The Internet has introduced a golden age of ill-informed arguments. You can't post a video of an adorable kitten without a raging debate about pet issues spawning in the comment section. These days, everyone is a pundit.
But with all those different perspectives on important issues flying around, you'd think we'd be getting smarter and more informed. Unfortunately, the very wiring of our brains ensures that all these lively debates only make us dumber and more narrow-minded. For instance ...
5We're Not Programmed to Seek "Truth," We're Programmed to "Win"
Think about the last time you ran into a coworker or family member spouting some easily disproven conspiracy theory -- somebody who still thinks Obama's birth certificate is a fake or that Dick Cheney arranged 9/11 to cover up his theft of $2.3 trillion from the government. When they were shown proof that their conspiracy theory was wrong, did they back down? Did they get this look of realization on their face and say, "Wow ... if this is untrue, then maybe the other 'facts' upon which I've based my fringe beliefs also aren't true. Thank you, kind stranger, for helping me rethink my entire political philosophy!"
That has literally never happened in the history of human conversation. Whether it's a politician whose point has been refuted or a conspiracy theorist who has been definitively proven insane, they will immediately shift to the next talking point or conspiracy theory that backs up their side, not even skipping a beat. They keep fighting to defend their position even after it is factually shown to be untrue. But what's really weird is that process -- of sticking to your guns even after you've been proven definitively wrong -- is apparently the entire reason humans invented arguing.
"OK, so Dick Cheney doesn't have a third arm. He might still be capable of spitting acid."
It's called the argumentative theory of reasoning, and it says that humans didn't learn to ask questions and offer answers in order to find universal truths. We did it as a way to gain authority over others. That's right -- they think that reason itself evolved to help us bully people into getting what we want. Here's how a proponent puts it:
"'Reasoning doesn't have this function of helping us to get better beliefs and make better decisions,' said Hugo Mercier, who is a co-author of the journal article, with Dan Sperber. 'It was a purely social phenomenon. It evolved to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us.' Truth and accuracy were beside the point."
And as evidence, the researchers point out that after thousands of years of humans sitting around campfires and arguing about issues, these glaring flaws in our logic still exist. Why hasn't evolution weeded them out? The answer, they say, is that these cognitive flaws are adaptations to a system that's working perfectly fine, thank you. Our evolutionary compulsion is to triumph, even if it means being totally, illogically, proudly wrong.
"Check it out, you guys, Carl has something called 'Loose Change' loaded up on his iPhone."
Yes, kids, being a dick works.
So During Your Next Argument, Remember ...
You do this, too. If you're a human being, you're from a long line of people who got to the winner's circle again and again by ignoring facts in favor of advancing your side. So, the next time you find yourself desperately Googling for some factual example that proves your argument is right, and failing to find even one, stop. See if you can put the brakes on and actually say, out loud, "Wait a second. If the things I'm saying in order to bolster my argument are consistently wrong, then maybe my argument is also wrong."
"But if President Obama isn't a serial killer, what does my life mean?"
It's going to be harder than you think. Back when evolution was still sculpting your ancestor's brains, admitting you were wrong to the person you were debating got you bred out of existence. These days, being able to admit you're wrong is the greatest skill you can develop if you want to stay married.
4Our Brains Don't Understand Probability
Do you know a guy who keeps a loaded shotgun under his bed? You know, in case a gang of European terrorists storm into his house and try to kidnap his family?
If you throw a bunch of statistics at him about how unlikely that is (for example, that he lives in a low-crime suburb in Wisconsin where there's only been one murder in the last 40 years, that he's statistically more likely to accidentally do something stupid than ward off a criminal and that more people were struck by lightning last year than successfully shot bad guys in the middle of committing crimes), it won't change his mind. Instead, he'll rebut you by citing a news story or an anecdote about a guy who successfully fended off a Die Hard bad guy thanks to his trusty 12-gauge. For him, that single, vivid example completely overrides all talk of statistics or probability.
Now take it into the realm of politics. The U.S. has spent $1.3 trillion on the war on terror so far. That was in reaction to about 14,000 total deaths from international terrorism from 1975 to 2003. That's more than $90 million spent for each person killed.
If you point out that this money would have been better spent preventing industrial accidents (which kill twice as many people per year than died in the World Trade Center) or, even better, curing cancer (the equivalent of about 200 WTC attacks each year), you'll be told, "Say that to the 9/11 victims, hippie!"
"Why do you hate eagles?"
It's called neglect of probability. Our brains are great for doing a lot of things. Calculating probability is not one of them. That flaw colors every argument you've ever had, from the tax code down to that time your friend totally cheated you in a coin-flip.
This game exists because your brain is bad at math.
In this experiment involving electrocuting subjects (presumably conducted by Dr. Peter Venkman) scientists found people were willing to pay up to 20 dollars to avoid a 99 percent chance of a painful electric shock. Seems reasonable enough. But the same subjects would also be willing to pay up to seven dollars to avoid a tiny 1 percent chance of the same shock. It turned out that the subjects had only the vaguest concept of what 99 percent or 1 percent even means. All they could think about was the shock.
It's no surprise that we're bad at this, since the whole concept of measuring probability is a recent invention. Early man didn't have any concept of what percentage of bear encounters ended in being eaten. He only knew that he didn't want to be eaten. Our brains are not meant to instinctively understand any equation more complex than this:
Bear = Run Away
We're pretty sure there's supposed to be a coefficient of pant-soiling in there somewhere.
That worked fine for a hunter-gatherer trying to avoid being devoured by a bear like his father was. Unfortunately, running a government or an economy is a little more complicated, and we're still stuck in "Bear = Run Away" mode.
As experts point out, when there is strong emotion tied to the unlikely event, our ability to continue to see it as unlikely goes out the window. Thus, any statement of "It's very unlikely your child will be eaten by a bear, these bear traps in the yard are unnecessary and keep injuring the neighborhood kids" will always be answered with, "Say that when it's your child being eaten!"
So During Your Next Argument, Remember ...
Again, everybody does it. The only difference is which issue is so charged for us that we're willing to throw probability out the window.
"Math can blow me, I know that gardener is out to steal my babies."
Look, we realize not everyone is going to stop shouting at each other at protests, sit down and go over the numbers. But maybe take a deep breath and think twice before the next time you tell someone: "We'll see how you feel when it happens to you!"