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Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Mon Jan 28, 2019 3:59 pm UTC
by jewish_scientist
I am writing an article about how dichotomies in politics are not just useless, but actively harmful, and this is true even if a spectrum is used instead of a binary. A really great example that I have is a problem with the pro-life v pro-chose view of abortions. A completely valid and defendable position is that in all cases abortions are immoral, but because it is not the job of government to legislate morality they should be legal. Is that a pro-life or a pro-chose position? Because the moral aspect is pro-chose while the legal aspect is pro-life, the very act of labeling it causes half of it to be ignored. Do we split the difference and say the position is moderate? If we do that, then we have labeled a person holding this view a moderate even though at no point in time will act like other people called moderates.

The problem I am having though is that I can think of only one other example where dichotomies break down. Do you have any suggestions?

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Mon Jan 28, 2019 4:32 pm UTC
by Zamfir
Brexit!

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Mon Jan 28, 2019 4:46 pm UTC
by Zohar
jewish_scientist wrote:even if a spectrum is used instead of a binary.

Doesn't really fit the word "dichotomy".

I don't see how the dichotomy is harmful based on your example. So that position doesn't fit neatly in these more common camps. So what? There are many different opinions people can have about abortions that don't fit in it - they don't care about the issue at all, for example, or maybe they do care but it's so low in their order of priorities that it doesn't warrant emotional investment. By showing "There's something outside this dichotomy", you're not proving that a dichotomy is bad, only that it's inadequate to describe reality fully. Which is going to be true about practically any categorization you choose to look at.

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Mon Jan 28, 2019 4:50 pm UTC
by jewish_scientist
I just came up with good one! 'Healthy food' is a relative term. If high sodium food is unhealthy and low calorie food is healthy, is [insert food item here], which is high in sodium and low in calories, healthy or unhealthy. Actually, that is not a great example since it is the same as the first one with words substituted. How about how unhealthy food for some people is healthy for others? I think I could work with that if I can think of an actual food item.

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Mon Jan 28, 2019 5:49 pm UTC
by ObsessoMom
jewish_scientist, this is probably a personal failing of my own, but I am so distracted by the question of whether "pro-chose" is a typo that you just happened to make three times...or if there's a forum filter changing "pro-choice" to "pro-chose"...or if you really think that "pro-chose" is the correct term...that I can't really think about the question you're actually posing. Sorry. I wish I were a better person.

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Mon Jan 28, 2019 6:24 pm UTC
by LaserGuy
jewish_scientist wrote:I am writing an article about how dichotomies in politics are not just useless, but actively harmful, and this is true even if a spectrum is used instead of a binary. A really great example that I have is a problem with the pro-life v pro-chose view of abortions. A completely valid and defendable position is that in all cases abortions are immoral, but because it is not the job of government to legislate morality they should be legal. Is that a pro-life or a pro-chose position? Because the moral aspect is pro-chose while the legal aspect is pro-life, the very act of labeling it causes half of it to be ignored. Do we split the difference and say the position is moderate? If we do that, then we have labeled a person holding this view a moderate even though at no point in time will act like other people called moderates.

The problem I am having though is that I can think of only one other example where dichotomies break down. Do you have any suggestions?


Where do you feel these dichotomies actually hold up? Most of the ones I can think of (small vs. big government, gun control vs. gun rights, economic growth vs. environment, etc.) have a wide range of positions and nuance available. The only ones that don't have a lot of nuance are ones where one of the options is kind of insane (Donald Trump vs. normal government).

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Mon Jan 28, 2019 7:27 pm UTC
by ucim
The issue is that such dichotomies are not actually a way to understand an issue, but rather, a way to rally the base that supports your point of view, and attack the other side (whatever it might be). Almost nobody using "hurtful dichotomies" is actually trying to understand the issue.

Jose

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Mon Jan 28, 2019 9:10 pm UTC
by ObsessoMom
I think basically it comes down to a psychological defense mechanism called splitting, common in several personality disorders, in which everyone who agrees with you is purely good, and everyone who disagrees with you is purely evil.

