Partisan Review: “Surfing Uncertainty”, by Andy Clark.

Sometimes it happens that reading a book ignites a seemingly unstoppable whirlpool of ideas. The book in question is “Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind” by Andy Clark.
Why is this a partisan review? Because Clark himself had already convinced me that the general idea is worth pursuing, well before writing the book. To use a famous expression: I want to believe. However, since I keep obsessing about my own biases, I also want to be as critical as possible – call it overcompensation, if you must.
In this post I will briefly review the book in general terms, the whirlpool of ideas mentioned above is mostly about the criticism I have to offer, which will come later (with the vague hope it might be useful).

As the title suggests, Clark’s book is about a subject I’ve touched before: the brain as a prediction engine (for an introduction, see previous posts: The Predictive Brain, part 1 and part 2). Clark himself summarised the arguments developed in the book via a series of posts published at the brains blog (starts here); for a review that also describes how the book is organised, see Andrew Buskell.
For my part, my previous discussion (links above) did not even mention a fundamental concept: confidence. When issuing a prediction, or even when detecting a signal, one important element that should never be overlooked is the evaluation of how much confidence can be attributed to the result. I’m using the word “confidence” here in order to keep the idea fairly general, for the time being. Clark does an exceptionally good job at explaining why the concept is indeed foundational, and how introducing it allows to move the generic predictive approach from the level of being a nice idea, all the way up to a research framework in the making. I mention this because, after appreciating the crucial role that confidence estimations play, my older presentation of the matter starts looking incomplete to the point of being misleading.

An important feature of the book is the emphasis it places on embodiment. However, it’s worth noting that the book starts by adopting mainstream assumptions of the computational kind – indeed, an overarching aim of the book is to bridge the gap between computational and embodied approaches. I was a little surprised to find that the computational assumptions are not really discussed: the fact that brains and neurons process information is taken as self-evident (Note: I agree!). The book proposes the “Predictive Processing” label (PP) as an overarching definition, able to point to a whole family of separate approaches. The “processing” word is telling: we are dealing with a solidly computational outlook. As the book proceeds, however, the ’embodiment’ promise in the title gets gradually fulfilled: PP isn’t merely applied to perception, instead, the book shows how the same framework can be used to model action and action control. The result is a continuum, from perception to action, which cannot possibly brush aside the fact that behaviours are physical: actual body parts move. Yes, brains have a controlling role over action, but, alas, much of vanilla cognitive science has been historically happy to study brain function without giving much attention to the role that bodies have in shaping what the brain does and, crucially, in defining what count as successful strategies.
Clark’s treatment has the refreshing quality of restoring the due balance in a field that has been characterised by unjustified prevalence of opposing extremes. Once upon a time, uncompromising behaviourism of the Skinner kind was accepted as the default assumption, only to get superseded by the opposite (and symmetrically wrong) stance of computational cognitivism.

Needless to say, in my view, this is one reason why this book was necessary (there are more!), and finds me in full agreement. [For those interested in this general debate, leaving aside the specific view offered by PP, I have explored (also) the relation between computationalism and embodiment in two posts at Conscious Entities: part 1, part 2. Moreover, I have recently produced my own Twitter-storm, commenting on Krakauer et. al. (2016) [Highly recommended reading!]. From the other side of the fence, my discussions (see also) with Golonka and Wilson might provide some insight on why and how classic cognitive approaches are being challenged by the school(s) of (more or less) Radical Embodiment.]

So far, so good: the assumptions on which the book rests look more than reasonable to my eyes, which made my reading sympathetic from the start. Additionally, one of the overarching aims of the book, reconciling computational and embodied approaches fits my own agenda perfectly. What’s not to like? Well, I must also report that some my own expectations did not find satisfaction.
Clark is a philosopher, so I was hoping to find a book that revolved around known philosophical issues, and showed how PP helps surpassing them. Pretty much like Hohwy’s “The Predictive Mind“, Clark’s book isn’t taking this approach. Instead, it begins from general considerations or observable phenomena, and methodically ties them to existing scientific literature. The result is a book that organises and summarises an astonishing amount of scientific (empirical, theoretical and frequently pretty arduous) work. Not what I was hoping for, but it turns out that sometimes you do get what you need. The works cited by Clark are usually scientific papers: as such, the vast majority isn’t suited to discuss the big picture at length, and is even less able to provide an overview of how different pieces fit together. Thus, we needed Clark to do this hard work, and indeed, it’s hard to imagine how it could have been done better.

