Friday, August 1, 2014

Thoughts on Ideological Empathy

I've been meaning to break out of my blog radio silence for a while now, but life has (surprisingly) remained somewhat complicated. I read a great piece tonight by my very close personal friend Derek Rishmawy1, though, that deserves comment. He begins:
We seem to live in an age that lacks intellectual imagination; at least when it comes to the thought processes of others.
It's worth reading Derek's post because this is a really, really important point. I, unfortunately, have absolutely nothing of my own to add to the discussion. However, I've read and thought about this topic quite a bit, so if nothing else I can at least tie in some helpful resources.

There's an actual technical term for this particular type of intellectual imagination: it's called "A Theory of Mind."2 According to El Wik:
Having a theory of mind allows one to attribute thoughts, desires, and intentions to others, to predict or explain their actions, and to posit their intentions. As originally defined, it enables one to understand that mental states can be the cause of—and thus be used to explain and predict—others' behavior.
This ability to understand the intentions of others can be especially difficult in online interactions, in part because nonverbal signals don't translate over the internet. Lacking these social cues, we sometimes attribute intent to others that they do not in fact hold. But Derek's not the only one who's been noticing this recently. On Snarkmarket, one of my favorite blogs, Robin Sloan talked about this very thing almost two years ago. He describes something called the Long Now debate format, which is at attempt at create "empathy and good faith."
Take two debaters, Alice and Bob. Alice goes first, presenting her argument. Then Bob stands up, and before he can present his counter-argument, he has to summarize Alice’s argument to her satisfaction. So it’s basically an exercise in empathy and good faith. If Alice agrees that he’s got it right, then Bob proceeds with his argument—and when he’s done, Alice has to recapitulate it to his satisfaction.
This is actually referred to, in many circles, as an "ideological turing test." I first heard the phrase here:
If someone can correctly explain a position but continue to disagree with it, that position is less likely to be correct.  And if ability to correctly explain a position leads almost automatically to agreement with it, that position is more likely to be correct.  It's not a perfect criterion, of course, especially for highly idiosyncratic views.  But the ability to pass ideological Turing tests - to state opposing views as clearly and persuasively as their proponents - is a genuine symptom of objectivity and wisdom.
I'd like to someday demonstrate symptoms of objectivity and wisdom, so the idea of being able to state opposing views as clearly and persuasively as their proponents is one that appeals to me. I'm not claiming I do it consistently, I'm just saying it's an appealing idea.


1 Not really. We've never met. We occasionally interact on social media, though.

2 I was originally made aware of ToM through the writings of Charlie Stross. Click here, then search the page for "theory of mind." Ironically, Charlie does not display a strong Theory of Mind when he writes about those with whom he disagrees, but as with the Krugman example, that's not so rare. Ironically, I once listened to a one-hour panel discussion between Stross and Krugman that was incredibly enlightening, but that's a story for another time.

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