You Can’t Win


Are you scared? Did I spook you? Did you consider closing the window and running for the most rural, brambly-bunker of Internet deadzone you could find? I don’t blame you. Maybe some of you screamed “Yesssss!” in your best Brain impersonation and flexed your fingers, anticipating the first opening to fling in a dissenting opinion. Unfortunately, this isn’t a carnival game (though it is arguably just as rigged). There is no winning, no matter how sharp your wit or how many likes your barb hooks. Unless you are at the politician on stage and your words win you the election, you’re simply talking.

In this heated election season, as in many before it, we often hear “I don’t want to talk politics.” However, this reaction is neither spontaneous nor in response to the topic at hand. Rather, it comes when we disagree, and its subtext ranges from “I don’t want to argue” and “I don’t want to say/hear this again” to “I don’t want to hear you be wrong and ignore my rightness.” The latter is the most common and least acknowledged by far.

I think the source of this sentiment, which I’m definitely guilty of, stems from entering discourse with the intent of converting the other party. We aren’t trying to hear them or their argument, we’re only letting them open their mouths to get them to swallow our answers to the problems. And we want them to do it now.

I was made aware of this when my friend Brandon told me he’d reduced heaps of conversational stress with his socially, religiously, and/or politically conservative friends by ceasing to enter into a discussion attached to the belief that he’s right, and by virtue of that rightness, needs to win. It struck me immediately that I am exceptionally competitive conversationally, which is a serious source of my dissatisfaction in social interactions. My circles are eclectic and, while comprised of overlapping shades of intellectuals, opinions, beliefs and even values stray far afield.

My circles are eclectic and, while comprised of overlapping shades of intellectuals, opinions, beliefs and even values stray far afield. This leaves the grounds of conversation fertile for disagreement. And when there’s a disagreement, it seeps into my boots like festering swamp water, irritating and chilling me, distracting me from the steps of the exchange and forcing my focus onto the discomfort of the disagreement’s presence. Discomfort stagnates if left unchecked, saturating awareness, rotting away patience, and sapping me of any desire to venture deeper into the jungles of debate.

So I stop. I sit down with the disagreement, bemoaning its existence, accusing the other of causing it, of leading us into the swamp in the first place, straying from the path of rightness I knew so well. I stop the adventure and lose the chance to learn, and ironically, ignore the fact that the other person is often in the exact some position.

This is a tragedy, not only because it can add antagonism to close relationships, but because it halts intellectual advancement. If I only focus on conversion and the absolutism of my, more truthfully, casual authority on matters, then I have enshrined my opinion as a religiously omniscient icon, and in worshipping it, cast only my shadow to the world at large. I stop seeing the rest of the picture, sacrificing perspective for a perpetual view of what I believe to be true. I may as well talk to a mirror.

I’m exaggerating just a smidgen.

And frankly, I argue with myself too, so the mirror remark reflects layers. But ultimately, the end is the same. Even when dealing with interior monologue, half of me has the inflexibility of a sugar-ramped toddler at nap time (“No” means “I’LL SCREAM SO LOUD YOU’LL DIE”). It’s the antithesis of helpful.

Opinion and belief are malleable, and should be treated as such. Expressing them should not always equate to defending and propagating them. There is a time and a place for persuasion, there are forums and foes who welcome the effort, but rarely are either found in casual conversation. Consider this if election season mires your days in strife.

Now, perhaps more than in any race in recent memory, remaining open and level can strike strife from democrat and republican couples, families, and friends. It can stop the retreat of independents, progressives, and the often ignored green partiers, from bipartisan engagements and aisle-cleaved arguments. With one internal act, one shift in how you frame and react to a situation, you can transform conflict into an opportunity to learn.

So engage, but don’t combat. Respond, but don’t rebuke. Instead of saying, “No, that’s wrong; this is right,” ask, “Did you mean X? If so, what are your thoughts on Y?” Question compassionately and earnestly, not to entrap them, but to clarify meaning. Don’t word your questions with aggressive assumption. Rephrase their statements to ensure you got their meaning. Question their logic, but don’t deride it. Evolve the conversation into an exchange. And ask them to do the same. It’s much easier to be reasonable when the person asking is also making the effort.

If you stop trying to win, stop believing in the invincibility of your rightness, you’re afforded the chance to listen, and, by application of your attention to something other than your inner monologue, the chance understand another person. That’s a chance at connection. You may only walk away with no more than your beliefs strengthened. You may realize that you were totally wrong and too beholden to soundbite factoids (and by not arguing, be spared the resentment and humiliation that typically come with that epiphany). Or you may just stroll off with more to think about. But if you approach a discussion with an open mind, detached from your often excessive conviction, you’ll rarely walk away drained and angry.

Politics don’t need to be negative. They don’t need to ruin days, friendships, families, or that dinner you finally managed to schedule and were totally looking forward to before that snide comment about the latest poll numbers. We can be better than that. If we remove competition and reclaim curiosity and civility, we won’t just survive the circus that is the US 2016–No seriously, you’re voting for who? You know they can’t win rig–Ahem. We won’t just survive the US 2016 presidential race to the top of the teetering Jenga tower we call a country, we’ll thrive as a more informed, accepting, and unified populous. So next time you hear that inner voice screech, “BUT THAT’S WRONG,” take a breath, step back and try adding pieces rather than pulling them out. We’re all stuck on the same wobbly tower. Why make a mess playing a tired old game when you could build something beautiful together?