If you are trying (like me) to gain a better understanding of where PP-centric research is heading, what it assumes, and what are the main conceptual pillars on which it rests, this book will satisfy your hunger and might even leave you feeling bloated. [Personal note: while reading the second half of the book I found that I was studiously slowing down. In part, this was to avoid overload and to make sure I was assimilating as much content as possible. In part, I just didn’t want the book to finish, as reading it was a genuine pleasure throughout.]

What of my aversion to standard academic publishing? [I.e.: my claim that peer-reviewed monographs frequently spoil the joy of reading by being overly cautious and pedantic.] Once again, my expectations proved to be misplaced (I love to be surprised! 😉 ).
On caution: the need to be fairly uncontroversial does transpire in many ways, you could say that it is ubiquitous. For example, Clark keeps adding caveats like “if the story I’ve been constructing is on the right track“, which went duly noticed and appreciated. We are, after all, dealing with an emerging, still to be established, research programme. The field is solidifying quickly, but we are far away from having a fairly complete and coherent jigsaw. On the other hand, treatments of thorny issues such as consciousness itself (why do we perceive some predictions?) are cautious to the point of being disappointingly sketchy, if not overlooked.

The flip side is how Clark leverages support from existing literature, which did surprise me in a good way. While reading, a recurring pattern characterised my reactions: judging on the primary text itself, I was frequently inclined to conclude “yes, the argument is promising, but I’m not convinced that it is strong/watertight enough to abandon due scepticism”. However, when the book relied on a body of evidence that I did happen to be familiar with, my initial reaction was regularly overridden (sometimes after checking the references): I ended up realising that Clark’s arguments are backed by wide and deep evidence (empirical and/or theoretical), to a point that wasn’t immediately evident by reading the text itself. Thus, my recommendation for future readers is obvious, but important: if you find yourself unconvinced, do read the relevant references. It is likely that you’ll find plenty of reasons to be convinced in the supporting bibliography. Needless to say: despite my bias against academic (peer-reviewed) monographs, Clark’s book struck me as an example that it is possible to get it right – chapeau.

Another pleasing consequence of how the book is organised is that, by offering a clear overview of the research field, it helped me in identifying the areas that failed to convince me in full. Since I know that I want to believe, I am very determined to use my resources to find and explore the reasons why the PP framework might not hold water. I found some, technical, which I plan to discuss separately. I also found what might be summarised as “gaps”, both at the beginning of the story (in the form of philosophical foundations as well as the lack of a convincing evolutionary perspective), and at the end (mostly in the lack of explanation of what we experience as our mental life).

The first consideration is a little worrisome; it seems to me that the research field is at risk of doing the usual mistake: oversimplifying. As for what I perceived as gaps, I see no reason for concern: if I’m right, these gaps should be treated as opportunities, to be seized by theorists coming from both philosophical and scientific perspectives.

In follow-up posts, I will try my own luck, and see where my criticism might lead – with apologies for being so openly and unjustifiably haughty.

Clark, A (2016). Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind Oxford Scholarship DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190217013.003.0011

Hohwy, J (2013). The Predictive Mind Oxford University Press DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199682737.001.0001

Krakauer, J., Ghazanfar, A., Gomez-Marin, A., MacIver, M., & Poeppel, D. (2017). Neuroscience Needs Behavior: Correcting a Reductionist Bias Neuron, 93 (3), 480-490 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2016.12.041

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Posted in Neuroscience, Philosophy, Psychology


In the past few months I’ve spent some time looking for trouble on Twitter. I’ve found some (mild and polite), which translated into plenty food for thought, and eventually allowed me to put some order in my thoughts. The matter stems from the urgency of finding ways of having a positive (no matter how small!) effect on the political landscape, but inevitably extends far and wide, touching philosophy, psychology and more generally, how (one may try) not to be a jerk. The gist: nobody can ever fully grasp someone else’s point of view, that’s why dialogues are useful, but also the reason why getting it wrong is so easy.

This song is OT, I’m adding it here as a collective hat tip to the many wonderful women who enrich my life and keep me on my toes. Thank you all, I owe you a lot! © Morcheeba

To get started, I’ll draw from two twitter episodes that didn’t actually involve yours truly. The first went globally viral at a serendipitous time, you can read it here. It reports an all too common history of sexism and implicit bias. For my current purpose, the relevant observation is that Martin R. Schneider (the author of the twitter thread) clearly isn’t (and wasn’t, at the time) your typical douchebag, he most likely was already well aware of widespread sexism and the problems it creates. Nevertheless, he was taken by surprise when he finally got to experience sexism in first person. I suspect the thread got shared so widely because the story did surprise many (including, I confess, myself). Question is: why? Personally, I try hard to be aware of these issues, I work in an environment that is perhaps among the best places to rise awareness, and yet, my reaction was disappointing, all I could think was: “D’oh, I shouldn’t be surprised”.

