Intellectual Humility

Brian Resnick at Vox just posted an essay about intellectual humility in the sciences. It’s something I think about a lot when it comes to education.

I used to, when I had a class with Veterans or non-traditional students, talk about the importance of intellectual humility and the real challenge of having the courage to change your mind. When you learn you literally change your brain. You literally change your mind. When you change your mind you are changing yourself. Changing yourself to be a different person can be scary and takes real courage. Without intellectual humility you’re never really going to learn anything, because you won’t be open to changing into a different version of yourself.

Then I talked to them about research on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. If you’re intrinsically motivated to learn (because you are legit curious) it will stick with you a lot longer than if you are only motivated by grades or getting a diploma (extrinsic motivation).

I don’t do this anymore because there’s no time to focus on anything other than the practical basics of using the library resources.

One tool I use for my own intellectual humility is to assume, whether I believe it or not, but to assume for just a moment that the idea, belief, or conviction I’m hearing is held by somebody smart, honest, and sincere. Then I ask myself – How would a smart, honest, and sincere person come to that conclusion?

For some things, like climate change denial, I have a better understanding how people hold on to those beliefs, though I remain convinced they are wrong.

On other issues, like race, gender, and identity, I learned that there were significant elements of the discussion of which I was ignorant. Once I began addressing that ignorance I started to change my mind, and so changed myself.

I keep thinking about this exchange between Ezra Klein and Sam Harris:

Sam Harris
I get that, but not in precisely the ways you think you do. I’m in the, once again, having the bewildering experience of agreeing with virtually everything you said there, and yet it has basically no relevance to what I view as our underlying disagreement.

Ezra Klein
You have that bewildering experience because you don’t realize when you keep saying that everybody else is thinking tribally, but you’re not, that that is our disagreement.

Sam Harris
Well, no, because I know I’m not thinking tribally —

Ezra Klein
Well, that is our disagreement.

Sam Harris
In this respect because, no, because I share your political biases there. I would line up with you completely. If I gave into my bias, my social bias I would become, I can’t tell you what a relief it would be to recognize that Nisbett and Turkheimer are reasoning better than anyone else in this field. I can’t tell you what a relief it would be to realize that Gould’s book, The Mismeasure of Man, was right on the money.

Ezra Klein
I don’t think it would be a relief to you at all. Because the thing that you said when you, I feel like now we’re just getting back to the beginning and we should let this go and I’ll let you get the last word after this, but right at the beginning of all this with Murray you said, you look at Murray and you see what happens to you. You were completely straightforward about that, that you look at what happens to him and you see what happens to you. I think the really.

Sam Harris
It’s not tribalism. This is an experience of talking about ideas in public.

Ezra Klein
We all have a lot of different identities we’re part of all times. I do, too. I have all kinds of identities that you can call forward. All of them can bias me simultaneous, and the questions, of course, are which dominate and how am I able to counterbalance them through my process of information gathering and adjudication of that information. I think that your core identity in this is as someone who feels you get treated unfairly by politically correct mobs and —

Sam Harris
That is not identity politics. That is my experience as a public intellectual trying to talk about ideas.

Ezra Klein
That is what folks from the dominant group get to do. They get to say, my thing isn’t identity politics, only yours is. I will tell you, Sam, when people who do not look like you hear you telling them that this is just identity politics, they don’t think, “God he’s right. That is just identity politics.” They think this is my experience and you don’t understand it. You just said it’s your experience and they don’t understand it.

Sam Harris
You think that’s Glenn Loury’s view of it, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s view of it, or Maajid Nawaz’s view of it?

Ezra Klein
I think that you have said publicly that you would not have a conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates, because you think he just plays identity politics.

Sam Harris
Yes, I think he’s, it’s the same reason why I didn’t want to have a conversation with you, honestly, because I think that it doesn’t become fruitful. This is a postmortem on our collision, and I think it was useful to do, and I can only hope our audience sorts it out for themselves in ways that I think will be accurate.

This exchange, I think, gets at something important when it comes to our Current Situation. Harris’s inability to recognize that he is part of a tribe is something you see over and over once you start paying attention. White guys (and others whom the power structures favor) are incapable of seeing how the system privileges them and their ideas. And, until they are able to recognize their cognitive blindness, they’ll continue reinforcing societal structures that diminish their capacity for compassion and empathy.

It’s disconcerting to see a group of people I generally admire (like Bruce Sterling speaking to the Long Now Foundation) and realize it’s all white men. (Even worse, looking back over the history of speakers at the Long Now Foundation, they’ve all been white (with the exception of a lone Indian woman). What kind of future is the Long Now Foundation planning when they listen only to white people?)

One method I (a middle-aged cis white guy) use to interrogate my own privilege is reading (and listening to) people who don’t look like me. I’m intrinsically motivated to better understand the human experience. I’m always working to read more people of color, more women, more LBGTIQA+. I make an effort to read people from different nations, especially the global south. For most of my life I read mostly straight white men without even realizing what I was doing. Those were the easiest voices to locate, and I presumed that they were unbiased vessels transmitting a clearly accurate understanding of the issues.

They are not.

When I started reading outside that cluster of thinkers I realized that they really are part of a tribe. Sam Harris, no matter how much he denies it, is part of a tribe, but the bonds of that affiliation are still invisible to him.

Here’s hoping that in 2019 more privileged folks become aware of their invisible bonds and learn to break them. Learn, change your mind, grow your heart.

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