(The "you" here is the generic, impersonal "you.")

In such a worldview, nuance and compromise are just as anathema as the opposing viewpoint itself.

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Fri Feb 01, 2019 8:12 am UTC
by Kit.
jewish_scientist wrote:A completely valid and defendable position is that in all cases abortions are immoral, but because it is not the job of government to legislate morality they should be legal.

That's probably an off-topic, but have you tried to apply this argument to robbery, for example?

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Mon Feb 04, 2019 9:26 pm UTC
by jewish_scientist
Zohar wrote:By showing "There's something outside this dichotomy", you're not proving that a dichotomy is bad, only that it's inadequate to describe reality fully.

You are right. The only response I can think of is to point out that a major theme of 1984 is that rhetoric influences perception to such an extent that controlling the language of the people gives the Party control of the thoughts of those people. I do not want to do that for 2 reasons. 1) I personally disagree with Orwell on this. 2) I feel like a lot of times people bring up 1984 or Brave New World in support of their ideas without a complete understanding of the novels and it just leads to a dead-end in the conversation. I am going to have to think of this point some more.

ObsessoMom wrote:jewish_scientist, this is probably a personal failing of my own, but I am so distracted by the question of whether "pro-chose" is a typo that you just happened to make three times...or if there's a forum filter changing "pro-choice" to "pro-chose"...or if you really think that "pro-chose" is the correct term...that I can't really think about the question you're actually posing. Sorry. I wish I were a better person.

It is worse than you imagined. I originally wrote 'pro-choose' and then when rereading it to catch errors I said, "Wait, 'choice' has a short 'o', not a long 'o'. I had better go and fix that."

ObsessoMom, I will try to look into splitting more, but I do not think that is exactly what I am talking about. Splitting is like giving everything a value of 0 or 1 depending on if it is evil or good, which is why I called this type of thinking binary in the OP. A better approach would be to rank everything on a spectrum from 0 to 1 so that there is more nuance and precision. What I am saying though is that even this is insufficient, because there are things that still cannot be described, such as the square root of -1.

Kit. wrote:
jewish_scientist wrote:A completely valid and defendable position is that in all cases abortions are immoral, but because it is not the job of government to legislate morality they should be legal.

That's probably an off-topic, but have you tried to apply this argument to robbery, for example?

I have not, but John Stuart Mill did in his influential book On Liberty where he claims that the function of government is to protect its citizens, as opposed to forcing its citizens to conforming to what those in charge deem to be moral, so governments should only restrict behavior that causes harm to non-consenting people, a rational now called the Harm Principle.

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Mon Feb 04, 2019 11:11 pm UTC
by elasto
A completely valid and defendable position is that in all cases abortions are immoral, but because it is not the job of government to legislate morality they should be legal.

That's probably an off-topic, but have you tried to apply this argument to robbery, for example?

I have not, but John Stuart Mill did in his influential book On Liberty where he claims that the function of government is to protect its citizens, as opposed to forcing its citizens to conforming to what those in charge deem to be moral, so governments should only restrict behavior that causes harm to non-consenting people, a rational now called the Harm Principle.

Abortion being rather unique and intractable, of course, in that the principle disagreement isn't whether harm is being done but whether it's being done to a person or a non-person...

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Tue Feb 05, 2019 8:05 am UTC
by Kit.
jewish_scientist wrote:
Kit. wrote:
jewish_scientist wrote:A completely valid and defendable position is that in all cases abortions are immoral, but because it is not the job of government to legislate morality they should be legal.

That's probably an off-topic, but have you tried to apply this argument to robbery, for example?

I have not, but John Stuart Mill did in his influential book On Liberty where he claims that the function of government is to protect its citizens, as opposed to forcing its citizens to conforming to what those in charge deem to be moral, so governments should only restrict behavior that causes harm to non-consenting people, a rational now called the Harm Principle.

Looks like we are back to the same dichotomy then. If a fetus is not "non-consenting people", why would it be "in all cases immoral" to remove it?

