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Belief, Identity, Bias, And The Osmium Parable (Free Version)
BEAR WITH ME THIS ONE'S KINDA WEIRD
From time to time I am going to unlock older posts that were originally just for paying subscribers. When I do, I’ll create a free clone of them with comments disabled, so as to protect the privacy of paying subscribers who commented on the original. This is one such clone — it was created 12/22/2020. If you’re a paying subscriber and want to see or comment on the original, it lives here.
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For a long time, I’ve pointed people toward the “cultural cognition” work of Dan Kahan, a Yale University professor of law and psychology, as one of the best models for understanding why people believe what they believe, and why new facts or ‘debunkings’ often bounce right off people with strongly held political or moral beliefs. There’s a good general primer here.
I’d been meaning to flesh out this tweetstorm I did on some of the ramifications of his work — call it the Osmium Parable (yes, I’m a nerd) — for a long time. It is time. First the parable and then some brief closing words.
The Osmium Parable
Have you ever heard of osmium? I haven’t. But it’s an element — Wikipedia helpfully informs us that “Manufacturers use its alloys with platinum, iridium, and other platinum-group metals to make fountain pen nib tipping, electrical contacts, and in other applications that require extreme durability and hardness.” Cool.
Anyway, let’s say scientists announce the atomic weight of osmium is not, as everyone thinks, 190.23 u. Rather, it's 185.23 u. There was a mistake with the u-measurer or whatever, and it was off by five, erm, us. (Please hold your tongue if you are science-y enough to view this hypothetical as ridiculously unlikely — we’re in the land of thought experiments at the moment.)
I, someone with no investment in the subject, and who almost failed high-school chemistry, will instantly accept this reassessment if it comes from a trustworthy-seeming source. It doesn't matter to me. I don't even remember what a u is, to be honest. If someone asks me how much osmium weighs, I'll look it up, find a news story, and say, “Uhhh they used to think 190ish whatevers, now they think 185ish whatevers.” The flexibility of this belief in my head flows directly from its sterility. Nothing is at stake with regard to my values or identity when it comes to the question of whether osmium weight 190ish whatevers or 185ish whatevers. It’s about as important as whether a random puppy my friends just adopted weighs seven pounds or eight pounds.
But there’s another group for whom this particular question is a big deal. There’s a cult on the edge of town (which town? Better not to say) called the 190ers. The 190ers’ religious rites, social connections, and other aspects of everyday life all center around the One Holy Truth: osmium has an atomic weight of 190.23 u.
So imagine if instead of being Jesse Singal, a journalist in Brooklyn, I’m Jesse Singal, a 190er living in the cult’s well-guarded compound. (Our fence requires extreme durability and hardness, so we use osmium alloys.) In this scenario, I’ll likely reject the news about osmium out of hand. “That’s false news!” I’ll shout, as will my friends and family at our communal dinner table. (Tuesday is Taco Night).
This idea, that osmium doesn’t weigh 190.23 u, is just completely outrageous and unlikely. After all, our cul — erm, religious community — picks a leader based on whoever weighs closest to 190.23 pounds. Before every meal, we recite our holy prayer, “Osmium weighs 190.23 u. Amen.” Nonbelief in the One Holy Truth is the one thing that can get you kicked out of the 190ers (polyamory, on the other hand, is allowed, if not encouraged!). So, to sum it up, accepting that scientists were wrong and osmium really weighs 185.23 u would ruin a lot of people’s weeks. Admitting in public, within the cult, that one believes this new evidence would likely cause ostracization and other problems. So most of us, to be honest, aren’t going to even entertain such doubts, and those who do will do so quietly. There's just so much tied up in believing osmium has a specific weight — there’s so much at stake — for a 190er. For those outside the community, again, it’s just a safe, arbitrary-seeming number with no real political or moral or cultural meaning attached to it. Within the boundaries of our hard and durable osmium-alloy fence? Different story entirely.
(Of course, Teddy, a 190er who weighs exactly 185.23 pounds, may find himself entertaining dangerous thoughts... “Could these scientists be right?” He wanders off into the woods to think about it and to read news stories on the smartphone he keeps hidden in an osmium-alloy safe under his bunk. After much contemplation he realizes that, as shocking as it may seem, the Elders are wrong. The scientists may be outsiders but their case is bulletproof. On the walk back Teddy decides he’s going to very quietly, very carefully send out some feelers to his closest friends in the community, seeing if there’s any openness to the notion that the One Holy Truth needs a bit of modernization. If there is, it may be time to start thinking about what ramifications this new knowledge could have for the 190ers’ leadership structure...)
I won’t torture this thought experiment any further, but I’ve been writing about human behavior for about a decade now and the most common mistake normal people make is assuming they share none of the bad cognitive habits of bad or unusual people — cultists or racists or first-degree murderers. In fact we all have a little cultist/racist/murderer in us, and that's partly because we all have similar brains susceptible to similar biases. You probably hold beliefs that, were you granted full insight into your cognition, you’d realize have more to do with your desire to express a certain politics, not be criticized by your friends, not to have certain values threatened, and so on, than with a full and as-dispassionate-as-possible evaluation of the evidence. Which is fine — we're humans!
But few recognize that they and “their side” do it too, which is a problem in the long run, given that we live in a loud and messy and violent world where people disagree about a great deal. All in all, the more people can understand that they share at least some human flaws in common with those crazy 190ers, the better off we’ll all be.