To get closer to an explanation, another (related) Twitter thread might help: Eve Forster tried a similar experiment (summary here, while this is a Twitter search encompassing the length of the experiment), and guess what? She managed to surprise herself. Pretending to be a male made her self-image and attitude change in ways she didn’t expect. [Update, May 13 2017: Eve has now written a thoughtful piece about her experiment on Vox, well worth your time!]

Finally, here is an important report (HT Zara Bain) by the late Harriet McBryde Johnson on her encounters with Peter Singer. [Side Note: when I wrote this article I was willing to give Singer the benefit of doubt, reading Johnson’s article convinced me that he is indeed culpable of epistemic arrogance.] Why is this relevant? Because it makes the crucial point obvious: we can try to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, but our consequent understanding will usually be miles away from the real thing.

Obvious? Yes. Important? Obviously. Neglected? You bet! It’s the neglect that interests me.

We can only reason by leveraging the cognitive resources we already possess; when trying to understand what it’s like to be someone else, we may amplify the weight of some experiences, transpose some others to a different context, suppress a given family of feelings and so on. But no matter how we try, whatever happens to be qualitatively different from our past experience will be forever out of reach (echoes of Mary). However, try we must, and because we do, our exercise will usually produce some results. The trouble happens when one remembers that, to say it with Kahneman (2011), our brains easily produce the impression that what you get is all there is. In other words, if the imaginative exercise produces an impression that feels coherent, we are inclined to believe it – what else could we do? Thus, Singer is inherently unable to grasp why and how Johnson’s life feels unquestionably worthwhile from within (including why this feeling matters!), and Johnson has her own trouble in understanding how could Singer be so blind. Similarly, merely acting on the pretence of being someone else produces experiences that, being qualitatively new, Forster herself could not predict. In Schneider’s case, knowing that sexism is vicious and ubiquitous wasn’t an adequate substitute of experiencing it first hand.

This whole picture chimes extremely well with the growing interest in the idea that our brains are best understood as prediction engines, especially when modelled as Bayesian engines (for a gentle, very broad introduction, see here). Clark (2015, footnote #1, Chapter 10, p328), makes the point perfectly:

[A]t the very heart of human experience, PP [Predictive Processing] suggests, lie the massed strata of our own (mostly unconscious) expectations. This means that we must carefully consider the shape of the worlds to which we (and our children) are exposed. If PP is correct, our percepts may be deeply informed by non-conscious expectations acquired through the statistical lens of our own past experience. So if […] the world that tunes those expectations is thoroughly sexist or racist, that will structure the subterranean prediction machinery that actively constructs our own future perceptions – a potent recipe for tainted ‘evidence’, unjust reactions, and self-fulfilling, negative prophecies.

I took the liberty of transcribing the note almost in full because it highlights the core intuition that I’m wishing to put in writing. What we experience, and importantly, how we interpret it, is necessarily shaped by what we have and haven’t experienced already (this is tautological, that’s why it matters). Thus, it is not sufficient to realise that we are blind to our own systematic mistakes, doing so is just the first step. What is important is to realise that different world-views are mutually blind to each other’s differences and then blind to their own blindness. Thus, we finally reach my own misdeeds.

I have been exploring this train of thought for quite a while; in my efforts, I try to do as I preach, and actively sought criticism on Twitter. I was not surprised to find it easily, but on calmer reflection, it is surprising that I did manage to enact the kind of mistake I was trying to uncover. Surprising and ironically beautiful. The first conversation happened here, the second (sub)thread is this (apologies for the length). In both cases, I failed miserably (I’ve selected two sub-threads, picking the ones that showed my failings clearly). In the first case, I failed to deliver my main message (I’m trying to explain it better in this post), in the second, I got it wrong in more complex (and somewhat sinister) ways. Why? My conclusion is once more the same: I failed to fully grasp how my blabbing would be perceived, and I concurrently failed to spot the first failure. Failure and Meta-failure, hurray!


Hopefully, the direct and indirect experiences I’ve summarised here all point in the same direction. Bridging different points of views is hard, especially because each point of view would (usually) feel both complete and coherent from within – even when we are imagining someone else’s perspective. These differences are typically the direct consequence of different life experiences (cfr. Clark’s quote above), as such, they are in and of themselves entirely justified. Moreover, because two people can never share the same experiential trajectory, imagining someone else’s point of view is hard and frequently misleading. That’s why dialogue is important, but also why it is always dangerous to assume the other is simply mistaken. Reason does not help in bridging the gap, because it usually can’t: what is needed is an experiential bridge.

