Friday, September 11, 2009

Different Approaches to Intellectual Integrity

I was having a conversation today with a work friend ("Jim") about how to best handle differences of opinion on factual issues. By "factual issues" I mean things you can find out a definitive answer to, like what year the CIA was established or whether there are any Target stores in Canada, but I think Jim was also talking about differences of interpretation related to our work, like how likely recovering a certain amount of oil from a certain field is.

I have friends who seem to handle disagreements like this badly, and I myself am often overconfident in my opinions. I try pretty hard to temper my overconfidence by admitting that I may be wrong even when I am pretty sure I am not wrong (and admitting it with more force when I feel less sure), and by admitting to having been wrong once that's been shown.

Jim said, quite sincerely, that when he enters into discussions like those, he views them as an opportunity to exchange views and learn, and since he does not feel attached to the views that he holds ("attached" in the sense of feeling ownership of them, or feeling responsible for them), it is easy for him to let a conversation take its course so that the different ideas can emerge and settle. I have seen Jim in action and can confirm that he really is like this, almost to a fault; in fact you can find circulating our office a list of Jim's phrases and what they really mean, e.g.,

"That's a really interesting interpretation" -> "You are completely full of shit."

("That's a really interesting interpretation" might read as sarcastic, but would not sound at all sarcastic when he said it, and he would not mean it sarcastically, as best I can tell.)

I partly admire Jim's detached, Buddhist-like attitude in these matters, but my approach is different. What keeps me in line (to the extent that anything does) is a concern for intellectual integrity. It is not right to express unwarranted confidence, refuse to see new evidence, or fail to admit that you've been proven wrong. (Because otherwise I am really always rather sure I am right, and it's important to me, and I feel some loss of face when it turns out not to be the case.)

Jim said that, by doing what I do, perhaps I hope that in the future, people will know I am a person of integrity and will be more inclined to listen to me. Or, when I continue to insist that I am right, they will believe that I have some reason to think so and am not merely stubborn. And that is true - I do hope that - but I think I'm more motivated by the rightness of it.

I don't mean to talk like I succeed at this all the time, by any means.

Mosch and I had a different way of handling these arguments, which was that we would bet $1 on anything we disagreed about that could be confirmed one way or the other. Betting $1 puts everyone on the record about their opinion, and then you establish a winner, and the loser (note the language - winner, loser) has to actually produce and hand over a dollar bill. You can't claim you didn't really mean it or you were pretty sure you were wrong or any of that, because, let's face it, you hoped to profit off of your friend's wrongness.

Ed and I sometimes bet $1 also - most recently over my claim that "The Star-Spangled Banner" was written from on board a ship. Ed thought I was claiming it was written during a naval battle, but I'm not sure I had a real opinion on that issue; I just had the sense of that Francis Scott Key was on a ship. We determined it was not a naval battle but it was aboard a ship, and I don't think we ever actually settled up. (Now that I know the outcome I'm not sure what my opinion on the "naval battle" question actually was, but I think Ed and I may have been betting on different things - me, that Key was on a ship, and Ed, that it was not a naval battle. Ed thought I was claiming that the flag Key was looking for was on another ship, and that's not how I had pictured it.) (We were watching fireworks at the time. What can I say?)

Anyway, long-winded digressions do you keep yourself honest and/or appropriately humble?

1 comment:

Sally said...

(1) By always being right. OK, not really.

(2) By trying to remember my sources and citing them (or admitting the degree to which I can't).

(3) By being (according to one of the psychology-experiment-type measures) less overconfident than most. (Though overconfidence has multiple lay meanings and that test only measures a specific one used in JDM research.)

(4) By trying (and sometimes succeeding, sometimes not) to view "I don't know" as a reasonable position. It's easier to view this as reasonable from others than myself, in general.