Thinking Influences Thinking

Looking over Pharyngula this morning I found that Professor Myers was answering another list of proclaimed questions atheists cannot answer. I was halfway thru when I decided that I wanted to blog my own answers, since I haven’t been writing much lately and apparently miss it. I decided this gradually as I read the list, there was no clear instant where I made up my mind, but I found myself comparing the first answer to pop into my head with the good professor’s, and finding substantial overlap. Enough that I started thinking I would have trouble keeping them from mixing in my head before I got them written down.

I stopped reading around question #4 and starting writing this instead. As so often happens, my mind wandered someplace interesting that I didn’t expect while considering the fairly mundane problem of eliminating bias from my writing.

My opinions may well have been colored by reading some of PZ’s responses before I wrote my own out, but while I was thinking about that it occurred to me that my responses have definitely been colored by his influence over the last five years or so, since I’ve started reading his blog.

PZ has been accused by several people of having a cult-like control over his regular readers, which may make him an unfortunate impetus for this line of thought. On the other hand, clearly his alleged mind-control isn’t too binding, since this is exactly the kind of thinking a proper cult leader would want to discourage!

Still, it’s interesting, isn’t it? At what point and to what degree are our personalities changed by the people who influence our lives? We are such social creatures that we spend our entire lives being affected by the words of other people, starting with our parents. And despite the oft-repeated phrase, “think for yourself!”, we often don’t, instead we simply apply the concept (or sometimes the exact words) we have learned to associate with the situation and spend little time or thought on it beyond that.

I wonder if there have been any studies of how often we actually do think for ourselves? It would clearly be difficult, since there’s no easy way to tell what someone is actually thinking about. Something I sometimes do that I usually only notice in hindsight is that while I’m attempting to think about what someone is saying, I’m really thinking about the social dynamics of the situation; and only later do I properly analyze their words. So unless we can confidently tell the difference, (I don’t know, maybe with a PET scan?) we can’t be sure. But I know that there are some very clever people out there teasing useful data out of appalling noise, so perhaps someone’s managed it.

One of these days, I need to have a talk with the scientific establishment about the peer-review system’s availability to the general public.

On the subject of people who influence, let’s say honestly, vs people attempting to exert a cult-like mind control, my standard test is how much opposing information they provide and how they present it. Because I do most of this sort of reading on the internet, I use hyperlinks for a simple test. Someone who is presenting an idea and provides links to opposing ideas, discussing them honestly and fairly while they provide reasons they reject it, is far, far more credible to me than someone who does not, expecting me to trust their word that the opposition says what they claim. There’s clearly a spectrum here,

  • Hyperlinks straight to the opposing views as written by those who espouse them are best.

  • Names and enough information to easily find them are ok.

  • Vague, obscure or obfuscated references, where with digging and hunting one might turn them up, are a bad sign.

  • A total lack of references, or pretending that significant opposition simply does not exist almost always means that the author is not arguing in good faith.

Of course here, as always, context matters.

But this is already long and I haven’t even gotten to the questions! I’ll write them up separately, I suppose. Clearly I am not writing enough, every time I start to actually write I find myself going on and on. Also, I don’t think I’m writing nearly as well as I was in 2012, when I wrote almost every day. Apparently the practice is good for me, but I suspect that like any exercise care must be taken not to push too hard and burn out.

About Leo Tarvi

Mostly fictional.

Posted on July 13, 2014, in Daily Post and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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