Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Intelligent Confusion

Every now and then (and, not nearly often enough), I listen to a podcast called “Intelligence Squared.” It bills itself as “Oxford style debating in America.” Basically, they take one interesting issue and frame it as a proposition. For example, I just finished listening to an episode entitled, “Obesity is the Governments Problem.” Then, they get two experts from the pro side and two from the con, and have them debate it out. It's always intelligent, and usually far more civil than anything you're likely to hear in the wider media.

There's one part about it which I hate, though. Just before each debate, they ask the audience to vote on how they feel about the proposition. Afterwards, they vote again. The “winner” is the team which gains the most percentage points. I don't mind the overall idea—“winning” as defined by moving opinions. What I dislike is the vote, itself. I dislike having to pick* whether I agree or disagree. Because, for me, anyway, it's usually both.

*I know that, as a listener to a podcast, I don't actually have to vote, so it shouldn't matter to me. But, clearly, that's not how my brain works.

Sometimes we're uncertain about some topic because we don't know enough about it. For example, I can't tell you how I feel about the efficacy of drugs versus surgery for heart conditions, or about the best place to eat in London. I know nothing about them.

But, sometimes were uncertain about a topic because we know a lot about it. And, in knowing a lot about it, we come to realize that there isn't a single answer. The best place to eat in Tampa, for example*. Or, whether the government has a role to play in obesity in America.

*  although, I would have to admit that that's a simpler question that would be in, say, New York!

The arguments in this particular podcast were fairly straightforward, and fairly predictable. One side argued that obesity is a national health epidemic, that the country would benefit, as a whole, in several ways, from improving our nation-wide weight problem, and that various “let the free market/society/individuals solve the problem for themselves” arguments don't take into account the poor and otherwise disadvantaged who don't have equal access to information or opportunity.

The other side argued that, in fact, our “obesity epidemic” has been greatly exaggerated, and the consequences of said epidemic even more so. That government involvement in an issue almost invariably, over time, leads to creeping government control of that issue, and thus to an incremental, but significant, loss of freedom. And that, even if we felt it was important to solve this problem, government simply can't do it—we (society) don't have the faintest clue how to “cure” obesity (everything we try more less fails), and the government messes up everything it tries to do (one of the presenters had with him the safety sheet that comes with birth control pills. It was so long as to ensure that no one would ever read it. In trying to cover every possible safety issue, he argued, the government failed to meaningfully address a single safety issue. Is that who we want trying to solve something as complicated as obesity?). What evidence is there that the government could possibly have a positive impact on this problem? Better it should just stay away.

I have a very strong suspicion that just about everybody reading this has a counterargument to at least one of the points above. I'm sure that some of them (I know who you are, and so do you) are borderline fuming over some of them. That's not the point. Almost every single thing said during the debate had merit, and also had a counterpoint. And that is the point.

After hearing the debate, I feel have a much better grasp of the issues. I could talk more intelligentally about them. But I don't feel I have a better grasp of the answer, at least not when framed as a “yes or no” question. Both sides of the debate really do have some merit. And, I don't think that's a bad thing.

I once heard someone refer to “informed ignorance.” It's the kind of ignorance that comes from knowing a lot. The understanding that learning (almost?) always leads to greater complexity, rather than greater surety. That truth reveals itself as layers of nuance and complication, not as absolutes.

I am, frankly, so tired of all of our debates being framed as absolutes. As if one side has all the answers, and the other is bereft of anything of substance. Truth is almost never simple. Never black or white. Learning to listen to the debate, understand all the various arguments, and admit to a fundamental confusion is not a flaw, a sign of weakness, or a sign of intellectual impotence. Actually, I would argue, a sign of great intelligence.

I still think that one of the, if not the single smartest thing I've ever said (not counting the 99% of the time I'm just quoting someone else) is that whatever you think on any given issue, someone smarter than you thinks you're wrong.

And, the same goes for them, too.

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