Why does this matter? Because politics. It’s no mystery that Western societies are dangerously veering to the right. What is less visible is that right-wing propaganda is exceptionally good at building and exploiting  experiential bridges. Conversely, the progressive side is spectacularly bad at winning hearts, and unsurprisingly, mostly blind to its own failure (do I need to mention Corbyn?). Thus, trying to understand what we’re doing wrong isn’t simply important, it’s an existential matter. Right now, we should all try to help people realise how profoundly they are being misled. Our game should not be about winning arguments, much less sneering at the gullibility of the masses. We should be busy changing minds, and to do so, we must begin by erasing our false sense of superiority.

Bibliography and further reading.

Kahneman, D (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow Farrar, Straus and Giroux ISBN: 978-0374275631

Clark, A (2016). Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind Oxford Scholarship DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190217013.003.0011
Abeba Birhane recently published a relevant article: Descartes was wrong: ‘a person is a person through other persons’, which explores, from a very different point of view (!), some of the themes I’m developing here. Highly recommended.
For those interested in my own trajectory, one of my earliest articles here also discusses a connected mechanism, which I’ve called ‘cognitive attractors‘.

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Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Psychology, Stupidity

The shitstorm ahead: it’s time for action

Unlike most of my previous writing, what follows is not going to strive for balance. We are well past the point where careful assessment of opposing perspectives can help. Now is the time to mobilise every person who is able to see beyond their own nose. Why? Because a shitstorm of global proportions is approaching, and every minute counts.

Volcano erupting

Image by Yosh Ginsu © CC0

The shitstorm matters to you (wherever you are).

Predicting what happens next in the USA is, even for an outsider like me, disarmingly easy. What do you think will happen the first time racial tension re-ignites anywhere in the US? Trump’s administration will enthusiastically turn against their own people. That’s what. They are currently busy arresting brown people who happen to be foreign and travelling. To start doing the same, Pinochet-style, with non-whites US nationals, all they need is an excuse. People are angry, so the excuse will be provided in a matter of days or weeks. Unfortunately, when it will happen (and it will), the tipping point will be reached. After that, every single person on the planet will implicitly be aligned with one or the other side: those happy to tolerate dictatorship and war on one side, those who are willing to defend peace and democracy on the other. Whoever will not actively put their view on record, or try to support their cause in more concrete ways, will automatically be in the former group, unfortunately. That’s how bad the current situation is.

After the next escalation, Trump’s room for manoeuvring will narrow down at an accelerating pace. Stakes will rise, and to remain in play, he will stretch the law more and more. This is the first thing we have learned beyond reasonable doubt in the last 72 hours: Trump isn’t playing safe (predictably), he is already stretching the law. As a consequence, soon enough appeasing his core voters will become a matter of life and death: his vociferous supporters, and the threat of generalised unrest (in a nation where vast numbers of citizens are armed and itching to shoot), will quickly become the only reason why he won’t get impeached and arrested. There is nothing that Trump won’t do, once his own skin will be on the line. Thus, the first convenient enemy will be chosen and depicted as the source of all ills, a war will soon follow. I cannot predict who this enemy will be, that’s because China is manifestly the most convenient, but even Trump should hopefully be able to realise that an open conflict against China is pure madness. It’s likely that Trump will try to use ISIS for this role, but ISIS is not strong enough to be credibly responsible for the upcoming internal unrest, so I don’t think the move will work.

If the above scenario will unfold as above (or in a comparable manner), every nation on the planet will need to decide whether to support the USA or not. If the prospect doesn’t scare you, you’re either cruel or a fool.

I will use the UK to exemplify why this division will happen, why it will be automatic and unavoidable, and why taking a stand right now is necessary. Unfortunately, it applies to all nations, and therefore to every human being on earth.

Brexit, May and Trump.

Arguably, the UK has already picked its side. That’s the other thing we’ve learned in the last three days. May was happy to be photographed hand in hand with the most dangerous person on earth. She is also happy to provide high tech weaponry to Erdoğan, despite the fact that Turkey is currently not even trying to present itself as democratic. Why? Because the UK is already trapped in a corner: a direct consequence of Brexit. May knows that she will desperately need every bargaining chip she can grab. She needs to make sure that the British 1% (her core constituency) remains able to keep piling up more and more money. This would be easy enough, if it weren’t for the inconvenient fact that she also needs to retain the support of the useful idiots who happen not to be rich, but do support Brexit.

