiana University blog.

In October, SAIU members headed up to Indianapolis for the Center for Inquiry‘s “Defending Science: Challenges and Strategies” workshop. Massimo Pigliucci and Julia Galef, co-hosts of the podcast Rationally Speaking, spoke about natural deficits in reasoning, while Jason Rodriguez and John Shook focused on deliberate attempts to restrict scientific inquiry.

Julia Galef drew our attention to the common assumption that being rational means abandoning all intuition and emotion, an assumption she dismissed as a flimsy Hollywood straw man, or “straw vulcan”. True rationality, Julia suggested, is about the skillful integration of intuitive and deliberative thought. As she noted in a similar talk at the Singularity Summit, these skills demand constant cultivation and vigilance. In their absence, we all predictably fall victim to an array of cognitive biases.

To that end, Galef spoke of suites of indispensable “rationality skills”:

  • Know when to override an intuitive judgment with a reasoned one. Recognize cases where your intuition reliably fails, but also cases where intuition tends to perform better than reason.
  • Learn how to query your intuitive brain. For instance, to gauge how you really feel about a possibility, visualize it concretely, and perform thought experiments to test how different parameters and framing effects are influencing you.
  • Persuade your intuitive system of what your reason already knows. For example: Anna Salamon knew intellectually that wire-guided sky jumps are safe, but was having trouble psyching herself up. So she made her knowledge of statistics concrete, imagining thousands of people jumping before her eyes. This helped trick her affective response into better aligning with her factual knowledge.

Massimo Pigliucci’s talk, “A Very Short Course in Intellectual Self-Defense”, was in a similar vein. Pigliucci drew our attention to common formal and informal fallacies, and to the limits of deductive, inductive, and mathematical thought. Dissenting from Thomas Huxley’s view that ordinary reasoning is a great deal like science, Pigliucci argued that science is cognitively unnatural. This is why untrained reasoners routinely fail to properly amass and evaluate data.

While it’s certainly important to keep in mind how much hard work empirical rigor demands, I think we should retain a qualified version of Huxley’s view. It’s worth emphasizing that careful thought is not the exclusive property of professional academics, that the basic assumptions of science are refined versions of many of the intuitions we use in navigating our everyday environments. Science’s methods are rarefied, but not exotic or parochial. If we forget this, we risk giving too much credence to presuppositionalist apologetics.

Next, Jason Rodriguez discussed the tactics and goals of science organizations seeking to appease, work with, or reach out to the religious. Surveying a number of different views on the creation-evolution debate, Rodriguez questioned when it is more valuable to attack religious doctrines head-on, and when it is more productive to avoid conflict or make concessions.

This led in to John Shook’s vigorous talk, “Science Must Never Compromise With Religion, No Matter the Metaphysical or Theological Temptations”, and a follow-up Rationally Speaking podcast with Galef and Pigliucci. As you probably guessed, it focused on attacking metaphysicians and theologians who seek to limit the scope or undermine the credibility of scientific inquiry. Shook’s basic concern was that intellectuals are undermining the authority of science when they deem some facts ‘scientific’ and others ‘unscientific’. This puts undue constraints on scientific practice. Moreover, it gives undue legitimacy to those philosophical and religious thinkers who think abstract thought or divine revelation grant us access to a special domain of Hidden Truths.

Shook’s strongest argument was against attempts to restrict science to ‘the natural’. If we define ‘Nature’ in terms of what is scientifically knowable, then this is an empty and useless constraint. But defining the natural instead as the physical, or the spatiotemporal, or the unmiraculous, deprives us of any principled reason to call our research programs ‘methodologically naturalistic’. We could imagine acquiring good empirical evidence for magic, for miracles, even for causes beyond our universe. So science’s skepticism about such phenomena is a powerful empirical conclusion. It is not an unargued assumption or prejudice on the part of scientists.

Shook also argued that metaphysics does not provide a special, unscientific source of knowledge; the claims of metaphysicians are pure and abject speculation. I found this part of the talk puzzling. Metaphysics, as the study of the basic features of reality, does not seem radically divorced from theoretical physics and mathematics, which make similar claims to expand at least our pool of conditional knowledge, knowledge of the implications of various models. Yet Shook argued, not for embracing metaphysics as a scientific field, but for dismissing it as fruitless hand-waving.

Perhaps the confusion stemmed from a rival conception of ‘metaphysics’, not as a specific academic field, but as the general practice of drawing firm conclusions about ultimate reality from introspection alone — what some might call ‘armchair philosophy’ or ‘neoscholasticism’. Philosophers of all fields — and, for that matter, scientists — would do well to more fully internalize the dangers of excessive armchair speculation. But the criticism is only useful if it is carefully aimed. If we fixate on ‘metaphysics’ and ‘theology’ as the sole targets of our opprobrium, we risk neglecting the same arrogance in other guises, while maligning useful exploration into the contents, bases, and consequences of our conceptual frameworks. And if we restrict knowledge to science, we risk not only delegitimizing fields like logic and mathematics, but also putting undue constraints on science itself. For picking out a special domain of purported facts as ‘metaphysical’, and therefore unscientific, has exactly the same risks as picking out a special domain as ‘non-natural’ or ‘supernatural’.

To defend science effectively, we have to pick our battles with care. This clearly holds true in public policy and education, where it is most useful in some cases to go for the throat, in other cases to make compromises and concessions. But it also applies to our own personal struggles to become more rational, where we must carefully weigh the costs of overriding our unreasoned intuitions, taking a balanced and long-term approach. And it also holds in disputes over the philosophical foundations and limits of scientific knowledge, where the cost of committing ourselves to unusual conceptions of ‘science’ or ‘knowledge’ or ‘metaphysics’ must be weighed against any argumentative and pedagogical benefits.

This workshop continues to stimulate my thought, and continues to fuel my drive to improve science education. The central insight the speakers shared was that the practices we group together as ‘science’ cannot be defended or promoted in a vacuum. We must bring to light the psychological and philosophical underpinnings of science, or we will risk losing sight of the real object of our hope and concern.