A family visit, defending against motivated reasoning, Mozart’s Figaro, and swimming
by Rob Tiller
The weather in Raleigh was sunny and mild this week, and the trees started to leaf in. I was looking forward to some outdoor activities for the weekend, but the temperature dropped into the thirties on Saturday, and on Sunday there was light snow.
Jocelyn came down from New York to visit us this weekend, along with her friend Kyle. Gabe and our granddog, Mowgli, also stopped by. We had some of Sally’s good cooking and some lively conversation. Among other topics, we considered what’s happening to journalism, including fake news, imaginary fake news, and partisan attacks on media, and how it is possible to be both highly intelligent and deeply deluded.
I told them about a podcast by Julia Galef called Rationally Speaking in which Galef talks with intellectuals about their ideas. She likes a good argument, and keeps things popping along. I find her openness to new ideas and curiosity to be really cheering and inspiring.
This week I came upon a talk Galef did last year at a Tedx conference titled Why You Think You’re Right, Even When You’re Wrong, in which she gives a good way of thinking about motivated reasoning and how to do less of it. She analogizes different thought habits to two types of army soldiers: regular fighters and scouts.
She summed up the idea here:
Our judgment is strongly influenced, unconsciously, by which side we want to win. And this is ubiquitous. This shapes how we think about our health, our relationships, how we decide how to vote, what we consider fair or ethical. What’s most scary to me about motivated reasoning or soldier mindset, is how unconscious it is. We can think we’re being objective and fair-minded and still wind up ruining the life of an innocent man. …
So . . . what I call “scout mindset” [is] the drive not to make one idea win or another lose, but just to see what’s really there as honestly and accurately as you can, even if it’s not pretty or convenient or pleasant. This mindset is what I’m personally passionate about. And I’ve spent the last few years examining and trying to figure out what causes scout mindset. Why are some people, sometimes at least, able to cut through their own prejudices and biases and motivations and just try to see the facts and the evidence as objectively as they can?
And the answer is emotional. So, just as soldier mindset is rooted in emotions like defensiveness or tribalism, scout mindset is, too. It’s just rooted in different emotions.For example, scouts are curious. They’re more likely to say they feel pleasure when they learn new information or an itch to solve a puzzle. They’re more likely to feel intrigued when they encounter something that contradicts their expectations. Scouts also have different values. They’re more likely to say they think it’s virtuous to test your own beliefs,and they’re less likely to say that someone who changes his mind seems weak. And above all, scouts are grounded, which means their self-worth as a person isn’t tied to how right or wrong they are about any particular topic. So they can believe that capital punishment works. If studies come out showing that it doesn’t, they can say, “Huh. Looks like I might be wrong. Doesn’t mean I’m bad or stupid.”
Galef comes at some of these same issues from a different direction in a short (5:41) YouTube talk titled How to Want to Change Your Mind. Here again, she proposes looking at reasoning as having an emotional component that needs to be addressed in the interest of better thinking. We tend to get defensive and closed off when we feel threatened, and Galef has some helpful tips for counteracting that tendency. For example, she suggests picturing your opinion as separate from your self. She also notes that it’s possible to get comfortable and even pleased to discover your belief is mistaken — because you’ve just gotten wiser!
The Marriage of Figaro
Last week we saw and heard The Marriage of Figaro by W.A. Mozart and G. de Ponti in a performance by the N.C. Opera. It was sublime. The music all by itself is brilliant, well worth listening to even without benefit of story. The story is essentially a comedy of love, but a unique and strange one — startlingly dark and cynical by moments, but also poignant by moments.
The leads all sang beautifully, and just as important, created believably human characters with their acting. Jennifer Cherrest as Susanna brought wry saucy humor along with her tonal strength and range. She had good chemistry with Figaro, her betrothed, the very fine Tyler Simpson. Other standouts included D’Ana Lombard as Countess Almaviva, who had a lovely voice and musicality. Cherubino (Jennifer Panara) was wonderfully comic.
Earlier in the week, I added back some lap swimming to my exercise regime. I’d gotten out of the habit when the Pullen Park pool closed for repairs and then quit having morning hours. The gym I joined earlier this year has a small lap pool, but I found it hard to get motivated to head toward the water in the early hours, when it’s cold and dark. But once back in, I quickly remembered what I like about swimming. The water feels good on your skin. There’s a rhythm to it, and quietness.