You don’t need to be a genius to realise that the game she’s playing is already difficult: faced with Trump’s antics, it is clear that the only option she has is to walk the tightrope. May needs to keep Trump happy, while finding a way not to enrage every sane UK elector. Not easy, but she has to try. Unfortunately, once Trump will start deliberately murdering his own people (I reiterate: when this happens depends only on when someone will be fool enough to start a riot in the USA), the only way that May will have to retain Trump’s support without losing her job will be to actively spread more and more lies – she will have to actively deceive a significant proportion of the UK population, failing to do so will inevitably lead to a change of government. Unfortunately, she already is beyond recovery: the course for her is set, and with her, probably the course of the whole UK. The only option that remains is to unseat her. What should worry us all is that the time to do so before she will start using all the power of the state to save her own position is limited, and therefore, every single UK citizen needs to activate RIGHT NOW.

Looking beyond our own borders, sooner or later every other government on earth will face a similar situation. Trump doesn’t understand subtlety, you are either with or against him. Any government that will not oppose Trump’s methods to retain power (and again: he will soon start shooting his own people in city squares, I’m afraid), will be henceforth trapped: governments will start lying to try justifying their choices, and as lies will pile up, their possibilities to change course will vanish.

What can we do? (UK)

In the UK, it’s quite simple, but the time available for action is horribly short. Given the current situation, all parties (including the vast majority of the Tories) can harvest the support of all the voters who happen to be decent human beings. The mindlessness of Trump has abruptly lowered the bar to an unprecedented low threshold. All that is needed is to be able to communicate how bad Trump’s administration really is, and refuse to support him. Labour and the LibDems could do this in a blink of an eye, if they could find the courage to cooperate. Unfortunately, it seems that the current leadership of Labour is happily wearing the most tight ideological blinkers that I’ve ever seen. Based on what they are doing (forget what they say!), it seems that they are convinced that:

  1. The EU is irredeemably Neo-Liberal, and therefore an eternal enemy of Socialism. Thus, leaving the EU is moving one step towards the realisation of their Socialist ideals.
  2. They must have some hope that May will make some massive mistake and turn the polls around, all by herself… How this may happen, I have no idea.
  3. They also think that it’s impossible to change the minds of enough electors, explaining to the population that the current hardships are not caused by immigration, but instead, by the Neo-Liberal delusions of much of our ruling class (that is: the belief that markets can solve all problems. Yes, of course, this delusion is gripping also vast numbers of EU bureaucrats).

In other words, Corbyn and McDonnell think they can use Brexit as tool to bring about some socialist reform. Concurrently, they seem unable to realise how bad the situation is about to become. They are sleepwalking into their own obliteration. Once article 50 is invoked, the UK will be without respectable friends and the room for manoeuvre of whoever voted for Brexit will be reduced as a consequence. Stakes will rise, May will rank-up propaganda, helped by the right-wing media. May will also have a pre-packaged scapegoat: the evil EU bureaucrats will get all the blame. In this situation, how would Labour find the strength to command a change of course? It won’t, that’s how.

It doesn’t have to be like this: any Labour MP and/or Labour official who would like to retain their seat and, concurrently, avoid supporting fascist regimes (that is, one would hope: all Labour MPs), could immediately ask for change, if and when they will realise what the Trump and Brexit combination means for the UK. They should stand up for democracy and against state-sponsored violence. How difficult can it be? The current situation, horrible as it is, is also a huge opportunity: May’s position is about to become indefensible – but she can be effectively challenged only while the current course is still reversible. It will soon be possible to successfully challenge her, as long as you haven’t tied your hands already. Unfortunately, Labour’s current position is to support Brexit, and with it, its own pile of lies. Thus, Labour is currently busy tying its own hands, instead of preparing for a huge comeback, what a pack of fools!

Failing to challenge May, right now, by refusing to join forces with whoever is willing to uphold democracy, is effectively helping May to put us into an irreversible course. Brexit is the turning point, because it will make the UK irrelevant: during and after Brexit, the only way to retain some international weight is to snuggle up to the US. Befriending the EU will be impossible, so other options will be closed.

Call for action: please write to, or call your MP. Right now, it doesn’t matter what their party is. Ask them to stand up for democracy. Any price is acceptable as long as we can avoid supporting Trump. If you are a Labour member, a member of a union or a supporter of Momentum, please use your internal contacts to ask for the same. We cannot be seen to passively support Trump’s authoritarian turn. Refusing to do so will maximise Labour’s chances to return in government. [After publishing this, I will follow my own advice and do exactly how I preach.]

What can we do? (Rest of the world)

What can be done? I don’t know, it depends on where you are. If you are lucky enough to be based in the EU, you can help by showing just how horrible Trump is, and demand to your government to distance itself from the murderous policies he is busy implementing. It shouldn’t be difficult. The same probably applies to all the other American nations as well as Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. In the US, it is imperative to do two things: (1) everything that slows Trump down would help, but above all, (2) it is crucial not to provide him with excuses to escalate internal violence. Please see the guidelines compiled by people who know (much) better than me. I don’t know about all the other nations, my ignorance blinds me, I’m afraid.