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Tue Feb 05, 2019 1:17 pm UTC
by jewish_scientist
You could say that future people deserve moral consideration, but because the fetus is not yet a person an abortion technically does not harm anyone and is therefor outside the government’s realm of influence.

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Tue Feb 05, 2019 2:29 pm UTC
by Kit.
jewish_scientist wrote:You could say that future people deserve moral consideration,

Like... abstinence is legal but immoral, and rape is moral but illegal?

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Tue Feb 05, 2019 5:56 pm UTC
by Trebla
jewish_scientist wrote:I do not think that [splitting] is exactly what I am talking about. Splitting is like giving everything a value of 0 or 1 depending on if it is evil or good, which is why I called this type of thinking binary in the OP.


At this point, I don't think I understand what you're trying to argue here, that seems like the literal definition of a dichotomy. If something is not "a", it must be "b", if it's not "b", then it's "a".

A better approach would be to rank everything on a spectrum from 0 to 1 so that there is more nuance and precision. What I am saying though is that even this is insufficient, because there are things that still cannot be described, such as the square root of -1.


So, are you arguing that dichotomies are bad, but ranking things on a spectrum is also bad? Are you contending that just comparing things is harmful? How is the square root of -1 involved here? That's not on the scale of 0 to 1 and seems completely unrelated to any discussion on viewpoints between two extremes. Where does that come from? Taking the aforementioned "dichotomy" of big gov't vs small gov't... calling the extremes 0 and 1 (absence of gov't vs every member of society is part of the gov't?)... what would be -1? What would be sqrt(-1)?

I'm not trying to sound sarcastic here, I honestly don't know what you're getting at, (though I'm starting to suspect that this is just a thinly veiled attempt to present your view on abortion. I apologize if that's unfair of me, but if you're sincere about discussing the merits of presenting dichotomies (???) coming back to that topic repeatedly is not a great start).

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Wed Feb 06, 2019 2:06 am UTC
by Pfhorrest
I think what JS is against here is the conflation of multidimensional issues into unidimensional ones.

The first example that comes to my mind is how political positions are often reduced to single points on a left-right axis, but at the very least it's possible (and increasingly common) to specify them instead as points in a two-dimensional plane. And in reality, even that is almost certainly a big oversimplification.

With the abortion example he gives, it seems that he thinks there are at least two axes, call them morality and ought-to-be-legality, and he thinks people wrongly conflate those into one axis, and put things like abortion on one end of that axis (either immoral-and-ought-to-be-illegal, or not-immoral-and-ought-to-be-legal), when he would rather put it at immoral-but-ought-to-be-legal, a position that doesn't exist in such a "dichotomy".

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Wed Feb 06, 2019 3:40 am UTC
by ucim
Any time a multidimensional opinion is compressed into fewer axes, it implies (reveals?) an implicit assumption. In the case of moral/immoral vs legal/illegal being compressed, the (typical) assumption is that all that is moral should be legal, and all that is immoral should be illegal. In the case of conservative/liberal X fiscal/social, the (typical) assumption is that if you are socially conservative you are also fiscally conservative, and if you are socially liberal you are also fiscally liberal. In both these examples, the assumption is clearly invalid, but used anyway (as a weapon). There are examples where two axis, while technically independent, are also highly correlated. In those cases, the abbreviation is useful. But it is, nonetheless, an abbreviation, and where unexpected results are obtained, that assumption may be their cause.

Jose

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Wed Feb 06, 2019 9:21 am UTC
by Kit.
Pfhorrest wrote:With the abortion example he gives, it seems that he thinks there are at least two axes, call them morality and ought-to-be-legality, and he thinks people wrongly conflate those into one axis, and put things like abortion on one end of that axis (either immoral-and-ought-to-be-illegal, or not-immoral-and-ought-to-be-legal), when he would rather put it at immoral-but-ought-to-be-legal, a position that doesn't exist in such a "dichotomy".

"is-but-ought-to-be" introduces a separate axis by itself. Like "moral but ought to be immoral" (which is possible even with moral absolutist models that are complex enough to accept the concept of "lesser evil").

Or "currently considered immoral, but ought to be moral" (we saw quite a few of examples in the last century).

