Sunday, February 23, 2014

On the Pleasure of Changing My Mind, perhaps too soon

I am a big fan of Sam Harris. The primary reason is that he routinely impresses the hell out of me with his keen insights and carefully parsed out reasoning. Even in the instances when I disagree with his opinions, which turn out to be surprisingly rare, I'm consistently impressed with his ability to lay out arguments in a beautifully reasoned way that reflects a sharp understanding of the underlying facts. And this is why I was surprised by his most recent blog post, "The Pleasure of Changing My Mind." I'm left feeling distinctly like Fangorn, bemused about a folk more hasty than his own.

I have to be clear mostly about what this essay is not. Thus, the first thing I want to say about my surprise is that I think Harris has drawn the right conclusion about his willingness to change his mind and for very good reasons. He also presented it extremely well, one of his better rebuttals to a detractor (which is saying something). I just think he has chosen a strange example to do it--though also for a very good reason if I might venture a guess at it.

I should add that there is back story involving primarily Harris and NYU professor Jonathan Haidt, whose allegations form the subject of Harris's blog post, and it is my assumption that readers are familiar with it. If not, it may be worth correcting that for context and, perhaps, for some appreciation of the ironic. There is also back story with characters related to Harris's example, though he covers those sufficiently in his piece.

In his blog post, Harris indicates that he can have his mind changed even by people who are his "enemies," making a fool Jonathan Haidt's recent charges against him. "Enter Jeremy Scahill," Harris writes, the emphasis his, going on to elaborate,
This is just to say that, while I don’t usually think of myself as having enemies, if I were going to pick someone to prove me wrong on an important topic, it probably wouldn’t be Jeremy Scahill. I am, in Haidt’s terms, highly motivated to reason in a “lawyerly” way so as not to give him the pleasure of changing my mind. But change it he has.
The manner in which Scahill has changed Harris's mind is via Scahill's recent documentary, Dirty Wars. To quote Harris about it directly,
However, last night I watched Scahill’s Oscar-nominated documentary Dirty Wars—twice. The film isn’t perfect. Despite the gravity of its subject matter, there is something slight about it, and its narrow focus on Scahill seems strangely self-regarding. At moments, I was left wondering whether important facts were being left out. But my primary experience in watching this film was of having my settled views about U.S. foreign policy suddenly and uncomfortably shifted. As a result, I no longer think about the prospects of our fighting an ongoing war on terror in quite the same way.
So now a second thing I want to say: I don't know if Scahill is right, and for the present discussion I don't care. (More generally, I do care rather seriously.) My surprise with Harris came about for the choice of this example, though now I can state why I think he chose it: it's (almost) perfect. It's an example of a recent mind-changing incident in Harris's life that was brought about by someone he has reasons to be motivated to distrust. A better example to refute Haidt's point against Harris might have had to have been made up, and Harris applied it admirably for that purpose.

I've got one more aside before I can get to my point, but it transitions there. After watching a documentary about nearly anything, I typically feel like Harris reported feeling after watching Dirty Wars. "The film isn't perfect." "There's something slight about it." It is "strangely self-regarding." "I was left wondering whether important facts were being left out." I feel this way so strongly after watching almost any documentary that I almost never watch them anymore.

I've referred to this feeling privately as the "documentary effect," and it is comparable to the result of watching a polished, less-annoying infomercial. Documentaries on grave subjects, like infomercials for junk one does not need, are expensive efforts made specifically to be strongly persuasive. I don't trust documentaries about highly motivated topics, not least because I know they have tremendous power to change my mind in a way I will later have to reverse. That it was a documentary on a political topic fails to spark my surprise, and it's not that I disagree with Scahill (I do not know if I do or not) or Harris (I do not disagree with him on the topic he was writing about, Jonathan Haidt's analysis, and am in a similar quandary regarding US foreign policy).

So now the point. My surprise with Harris stems from the fact that Harris reported having his mind changed--perhaps rightly--by an event that is so fresh. Leaving aside the point that he couldn't not have had his mind changed by the film, as he knows, this is still something that he is very likely to understand better than in terms of the operation of the human mind.

When my mind changes, particularly when I had pretty strong reasons for believing what I believed, I almost always experience a subsequent oscillation in my attitudes on the topic. My thoughts churn between the previous position and the new one as I work to ease the cognitive tension between them. Sometimes my mind changes, and I accept the new view. Sometimes, I realize some, but not all, details of my prior beliefs are in error, and I end up somewhere between the two positions. At other times, I'm able to work out what lies of omission and spin played a role in creating the "documentary effect," and my mind is little changed in the end. This process usually takes days at best, sometimes weeks or months while the new ideas roll around with the old and with those I find in follow-up research, so I find it a matter of curiosity that he chose such a fresh example. (Note: Perhaps I'm alone in this, or it doesn't apply to Harris, but out of necessity, I am assuming it's a relatively general phenomenon.)


I will not speculate upon whether Harris's choice of this example was "motivated" by his desire to refute Haidt's ridiculous analysis. Besides being conjectural, it would be immaterial to do so. For one thing, Haidt's analysis was handily revealed to be ridiculous even without the Scahill example. For another more important one, there is very little doubt Harris has had his mind changed many times. It is tremendously unlikely that anyone who gets so much right could do so by any other means than getting a great deal wrong over his life and being both honest and fastidious enough to work to correct those mistakes. It is also equally clear that he is wide open to modifying his views again in the future when the reasons are good. Indeed, I expect it will be interesting to watch his thoughts on US foreign policy develop now.

Rather like the experience of a tannic red wine, there is pleasure in changing one's mind once the route to its appreciation is understood. In this case, a necessary component is holding high esteem for being less wrong. Harris clearly has acquired this taste, whatever Haidt and others want to say about him. To speak of wine, though, it feels like Harris has uncorked a bottle of Dirty Wars, vintage 2013, and served it hastily and straight from the bottle. It will be interesting to see how his mind continues to change now that this young cab has a chance to breathe.

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