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Posted in Politics

Fascism on the rise, let’s worry

In the last post, I’ve discussed the allure of fascism, and why it is something we should all keep in mind. Worryingly, we tend to dismiss fascism as manifestly abominable, and therefore we run the risk of not recognising it when it is still in its infancy. What I did not discuss is whether the situation in the UK, Europe and USA is indeed able to favour the rise of new fascistic regimes. In what follows, I will briefly argue that the answer is “maybe”, and that therefore we should indeed worry, and make our views known.

© 1994 Daniele Silvestri. A short explanation is in the note* below.

For a brief, oversimplified account of what allowed fascism to rise in the last century, you may consult my previous post, or, if you feel adventurous, you could follow the suggestion I received from Dougald Hine and read this series of posts from John Michael Greer (I promise it’s well worth your time). The take-home message is clear: for fascism to take hold, it is necessary to simultaneously glorify and trivialise of “the will of the people”. That is, a couple of (false) things must become commonly acceptable in public discourse:

  1. Pretending that “the people” can have one, single and identifiable “will” must become normal. Of course, there is no such thing as a unique will of the people: different people will have different aspirations, and will also change their mind from time to time.
  2. The government must be understood to be the sole legitimate interpreter of such will. Naturally, democratic systems have many institutions, all explicitly designed to counterbalance each other precisely because no single monolithic institution will ever be able to do such a thing.

With these two wrong premises in place, it naturally follows that opposing the decisions of the government is equivalent to betraying the will of the people. Therefore, it becomes acceptable to punish dissent, as dissent itself becomes depicted as an immoral act.

The first reason to worry is that we have been flirting with the first (false) premise for far too long. It seems to me that the over-simplifying rhetoric of much of the national and international media has gone unchallenged for decades, preparing the cultural background for a rise of totalitarianism (in case you wonder: yes, I am saying that all populist propaganda is inherently proto-fascistic). The echo chambers generated or facilitated by social media also contribute: people can get exposed to multiple voices of fellow citizens, and find that they all broadly agree. This happens all the time, because hidden algorithms are doing their best to find voices that we are willing to engage with, and therefore they actively hide the ones we are likely to vigorously disagree with.

The second reason to worry is that belligerence is self-sustaining: if Nation X starts to treat Nation Y in manifestly inimical ways, Nation Y would be justified in doing the same. Thus, when fascistic discourse starts rising, since it is inherently tied to a national identity, it is likely that it will define itself also by depicting some other national entity as both entirely distinct (always a false over-simplification), and inimical to “our people” (a self-fulfilling prophecy). Doing this facilitates whoever is trying to build their own political fortune on the same premises, but in the supposedly “inimical” state (Is this part of Putin’s plan? I wonder). This isn’t good, because it ignites a self-sustaining feedback (see my last example here, for a glaringly obvious case) – it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of war and misery.

Finally, judging on the feedback I’ve collected on the previous post, it seems that indeed people are not ready to recognise simplistic appeals to the unique (and identifiable) “will of the people” as proto-fascistic. Thus, premise 1 is being allowed to flourish, carrying us half way through.

If my analysis isn’t badly mistaken, premise 1 has almost taken hold in the UK and is on the rise elsewhere (I will not concentrate on the situation in the USA because I cannot claim to understand it well enough). The trend is very clear, Britain is currently becoming more fascistic/authoritarian, France might follow shortly, and the US is probably in an even more compromised state. This should be enough to warrant my main claim: yes we do need to worry, and more importantly, we need to stop the current trend before it becomes self-sustaining.

On the other hand, for the second premise to become possible, the first one needs to be firmly established and widely accepted. Thus, two differences between the first rise of fascism, as opposed to the present day, may turn out to produce enough resistance to the current trend. The first is that we now know why fascism is bad. Unfortunately, as discussed previously, this difference can backfire, so we can’t and shouldn’t trust that it is all that’s needed. Fascism may rise again, especially if it will manage to grow while remaining undetected.

The second difference is that financial capital is now internationalised by default. In the early 20th century, Italy, Spain and Germany had most of their capital held and invested within their national borders, but this is certainly not the case now. Therefore, whoever has lots of money right now might not be too eager to support the rise of new nationalism and the consequent rise of punitive custom duties, limiting trade and mobility of capital. However, someone will do their own maths and conclude that it’s not a bad idea (for themselves, see Trump, if you doubt it): as long as it is clear to them that they will be able to ride the tide and profit from changes ahead, some big capitalists will undoubtedly favour the current trend. As a consequence, I don’t think it is possible to know whether the 0.001% richest people on the planet will ultimately favour or resist the rising nationalist and authoritarian drives. Moreover, if we assume their motivation is straightforward selfishness, it is clear that they will not openly resist the trend if and when premise 1 will become firmly established: it would mean jeopardising their status, so you can bet that most won’t.