And when we eliminate this axis, we will get the following quadrants: "ought to be moral and legal", "ought to be immoral and legal", "ought to be immoral and illegal", "ought to be moral and illegal". The last one slightly bothers me.

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Wed Feb 06, 2019 12:45 pm UTC
by Trebla
Pfhorrest wrote:I think what JS is against here is the conflation of multidimensional issues into unidimensional ones.

The first example that comes to my mind is how political positions are often reduced to single points on a left-right axis, but at the very least it's possible (and increasingly common) to specify them instead as points in a two-dimensional plane. And in reality, even that is almost certainly a big oversimplification.


That clears it up completely, thank you. I'm still confused on the imaginary numbers analogy, but at least I understand the thread now... I... maybe don't have anything else to contribute at this time, though.

Maybe the OP can summarize the paper he's writing for critical evaluation of his points. How are you suggesting that discussing "pro-choice vs. pro-life" (though I'd prefer you use the other example you thought of since abortion threads tend to get locked) in a political environment is "actively harmful"? Harmful to what? Individuals? Society? How is this harm measured? Can it also be helpful do compress diverse topics into a single dimension for dissemination to laymen on the subject within society at large? What are your actual thoughts here? Or are you just still looking for other examples of complex topics that get polarized as a "simple dichotomy"?

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Wed Feb 06, 2019 3:22 pm UTC
by jewish_scientist
Pfhorrest, thank you for explaining what I was thinking in a coherent way that other people can understand.

Trebla wrote:How are you suggesting that discussing "pro-choice vs. pro-life" (though I'd prefer you use the other example you thought of since abortion threads tend to get locked) in a political environment is "actively harmful"? Harmful to what? Individuals? Society? How is this harm measured?

Anyway, you raise the same point Zohar did earlier. Although I can show that one dimensional modeling of issues is inaccurate, it does not follow that it is harmful.

P.S. We can change it to recreational drug use or pornography if you want. The same problems appear, so it really does not matter which issue in particular we look at. I just thought of those examples on the train to school, but I think that I will probably use one of them in the actual article.

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Wed Feb 06, 2019 3:39 pm UTC
by ucim
jewish_scientist wrote:Although I can show that one dimensional modeling of issues is inaccurate, it does not follow that it is harmful.
Uh.... disseminating significant untruths is actively harmful. It's what Trump does. It's (one of the key ways) how Trump harms.

The choice of inaccuracy that one (necessarily) uses to convey an idea subterraneaneously conveys another idea, which is then absorbed without question. That is the harmful part. Consider the liberal/conservative axis. In actual fact, a lot of the "conservatives" are in reality authoriarians, and this leaves the anti-authoritarians in the "other" bunch. Objection to (present day) conservatives is really objection to authoritarianism in many ways, and the US Republican has long abandoned classical ideas of conservatism for authoritarianism.

When you compress the (multidimensional) political stances of people on the axis of conservative/liberal, you miss very important nuances. Doing so deliberately is disingenuous and harmful, and doing so accidentally (because that's the axis that's presented) is just as harmful, even if it's not deliberately evil.

If present political discussion (Rep/Dem) were re-framed as authoritarian vs "cool, man, leave me alone", much more insight would be obtained. But truth is a much less powerful political weapon than lies.

Jose

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Wed Feb 06, 2019 3:49 pm UTC
by Zohar
I agree with you that reality is complex, but any language you use to describe your positions would be superficial. Even if I give you a full three hours to explain all the intricacies of your political views to me (please don't), I still wouldn't understand every single opinion you have, or vice versa. Language is abstract, and it can't model reality, even the reality of thought, in a completely accurate way. It's a spectrum, and to say that using two names to define two different camps doesn't automatically say it's bad, it just points out the inadequacy of it.

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Thu Feb 07, 2019 4:47 am UTC
by ucim
Agreed. Abbreviation is necessary, and axis collapse is part of abbreviation. However, which axes you choose to collapse, and which axes you collapse them onto, can be done in a way that is truthfully expressive, or disingenuously misleading. It is the latter that is being discussed here.

