2012-11-21

A-Bomb, Ha Ha! I Win!

Unfortunately, the following is a post I feel obligated to write.

Recently, I have discovered an interesting piece of human psychology, something I have dubbed "the intellectual 'nuke' button." We could also call it the "get-out-of-thought-free card."

The intellectual "nuke" button is the psychological defense mechanism we invoke to prevent ourselves from having to admit that, not only are we wrong in our beliefs, but the other person or people with whom we are speaking happens to be correct. This defense mechanism can be very complicated indeed, and it takes on many different forms.

Nuke Buttons: Specific Examples
The simplest of all forms is a profound fear or panic. Some people, when confronted with being wrong, recede into absolute panic. First, they will simply try to end the conversation as quickly as possible. If pressed to continue, they become frantic, and within no longer than a minute or two, they may start to cry and hide their face. I call this the simplest form because it common among very small children who do not like to be questioned. When a child lies or misbehaves and are compelled to answer for their misbehavior, this is a common observed reaction. Clearly, there is no proceeding with a child who throws a tantrum, which is precisely why children throw tantrums in the first place. It is a last-ditch effort to avoid responsibility and get what they want. As we mature, we quickly drop this kind of behavior.

Nonetheless, we do see this in adults from time to time, and it is not fair to simply dismiss such adults as immature babies. The point here is not that their choice of defense mechanism is worthy of criticism. The point is that they have a defense mechanism at all. But, again, this is merely the simplest form.

More complicated "nuke" buttons exist. For example, many very intelligent people develop elaborate (but wrong-headed) theories about why those with whom they disagree are wrong, irrational, unintelligent, etc. The important thing to note here is that there is a difference between directly dissecting the arguments of those with whom one disagrees, and hunting for weaknesses in the minutia, as though flaws in minor points invalidate an opposing argument in toto. Many fallacies are often at play in this kind of "nuke" button, but the "nuker" is typically oblivious to them.

Another type of "nuke" button is more emotional in nature. In this case, the one doing the "nuking" often becomes incredibly indignant with respect to the opposing argument. The goal here is to highlight an emotional sentiment that the opposing argument could never hope to touch. A lot of racial or socio-economic indignation falls in this category. If the person you are arguing with maintains that you cannot ever hope to understand their unique set of experiences, then they are invoking this kind of "nuke" button. They have special, secret knowledge that you cannot even understand if you happen to know about it. It is tantamount to receding into an untouchable inner world that only that one person ever truly understands. It becomes scorched-Earth.

The point of these various "nuke" buttons is to completely invalidate any criticism aimed at a given person, to protect a person from criticism and from being wrong. Rather than responding to an argument levied against a person's beliefs, they simply "nuke" the entire argument and claim victory.

Conclusion
It is a cowardly thing to avoid ever having to be questioned, to avoid ever having to justify one's own beliefs and opinions. It is particularly problematic, though, to hold fast to very passionate beliefs without ever expecting to have to analyze the merits of those beliefs. We can go through life in a protective bubble, insulating ourselves with lies and self-delusions, but the question I ask is: Is that kind of life intellectually satisfying?

Self-delusions can protect us from temporary emotional discomfort, but this protection comes at the cost of long-run emotional health. It is certainly possible to live a lie, but in doing so we under-value the profound comfort of a life lived in honesty and curiosity. For that reason, we owe it to ourselves to check our premises from time to time, to make sure we're not turning our deeply held beliefs into a bit of a psychological Santa Claus.

Perhaps most importantly, we can more effectively communicate with others if we start by being honest with ourselves.

Bonus
In a total coincidence, David Henderson has a related post on EconLog today. The way Henderson tells it, the problem with being polemic is that it's harder to self-correct. That point is fair enough, and especially applicable to the academic world. But the matter is often much smaller than that. As my wife likes to point out, people don't like to admit when they're wrong. Sometimes the simple truths are the more profound.