Overcoming Disagreement

In an ideal world, disagreements would not exist.

It’s a provocative statement, but hopefully readers of this blog will have been exposed enough to the reasoning to accept it provisionally. Even Eliezer’s recent explanations of his various disagreements largely come down to making cases for why his disputants should agree with him, not for why they should all continue to disagree.

When two people disagree, and they come together to try to reach agreement, they have much to gain. First, some of their disagreement may be based on different information. By explaining the basis for their beliefs and sharing their data, each can improve the quality of his own estimates. Second, they probably have different biases affecting their reasoning. Discussion will illuminate those biases and help to cancel them out. Third, not being perfect Bayesians, they are computationally limited, and one or the other is likely to have superior reasoning, algorithms and heuristics. They can both aim to incorporate the results from the best quality reasoning available to the two of them.

Given these advantages, why then are people seemingly so reluctant to reach agreement? I think it can be easily explained in terms of human social status. All too often we view disagreement and debate as a contest, with a winner and a loser. The one who convinces the other of the correctness of his position wins. If they both reach an intermediate conclusion, this is seen as a tie, perhaps with an edge to one side or the other.

This viewpoint makes pragmatic sense in human society. Someone who is frequently right and convinces others of that fact is likely to be correct on other issues. He will be more trusted and respected as a source of advice and wisdom. Someone who often turns out to be wrong on disagreements is not going to be very well trusted in general. So people who win disagreements gain status, respect, power and influence, all of which lead to improved quality of life.

This effect makes people very reluctant to admit that they are wrong and to adopt the other person’s side in a disagreement. In fact, we often see a sort of bargaining process, in which adopting certain aspects of one’s opponent’s views leads to demands that the other side adopt something of one’s own views in return. Agreement is seen as very much a process of compromise and negotiation, rather than an objective search for truth.

Of course, OB participants are far above such mundane considerations as power and influence. We are clear minded seekers after truth, right? Right? Okay, maybe we do retain some vestiges of these natural human instincts. What can we do to overcome them and approach disagreement from a more Bayesian perspective?

One idea is to practice overcoming disagreement first on issues that are relatively easy. As with other areas of life, we do best by starting with easy problems before moving on to harder ones. Overcoming disagreement on matters where you have no emotional stake, no firm commitments, should be feasible. Yet often we do find ourselves disagreeing with others on quite trivial matters. These are good topics for practice.

It will be important that your practice partner is aware of the basic principles of rationality and the implications for how honest and respectful people interact when they disagree. You both should understand that “agreeing to disagree” is a sign of mutual disrespect and contempt. Rationality imposes a strong imperative to reach agreement and this must drive your interaction.

Moving beyond trivial matters, there are other strategies we can employ to make it easier to reach agreement. One is to avoid prematurely staking out a strong public position. Once you are committed publicly to a view, and your disagreement partner is likewise committed to an opposing position, it will be hard to avoid the winner/loser paradigm.

I tend to believe that an most issues where disputes are common, for most people, the evidence is really quite ambiguous as to which view is correct (as suggested by the mere fact that different people have reached different conclusions). The best position to take is a weak one, to hold views provisionally and to be open to persuasion. Adopting this as one’s public stance can actually improve status in many circumstances, since we all claim to admire those who have open minds. This kind of positioning can reduce the loss of status from changing your mind in a dispute, making it easier to reach agreement and gain the benefits of improved accuracy.

The final strategy I will suggest is the hardest, which is to renounce the social game and accept the possible lowering of status in disagreement, achieving a zen-like equanimity in the face of social disaster. This will not be easy but frankly, I suspect that many OB readers are already somewhat alienated from popular human social mores. Taking another step and consciously accepting the loss of status from being shown up as an intellectual inferior should be a reachable goal for many of us.

To move towards this ideal, consider taking actions which may accustom you to similar losses of status as you would experience from changing your mind in a disagreement. These might include making frequent, falsifiable predictions, many of which will inevitably turn out to be wrong; commenting on issues even where you are not too knowledgeable; sharing your speculations and thoughts even when you expect that they will lead to criticism. Air the dirty laundry of your mind, expose your ideas with all their unpolished flaws. In a world where most people build up a false front and do their best to hide their weaknesses, these honest actions can paradoxically make you seem mentally inferior. Such exercises can hopefully prepare you emotionally for being able to honestly report your changes of mind in disagreements.

Now it might be argued that this strategy could backfire, by hurting your reputation so that in the disagreement, your views will not be given appropriate weight. Indeed, this approach does depend on both parties being able to rationally evaluate and weigh their respective strengths, insights and quality of information. Ideally, then, both participants in the disagreement will be practiced at status reduction exercises, preparing them both to achieve maximum gains from overcoming their disagreement.

When this condition is not met, overcoming disagreement may not be possible in practice. Still, a practitioner of these measures will be better positioned to improve his accuracy as a result of the attempt at agreement, since he will be less bound to his previous position. He can still hope to gain many of the benefits from overcoming disagreement, making his efforts worthwhile in the end.

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