Inappropriate axis collapse is a very damaging way to lie, because it permanizes the underlying false premises.

Jose

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Thu Feb 07, 2019 5:09 am UTC
by Pfhorrest
Trebla wrote:I'm still confused on the imaginary numbers analogy

Complex numbers are two-dimensional, so asking where on the real number line is the imaginary unit is like asking where on the (Cold War era version of the) left-right political axis is libertarian socialism: it's not, because that one-dimensional field is inadequate to represent that value.

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Thu Feb 07, 2019 9:55 am UTC
by Kit.
The real part of the imaginary unit is zero.

Still, a dichotomy not about the place between one-dimensional values, but about the 0-dimensional direction from the N-1-dimensional dividing hyperplane. In this sense, the real part of the imaginary unit is neither "negative" nor "positive", but "neutral".

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Thu Feb 07, 2019 1:45 pm UTC
by doogly
I think it's also very different if things have come down to two sides not because the discourse has abandoned nuance, but because of active coalition building. For example, in the abortion case, we definitely don't have four corners - no actual people occupy "moral but ought-to-be-illegal." And of the folks in the "against my personal morality but keep gov out of here" corner, they are pro choice, because that is what the pro choice label means. They are very clear about the distinction being pro choice vs pro life rather than anti life vs pro life. The pro choice label tends to only ever come up in discussions of public policy. That's what it is about. If there is a nuance there that is being lost, "what do these people do with their own personal uteruses," it's sort of the point of the pro choice folk that it doesn't really matter (or oughtn't, really...), it's entirely their private business.

Likewise in political parties, we coalesce into two parties because they build coalitions and win elections. It means you probably have more nuanced and interesting work to do during the primary season than the general. Is that actually bad? I dunno. Probably not necessarily worse than things like the DUP in the UK right now, or Shas in Israel - if you're forming coalitions after the government is formed, the work is done after a general election rather than before, and not directly by voters. I'm not convinced the primary system we have in the US is definitely worse than the parliamentary system, and we do also have significant realignments of what the two party poles in our system actually mean from time to time.

Furthermore it's also definitely true that when you add an axis to some model, you can also cause just as much trouble. Like there was for a while a big surge of folks pushing a two axis political model that added essentially a libertarian v fascist axis, and this was mostly just a maneuver meant to advance libertarianism. (Jokes on them, we recently discovered fascism is a lot more popular!) The lie is that adding variables must necessarily result in a richer, more descriptive model. This is not so! Adding the right variables does, but there's work to be done to make sure they are actually providing descriptive power. "I take your assumptions and add an axis of push polling" is not actually helping.

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Thu Feb 07, 2019 5:28 pm UTC
by ucim
doogly wrote:I think it's also very different if things have come down to two sides not because the discourse has abandoned nuance, but because of active coalition building.
Well, this particular form of nuance-abandon is a tool of coalition building, and has a positive feedback loop embedded. So, not always so very different.

Jose

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Thu Feb 07, 2019 7:37 pm UTC
by doogly
ucim wrote:
doogly wrote:I think it's also very different if things have come down to two sides not because the discourse has abandoned nuance, but because of active coalition building.
Well, this particular form of nuance-abandon is a tool of coalition building, and has a positive feedback loop embedded. So, not always so very different.

Jose

Sure, or maybe a different sides / same coin type thing. Is it neglect, a blind spot? Is it an active decision that some distinction is not so important for the coalition's sake? Plenty to go around!

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Fri Feb 08, 2019 6:42 pm UTC
by jewish_scientist
ucim wrote:
jewish_scientist wrote:Although I can show that one dimensional modeling of issues is inaccurate, it does not follow that it is harmful.
Uh.... disseminating significant untruths is actively harmful. It's what Trump does. It's (one of the key ways) how Trump harms.

The Bohr Model of the atom is inaccurate, so why is it taught to students? The answer is that it is useful despite the inaccuracies. That is the problem I am currently facing. I can prove that the dichotomies are inaccurate, but I cannot (yet) prove that they are not useful.