Overall, it is true that there are many differences (I’ve blatantly ignored many more!) between the world as it is now and how it was in 1920-30. However, these differences are emphatically not enough to consider the rise of new totalitarian and fascistic regimes as impossible. In fact, the trend indicates the opposite. Thus, anyone living in (precarious and always imperfect) democracies, currently has a choice: do nothing and hope for the best, or actively resist the current trend. We (Westerners, in Europe and the US) are lucky enough to be able to do so legally, therefore we really don’t have any good reason not to. We can and should make sure that premise 1 never becomes viable, and by doing so, stop the current trend before it becomes too dangerous. How? There are three things that each one of us can do, and luckily, the first two are easy. Yes, it may be an overreaction, after all we don’t know if the current trend is already destined to stop before it’s too late. But so what? Would you rather risk to live knowing you didn’t try to act when it was possible to stop fascism without resorting to violence?

Countermeasure one.

Make sure your dissenting voice is heard. To dispel the illusion that “the people” have one single voice, all that’s needed is that many different voices must be heard. It really is that simple: when a media outlet espouses a totalitarian and/or fascistic view, leave a comment, or tweet back, expressing your dissent – if anyone will notice, your (small) effort will not be wasted.
When someone does espouse questionable views in person, make the effort of expressing you respectful disagreement (see also below).
Contact your democratic representatives, manifesting your concern, and asking them to uphold the basic principle of Democracy: as Merkel reminded us (“[Parliamentary democracy] tolerates – no, it requires – dissent and criticism“). Dissent isn’t an annoyance, it is an essential resource of democracy.
You may also choose to join public rallies, but please do also consider the note* below (in some cases, it may be counter productive).

Overall, we can invert the current trend because we are the trend.

Countermeasure two.

Use your democratic rights. Vote, and vote wisely. These are dangerous times, our democratic rights are being challenged, if not progressively eroded. Therefore, one and only one voting criteria must currently override all others (if/when it does apply): do not vote for anyone fool or dastardly enough to promote proto-fascistic ideologies. In fact, if at the next elections only one party will actively stand for Democracy, you should vote for it, even if you disagree with many more of their policies. If you won’t, the next time the ballot may have only one party to vote for.
As per the previous point, let the candidates know your intentions well ahead of the next elections.

Countermeasure three.

Take your time, but do try to win hearts and convince minds. As we’ve seen before, this is slow, painful and hard. But it must be done. Democracy is degenerating because people are being duped, systematically and effectively – as a result, populist propaganda can and does attract significant amounts of consent: instead of forcing people to recognise their mistakes (accepting a pile of lies as the unquestionable truth), it offers simple (and wrong) reasons to remain hopeful.
If you are willing to go thus far, please remember: the usefulness of dissent cuts both ways. We all feel that our views are obviously right, even when we are wrong. Thus, our aim shouldn’t be to change the minds of those who are getting it wrong: we should be visibly (and publicly) willing to explore our disagreements, in order to all learn from the exchange. I’ve written about this before, please see the full argument for the details.


The current trend is clear, and should leave us all scared shitless. No one can tell if it will lead to a new kind of fascism – one or more new regimes where disagreeing will become illegal, but it is clear that it may happen in many European countries (Hungary, UK, France, Netherlands, Poland, Austria, the list is frighteningly long) and of course, the USA. Many other dangerous things are also happening, I don’t need to mention them, but I’m afraid that the rise of fascist-like ideologies is by far the most compelling danger. Why? Because once established, fascism will start getting constrained by its own web of lies. Thus, it is guaranteed that it will be unable to react appropriately to all the other problems of our time.



Daniele Silvestri is a well known (and really good!) Italian singer, author and all-round musician. The old song I’m linking to is partly responsible for making me write the last two posts. It helped me understand the value of dissent. Or, more precisely, it made me realise how much I already did value disagreements, better than any philosophical disquisition ever could. Grazie Daniele!

In case you are curious, I’ll (liberally) translate a portion of the chorus: “[…] I feel the urge to shout as well. But it’s your chanting that scares me, because slogans are inherently fascistic“.

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Posted in Politics

Fascism for dummies

Brexit, the unchallenged pile of lies which enabled it, and now Trump. If you are not scared, you haven’t been paying attention. There are many visible reasons to be scared, but more worryingly, there are hidden reasons as well. I think that the hidden reasons need to be exposed, and will try to do so below. [Spoiler: I will need to start from the good side of fascism, because yes, it does have one.]