The Inherent Humanity of Science

When it comes to scientists, I tend to be wary. I’ve been burned before; at the opening of my mouth I’ve mocked, derided, shut down, and dismissed too many times. When I posit possibilities, theories, or note information from any of the social sciences or humanities, they demand one thing only above all else: hard data.

When provided hard data (or soft data because to them psychology needs air quotes) they counter it. Now, that could be healthy if it wasn’t for the facts that A.) not everything is quantifiable, B.) most studies have opposing studies, and C.) the stance that an absence of “concrete” evidence proves something false is a fallacy (specifically the appeal to ignorance fallacy, a.k.a. argument from ignorance). It creates a false dichotomy implying that something without definitives has no value (hell, even moving beyond no definitives, being definitively wrong has value). The issue here is not only that that is inherently wrong, but that scientists themselves wander around in the vastness of the unknown all the time (I’m looking at you, physicists). There is far more unknown than there is known.

And this’s a good thing. Without the unknown what would we ask? How would we grow? What would be the point of questions, let alone those I just asked (seriously, this blog is like 90% questions; I’d be screwed)? Sometimes asking at all is answer enough. That’s why in today’s blog I’m asking why science is opposed to its softer side: the humanities in general, to be sure, but more specifically here, philosophy.

While I confess this is a topic that regularly inspires hand-wringing from me, whether sourced from the decline of medical bedside manner, the struggle of engineers to communicate because it’s not requisite to their degrees, or the systematic removal and/or disparaging of humanity courses in non-liberal arts degrees, I am drawn to it today by the veritable fall of a childhood hero.

I’m being hyperbolic; he stumbled. The “he” I’m talking about is Bill Nye and his minimizing stance on philosophy. In the video he not only misrepresents philosophical concepts, but he downgrades the importance of asking the questions, and more to the point, questioning the questions and the presumed answers. He tauts sensory and measurable experiences as definitive and ultimately more important than potential but unsubstantiated possibilities. Here’s the problem with that.

We know reality is subjective. Variations of experience occur with everything from memory to sensory perceptions (some people can’t feel pain, some feel too much, and others will freak out and flail like muppets if they see a spider because they’ll suddenly feel it crawling on them even though it’s across the room). But even putting subjectivity aside, if asking questions about experiences or the potential experiences of the self, the other, or even that rock over yonder is mostly empty, then why are Einstein’s thought experiments considered some of the most revolutionary feats of science to have occurred in the past two hundred years?

You could  argue that they aren’t philosophical because he quantified everything that he could, but the fact of the matter is that he could not tangibly produce the experiments in the more notable cases. What’s more, the experiments began with questions, which are the inherent and original stomping ground of philosophy. If anything, these thought experiments are the perfect marriage between science and philosophy and illustrate clearly the interwining of the two and its necessity.

Without one, the other is limited. If you remove science from philosophy, you lose the ability to have any certainty, even it’s if certainty with an asterisk (re: if I exist as I think I do, then…). If you remove the philosophy from science you not only lose morality (are we doing this because we can or because we should? what are the implications of creating this? why does it matter if we know this?), but you lose progression. Philosophy pumps necessity and possibility into science and without it, science will stagnate: a possibility some already suspect may be occurring in certain fields of physics .

For scientists to disavow philosophy is akin to orators disavowing the tongue. Science was born of a need to know, of questions we couldn’t help but ask for desparate need of an answer, and in asking these questions, eventually we formed philosophy. As our ability to ask evolved, we created methods for finding the answers, and thus science was born. However, there are questions it can’t answer yet, though the questions that still have value. Those questions are addressed and considered by philosophy, which, in the process of puzzling over them, creates new questions for scientists to answer. Sometimes asking is the answer. But many don’t see it that way. They’re only concerned with the end result, and if they can duplicate it. The only part of the method that matters is replication and accuracy.

This overly methodical and myopic view misses the connection and artistry inherent in the process. Did you not learn something merely by asking and thinking on the question? There is science in the asking and art to interpreting the answers. Neither the humanities nor philosophy are derivatives; they are not outdated remainders or lessers to science, and presuming them such is a tragedy. I grieve such assumptions. So scientists, Mr. Nye, consider this an open letter born of that grief. I’m asking you to reconsider your stance.

Philosophy and science were once the same thing. They were happy then, equally respected, like a couple with a posh surname. Things have gotten rocky since then. There have been insults and lamps thrown, the Internet Accuracy Police came to call too many times, charges were nearly pressed. But even so, I truly believe this marriage can work. I believe we can fix it. Please, Science, Philosophy, and all you little scientists and philosophers bickering about, don’t turn your back on each other. This is a family, and there’s one unifying element that can keep everyone together: We all want to know, thus we all need to ask. And at the end of the day, isn’t that enough?





This blog was originally inspired by another, so share the love and read it, though maybe forgive the title: Why So Many Scientists Are Ignorant