Also, I want to make it clear that I am not proposing that a multi-axis system is the best way to approach politics. I am just saying that we should stop using the method we currently are. It is possible to point out the flaws of something without introducing an alternative, although doing this makes the argument weaker. In addition, I am talking about more than just politics. For example, schools grade students from 0 to 100 on each subject independently, even though this does not accurately reflect how knowledge is learned or stored. Knowledge is much more like a network where everything in interconnected where improvements to one area can have an effect on seemingly unrelated areas. Even though there is a whole bunch of new ideas about how we should reform the educational system, the possibilities under consideration are constrained by this way we think about grades.

EDIT: Just ignore this part. I can already tell that I did not make it clear enough for people besides me to figure out what on Earth I am saying.

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Fri Feb 08, 2019 11:33 pm UTC
by ucim
jewish_scientist wrote:The Bohr Model of the atom is inaccurate, so why is it taught to students?
The question is whether or not doing so is actively harmful, and the answer is that it depends on why it is promulgated. Mostly in science classes, it is presented as a simple but useful model of a more complex thing, which explains what we need to have explained at the moment. In that sense, it's not harmful. But if it is taught to quantum mechanics students because string theory is so utterly wrong it should be disregarded, and those idiots who propose dark matter should examine their own dark matter, then yes, it's actively harmful.

Science, generally, is about approaching the (ultimate) truth (through falsifiable experiment). Politics is about winning - truth is irrelevant.

That's the difference.

Jose

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Sat Feb 09, 2019 8:07 am UTC
by Zamfir

The Bohr Model of the atom is inaccurate, so why is it taught to students? The answer is that it is useful despite the inaccuracies. That is the problem I am currently facing. I can prove that the dichotomies are inaccurate, but I cannot (yet) prove that they are not useful.

The reasonable conclusion might be that these dichotomies can be useful, and often are useful? Not just to help understand an issue, but also as rallying point for a political alliance. Ucim and doogly said a lot about that already.

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Mon Feb 11, 2019 5:14 am UTC
by ObsessoMom
This week's Hidden Brain show on National Public Radio is somewhat relevant, for an understanding of how we have two brains, each of which processes reality differently.

The left brain tends to rely on black-and-white thinking, and the right brain tends to see the big picture and appreciate nuance.

We need to use both kinds of thinking in order to function properly. Neither is inherently good or bad, per se. But each needs to be balanced with the other kind of thinking.

At the link above, you can click to hear the audio (almost an hour long) or to read the transcript. I heard it on the radio today while driving around, and thought of this topic.

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Tue Feb 12, 2019 1:26 pm UTC
by SecondTalon
Yeah, anything that starts with "You see, the left brain is..." is pretty much guaranteed to be a garbage fire of barely understood to completely misunderstood pseudoscience, coming from some non-medical author who read a couple of papers, didn't understand what they were reading, and wrote a thing.

Putting it another way - it's as sensible as those idiots who think they can separate their emotions and biases from cold hard logic so they can have "more correct" opinions and, if nothing else, forgetting that it's their own stupid meat that's assuming "X is emotional opinion and Y is cold logic so Y is superior" and could be completely flawed. Or in this case - assuming that something like noting differentials in color is inherently "creative" and noting differentials in spoke words is inheritly "analytical", so when one fits the preconceived (but flawed) pattern of "Right Brain Creative Left Brain Analytical", you start creating justifications for a thing being creative or analytical, rejecting the notion that it's the other - or both.

I dig NPR for their news and Wait Wait. Pretty much everything else they do is entertainment that can't be taken seriously.

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Tue Feb 12, 2019 2:41 pm UTC
by ObsessoMom
SecondTalon wrote:Yeah, anything that starts with "You see, the left brain is..." is pretty much guaranteed to be a garbage fire of barely understood to completely misunderstood pseudoscience, coming from some non-medical author who read a couple of papers, didn't understand what they were reading, and wrote a thing.


