Reasoning With the NRA
I don’t know if you heard about this, but I am outraged. About 20 years ago the NRA lobbied congress and successfully suppressed all research going on at the Center for Disease Control on gun safety. Shocking, right? It seems that the NRA was worried by the CDC findings that having a gun in the house, rather than conferring protection, significantly increased the risk of homicide by a family member or – What’s that you say? That’s not what you heard? You say that the truth is that the Center for Disease Control was doing politically motivated research treating gun ownership as a disease that should be eradicated, and you are outraged. Okay, well, I guess we are both outraged, but now what? I mean, which is it: does gun ownership make you safer or not? I’d really like to know, wouldn’t you?
Current findings in the social sciences indicate that no, you and I don’t really want to know the truth about gun ownership. What we want is to be reassured that the position we currently hold is right. Jonathan Haidt, in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, explains that we are all motivated by something called “confirmation bias” which is “the tendency to seek out and interpret new evidence in ways that confirm what you already think.” In other words, we are really good at finding evidence to support our position. Then we shape that evidence into a really convincing – to us, at least – apparently logical argument. Our reasoning appears perfectly logical because we have excluded all evidence that might contradict our conclusions. Rather provocatively, Haidt says, “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason.” Wow! And I thought reason was the only way to get at the truth. But Haidt says trusting reason can be foolhardy, because reason arose not in order to find the truth, but to justify ourselves and our positions to our community.
Think of it this way: a group of early humans are gathered around the fire to divide up the meat from the latest kill, and you are accused of stealing a hunk of meat earlier in the day. You had better come up with a good explanation to deflect the group’s outrage or you might literally be tossed out into the cold. So you tell a story – it doesn’t have to be true, just convincing – about how you were out picking berries and nowhere near the stash of meat all day and happily, the group buys it. You might even, for good measure, point the finger of accusation in the direction of a weaker group member – again, no truth telling is necessary here, just a good outcome for you.
As Haidt explains, reasoning “evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the contest of discussions with other people.” Combine that with confirmation bias, and you get a species – human beings – who can come up with sophisticated arguments to support their previously held position despite evidence to the contrary. And if you can find others who share your confirmation bias you get the warm fuzzy feeling of belonging and the cover to believe you hold a self-evident position.
So we can see how those of us on different sides of the gun ownership debate can hold opposite opinions with equally fervent conviction. We have reasoned ourselves into our positions using only evidence that supports those positions, and we can do it because reason is not interested in both sides of the story. In fact, relying on reason requires us to actively exclude evidence in order to maintain the logic of our argument. Given confirmation bias and the unreasonableness of reason, is it possible to know the truth at all, especially about an issue that divides us into like-minded groups like gun ownership? Haidt says yes, truth is knowable, but not through self-justifying reason. Because we are quite good at finding evidence to support previously held positions, but rather awful at being open-minded, Haidt’s solution is simple: people holding drastically different opinions need to work together to do what we do best – find the holes in other people’s arguments. Then we need to combine that with the strength to do what we’d rather not – admit that our arguments might have holes in them. That’s the only way to give the truth a fighting chance to see the light of day. Haidt says that the group will need to have a “common bond or shared fate” in order to function well, but he claims that “if you put individuals together in the right way… you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.” In other words, what we produce together will be greater than the sum of our individual parts.
Haidt makes sense to me. He’s pointing to the truth that in order to admit I might be wrong, I have to find a different way of getting that warm fuzzy feeling of belonging, a common bond that unites me with those who I have been suspicious of until now. I can’t think of anything that would give me a bigger rush of the warm fuzzies than being part of the solution to gun violence, even if the messenger of how wrong I’ve been is the NRA. Maybe the best thing we can do right now is to all agree to be wrong together because the quality of the future we share depends on it.