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Dealing with the echo chamber in our heads

by Greg Krehbiel on 25 January 2018

I used to like to characterize some views or arguments as “sawing off the branch you’re sitting on.” It’s a useful mental image, but I don’t think it does justice to the way we actually come to conclusions.

Sometimes people like to imagine that they proceed from A to B to C to their conclusion in a logical, orderly way. I don’t think we do that for the vast majority of the things we believe.

I think we have a complicated web of inter-related beliefs that prop one another up. When we evaluate a new claim, or a new piece of data, we check to see if it fits in to that generalized web of beliefs. If it does, we incorporate it easily. If it doesn’t, we treat it with skepticism.

A lot of people complain about that phenomenon, referring to it as an echo chamber, or confirmation bias. But I think it’s perfectly reasonable to operate that way most of the time. We can’t go around re-evaluating our entire belief system every time we’re confronted with a new idea.

“Web” is a good word for this, but it still doesn’t do justice to what’s going on, because there are some foundational beliefs or facts that have more significance than others.

What I often wonder is how much of the web remains after a foundational belief changes. It certainly doesn’t change immediately, or over night, and some things might stick in there for a long time.

If, for example, a socialist becomes a free-market capitalist, there will still be wisps of socialist conclusions and attitudes and such floating around in his allegedly capitalist mind.

So, even though it’s perfectly reasonable to evaluate new facts and arguments against the web of your current beliefs, it’s also necessary to reflect from time to time and try to get a handle on what, precisely, is going on, and why your web of belief shudders with disgust at the new idea. It may be a remnant from an old idea you don’t actually hold to any more.

2018-01-25  »  Greg Krehbiel

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