Yes, that's why the interview begins like this:

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. If you type in the words left brain versus right brain on YouTube, it's not long before you'll find yourself in a vortex of weird claims and outlandish hype.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: With left brain imbalance, the overall function of the brain is stunted so that the oldest parts of the brain, the reptile brain, takes over on an instinctual level.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Men - men need formulas. We need systems. That's the left brain, by the way, for men.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Now, the problem is is that most people are either exclusively left-brained or right-brained. They're one or the other.

VEDANTAM: For decades, pop psychology books and plenty of YouTube videos have made dramatic claims about people who are left-brained and people who are right-brained. It got to the point that respectable scientists felt they had to steer clear of the study of hemispheric differences.

IAIN MCGILCHRIST: I was told, when I got involved in this area, don't touch it. It's toxic. Don't even go there.

VEDANTAM: This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, we follow the work of a researcher who went there. What he's found is much more nuanced and complex than the story on YouTube. His conclusions, though, might be even more dramatic. He argues that differences in the brain and Western society's preference for what one hemisphere has to offer have had enormous effects on our lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Iain McGilchrist is a psychiatrist. He has spent years studying the human brain through case studies of his patients and a detailed examination of scientific research. He's found himself fascinated by a question that has intrigued philosophers and scientists for centuries. Why is the human brain divided in half? How does each hemisphere shape our perceptions? Iain's book on this topic has been on my radar for many years. It's called "The Master And His Emissary." Iain joined me for a chat in our studios in Washington, D.C. I asked him to start with a basic overview of what the two hemispheres do.

MCGILCHRIST: In motor terms, it's fairly straightforward that the left hemisphere controls the right side of the body and receives messages from it and vice versa. But in terms of psychological life, they have quite different kinds of roles. They have quite different dispositions. And I believe evolutionarily, they are - if you like - addressing different questions.

VEDANTAM: If you look at the last 20 or 30 years again, there's been a lot of work - or speculation, really - looking at how these two hemispheres might operate when it comes to perception, when it comes to behavior. You argue in the book that there has been many oversimplifications of how the two hemispheres work and what their different roles are. What does that look like? What does this world of oversimplification look like?

MCGILCHRIST: Well, the conventional model is something that sprang up probably in the '60s and '70s and had some life into the '80s and even into the '90s and is now, probably, mainly at home in middle-management programs and pop psychology books. And I was told when I got involved in this area - don't touch it. It's toxic. Don't even go there. And basically, that was that the left hemisphere is logical and verbal and the right hemisphere is kind of moody and possibly creative. But all of this turns out to be much more complicated, and some of it's plain wrong.


Sounds to me like a pretty good acknowledgement of your concerns, before he goes on to salvage some value in the overall model, despite the rightly debunked stuff. I thought he made a good case for there being some baby in that bathwater.

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Wed Feb 13, 2019 8:12 am UTC
by elasto
Anecdotally, people who suffer strokes in the left hemisphere have very different symptoms during and after compared to those who suffer strokes in the right, so there does seem to be genuine specialisation going on.

However, yes, it's typically extrapolated into nonsensical pop-science from there...

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Wed Feb 13, 2019 4:26 pm UTC
by jewish_scientist
ucim wrote:Science, generally, is about approaching the (ultimate) truth (through falsifiable experiment). Politics is about winning - truth is irrelevant.

That is really condescending to all the political philosophers throughout history. To say that their work was just hand-waving used to justify social structures that benefit themselves is nothing short of insulting.

Politics is about the distribution of power within a society, much like how economics is about the distribution of wealth within a society. That is why NGOs can have political power (e.g. the Red Cross possesses huge stores of soft power) despite not having an agenda focused consolidating power*. The better a political theory predicts and explains the distribution of power in different societies the closer to the truth it is.

*You could argue that the Red Cross defines winning as eradicating hunger, war crimes, etc. instead of improving their own position and collecting power, but at that point you are basically saying that politics is about being able to do what you want. Since the ability to do what you want is called power, you end up agreeing with me.

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Wed Feb 13, 2019 4:58 pm UTC
by ucim
jewish_scientist wrote:Politics is about the distribution of power within a society,
Yup. And actual truth is sacrificed on that altar.

