Saturday, August 15, 2015

Blogging to My PhD: The Agonistic Cycle of Belief and Doubt

I want to talk about how a quick little interactive puzzle from the New York Times illustrates a key part of my dissertation research, but I need you to take the quiz before you read any more or it won't be nearly as fun.

So, please, take the quiz.

And now I'm going to post a big picture of a cute kitten to ensure that you don't see anything else until after you've taken the quiz.

Cute kitten says "Did you take the quiz? If not, I'm going to get you!"
Okay. Now that you've taken the quiz, we can talk about what it was meant to illustrate and how it operates. According to the statistics garnered from the puzzle, most people make a guess about the answer without ever putting in a wrong solution. Because of this, most people put in a final answer that is too complex and ultimately get the answer wrong.

However, a few people took the time to put in guesses specifically designed to get a negative response. These people were able to see that the final answer was actually much simpler than their original hypothesis dictated, so they arrived at the correct response, which is simply that the numbers must get bigger.

The problem with seeking out only feedback that aligns with your hypothesis is that you miss a lot. This is called confirmation bias, and as the explanation for the puzzle shows, it can cause big problems, especially when it comes to making policy decisions on things like global warming and economic recovery programs. When we only seek out answers that confirm what we already believe, we fail to actually test our beliefs.

The reason that I'm interested in this quiz is that it ties into the concept of rhetorical enclaves and the necessity of engaging in an oscillating cycle between belief and doubt.

Here's the quick version (if you want the long version, I'm happy to bore you with it for hours; shoot me an email). During the Enlightenment and the rise of scientifically validated information, we became culturally focused on critical doubt as a means to uncovering truths. Ultimately, the positivist impulse of this era insisted that something was only true if you had tried to counter it from every possible angle and it still held up. Out of this system of belief grew what rhetoric scholars (like Wayne Booth, Peter Elbow, and others) identify as an overly critical tendency to doubt everything around us.

What we lost during that modernist period was the tendency to believe. Believing was considered weaker, less reliable, and even dangerous. Those same scholars made an argument to return belief to the equation, to operate using what Wayne Booth called "a rhetoric of assent" and what Peter Elbow called "the believing game."

Belief, though, comes with its own set of problems. If you believe without doubt, you run the risk of falling into rhetorical enclaves or "echo chambers." You do, essentially, what most of the people who completed this puzzle did: seek out answers that confirm what you've already decided you believe.

I've written about echo chambers before, relying heavily on the work of Patricia Roberts-Miller to illustrate the dangers of operating from a space where all the information you take in only confirms what you already believe, of shutting out any conflicting information. Even Roberts-Miller, though, admits that there is value in an enclave.

Both Roberts-Miller and Elbow note that spending time in an enclave is an excellent way to develop a rhetorical position in the first place. Without an enclave, the rhetoric of criticism can tear down ideas faster than we can think of them. The aggressively antagonistic stance will shout us down and drown us out before we even know what we believe. To get a better picture of this, think about a news talk show where a single person is invited onto a program where everyone else shares a majority position and has to compete to get a word in. Unless the guest is very, very confident in his/her position and very capable of navigating a rocky rhetorical terrain, s/he's going to get shouted down.

So an enclave is a useful space where we can test out our ideas among like-minded individuals and let them grow. An enclave is an important part of a broader rhetorical process. Dwelling in belief can help us face doubt.

But we have to face the doubt. We have to be willing to get the wrong answer. We have to step outside of our comfort zone and face criticism head on. And that can be really hard, especially when we're well aware of how comfortable that echo chamber can be.

I got the right answer on the puzzle, but it's not because I'm a puzzle mastermind; it's because I put into practice the principles I've been writing about for the last year.

When I looked back at my puzzle responses, it was clear to me that I operated first by seeking out confirmation. I saw that the numbers were even, getting bigger, and ascending in a regular pattern. I operated from those observations to see what other answers obeyed the rule.

My first two answers were ones I was confident would be confirmed. If I had stopped after that, I might have believed that the rule was "even numbers ascend at regular intervals." I had no information to say that answer was incorrect, but I would have been wrong nonetheless.

It wasn't until my third guess where I branched out of my comfort zone and used odd numbers. When this, too, came back as a yes, I had novel information that changed my hypothesis. 

Then I decided to see if descending numbers triggered a yes as well. They didn't. I sought out a negative response and got one. 

I did a mix of ascending and descending numbers and got another negative response. 

Then I did some random numbers that were both even and odd but ascending. At this point, I was fairly confident the answer was simply that the numbers had to ascend, but I still wanted to test out the hypothesis. 

I used large, random, ascending numbers, and I still got a yes. I tried a sequence that broke my new hypothesized rule one more time, and I was confident enough to make it my final answer. 

In other words, I did exactly what the rhetoric scholars say we have to do. I started out in an enclave, seeking out confirmation for my own biases. It was only through this experience that I was able to gain confidence in my view to begin with. Once I had a confident view, I could step outside of the enclave and seek dissent. 

Then it was only through seeking dissent that I was able to change my hypothesis and arrive at the right answer. I had to be willing to get the wrong answer. 

Too often (and even in the commentary on this great little puzzle), we talk about the rhetoric of assent or the rhetoric of criticism alone. We rarely talk about the importance of putting both practices into an oscillating interplay, of both believing and doubting as a means to discovering truths.