Now, in the end, you cannot violate the laws of physics. But you can gain a great deal of political power by ignoring them. As an example, the actual truth of what fossil fuels are doing to the environment are of no consequence to a politician or business person who can gain power by ignoring it (and convincing others to ignore it too). This is what I mean. Politics is about winning (power). If political philosophers are insulted by this, so be it.

But also, there is a difference between politics and political philosophy. Be mindful of it.

Jose

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Thu Feb 14, 2019 7:26 pm UTC
by doogly
jewish_scientist wrote:
ucim wrote:Science, generally, is about approaching the (ultimate) truth (through falsifiable experiment). Politics is about winning - truth is irrelevant.

That is really condescending to all the political philosophers throughout history.

Let us introduce a dichotomy between politicans and political philosophers.

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Fri Feb 15, 2019 9:53 pm UTC
by LaserGuy
jewish_scientist wrote:
ucim wrote:
jewish_scientist wrote:Although I can show that one dimensional modeling of issues is inaccurate, it does not follow that it is harmful.
Uh.... disseminating significant untruths is actively harmful. It's what Trump does. It's (one of the key ways) how Trump harms.

The Bohr Model of the atom is inaccurate, so why is it taught to students? The answer is that it is useful despite the inaccuracies. That is the problem I am currently facing. I can prove that the dichotomies are inaccurate, but I cannot (yet) prove that they are not useful.

Also, I want to make it clear that I am not proposing that a multi-axis system is the best way to approach politics. I am just saying that we should stop using the method we currently are. It is possible to point out the flaws of something without introducing an alternative, although doing this makes the argument weaker. In addition, I am talking about more than just politics. For example, schools grade students from 0 to 100 on each subject independently, even though this does not accurately reflect how knowledge is learned or stored. Knowledge is much more like a network where everything in interconnected where improvements to one area can have an effect on seemingly unrelated areas. Even though there is a whole bunch of new ideas about how we should reform the educational system, the possibilities under consideration are constrained by this way we think about grades.

EDIT: Just ignore this part. I can already tell that I did not make it clear enough for people besides me to figure out what on Earth I am saying.


Well, what do you mean by useful? As others have pointed out, dichotomies are not necessarily useful in understanding a complex issue, but they are useful in terms of forming political coalitions, and may in fact, to some extent or other, be a necessary starting point in terms of actually getting things done in terms of actual public policy. For example, if you have people arguing over the tax rate, having the people who want it at 40% unwilling to compromise with the people who want it at 35% or 45% may lead to an impasse, even though these all may have a lot more in common collectively than the people who want it at 15%. Getting all of the people who agree that "Taxes need to go up" to work together or all of the people who agree that "Taxes need to go down" gives a position within the groups of where to start and who their likely allies are, then it may be easier to negotiate over exactly how much taxes need to go up/down.

I don't think it's also wrong to say that they are harmful, just that harmful/beneficial and useful/useless are not necessarily mutually exclusive :P

Re: Hurtful Dichotomies

Posted: Fri Feb 15, 2019 11:14 pm UTC
by ucim
Well, some taxes may need to go up, and other taxes may need to come down. And one might be in favor of using taxes to support one project, but not another one. Taxes don't exist in a vacuum (though they create one in my bank account.) :)

The false dichotomy, which is harmful, is that up and down are the only choices, and if you're not for us, you're against us.

The issue isn't whether taxes are "too high" or "too low", but whether or not the citizens are getting the right level and kind of services in exchange for the taxes that they pay, and for each service, whether is is appropriately funded by taxes in the first place. Presenting the question as the dichotomy that it isn't is harmful to understanding (and thus, harmful to picking a position). The only thing it's not harmful to is the process of steamrolling the opposition, for which it is eminently suited.

The other harm in false dichotomies is the relabeling that occurs, implying (for example) that if you're against the Big Beautiful Powerful Wall, you're also against the very idea of border security, or if you are not against abortions, you are pro death. This is harder to do if people are having nuanced conversations, but making a dichotomy allows harmful labels to be attached to viewpoints.

Jose