Anti-fascism of the wrong kind.

Image source (public domain)

Image source (public domain)

As a result of Brexit, it is well known and widely acknowledged that the British right wing media feels bold enough to openly promote fascistic ideas. Concurrently, the UK government is busy promoting policies that don’t smell much different, while making it very clear that they don’t find the media coverage alarming.

In this context, many are blowing the whistle, in fact, it is reassuring to see how many do. However, I fear that all the whistle-blowing is falling on deaf ears. My worry is that both the UK and the US have demonised fascism so thoroughly that they have effectively become unable to detect and repel it efficiently. The so-called elites can recognise it without difficulty, but their recognition seems to produce little or no effect. Why? Because fascism has been labelled as pure (supernaturally) evil for much too long. In fact, those who haven’t actively tried to understand what fascism is may easily recognise what is good in the current rhetoric and be consequently blinded to its fascistic stench. In particular, it seems that many are simply unable to believe that what they perceive as benevolent (maybe of the “tough love” sort) is in fact the devil personified. It can’t be. And guess what? It isn’t. Fascism solves problems (temporarily), in fact, it appears to solve lots of problems, that’s the sad and dangerous truth. It also generates its own problems, just like everything else. The reason why fascism is bad is “merely” that the problems it generates are incommensurably bigger and nastier than the ones it (temporarily) solves.

To see why, I’ll paint a brutally over-simplified historic picture (with apologies).

An historic fable.

It’s the beginning of 20th century (before and after WWI), Britain rules most of the planet, has vastly superior technology and an efficient internal organisation. This translates to superior military force and Britain is not particularly shy when it comes to using it. Immediate competitors have the real and present need of catching up. It’s important to note that at the time, imperialism was normal, actually, it was more than normal, it was what the European ruling classes unanimously recognised as desirable. If France, Germany, Spain and Italy wish to “do well” they need to establish or retain their own colonies, and to do so, they need to be powerful enough to fend off the British when needed. France has republican/democratic inheritance, so the allure of fascism finds less traction, but the others don’t.

A problem that Germany, Spain and Italy all face is industrialisation: the economy needs to be transformed, and transformed fast (for Spain and Italy, the problem is that the economy is solidly pre-industrial, for Germany, it is strangled by sanctions). For all three, the prospect of letting the economy grow towards full industrialisation (driven by vanilla capitalism), in the presence of strong protectionist measures, simply doesn’t work. Markets are primarily internal, market players can keep competing with one another, but their ability to invest is limited by the relative small size of the market, making it hard to find fast paths towards full-blown industrialisation. What can be done? Simple, an alliance between (some) big capitalists and the government can accelerate the economic wheels. The state can invest at levels that private citizens can’t; concerted action can alleviate internal competition, and thus free even more capital for private investment. For all this to happen, the state needs to be able to offer guarantees, the government will call the shots, ask for capital to be invested on concerted efforts, but investors will have adequate guarantees.

The system that emerged was able to provide such guarantees, and did so by ensuring the stability of the political scene. Fascism called for a nation-wide coming together: workers will enjoy better services and their basic needs will be met, with the help of the state whenever necessary. In exchange, political rights will be limited, allowing the government to act as and when required. The system needs to be stable and trustworthy for long years (an industrial revolution doesn’t happen overnight) so social conflict has to be sedated. At the same time, capitalists need to trust the government, and know that their investments will pay off, so once again, stability is required: big changes of policy based on a change of government are simply not an option. Otherwise, capitalists would simply hold on their capital and defend their turf as before. It is worth noting that in this context the judiciary needs to serve the government, it cannot be truly independent: once again, for the system to work, investors need to know in advance that the state will deliver what it promises, which may not happen if people can sue the government and, for example, block for years the proceeding of a new road or railway.

Enter propaganda: for all of the above to work, minds and hearts needed to be won. Thus, what was offered had to be pretty convincing. At its root, the offer of fascism was to use the power of the state to eliminate internal conflict. Working people would have better employment and better services in exchange of stopping their class war against capitalists. Capitalists will get more controllable workers, and central direction for investment, earning better return guarantees and a reduced need to compete with one another. The fascist state acts as a central hub, protecting the welfare of the people and allowing capitalists to make predictable money. The result was sold as the idea of a newly found national consciousness, where the whole nation coordinates the efforts towards the common good. Crucially, for this system to work, internal conflict needs to become irrelevant. For this aim, the rhetoric becomes “if you are not with us, you’re against us”.  Overall, the picture is convincing and it does also seem to work in practice: people bought into the idea because it made sense, a lot of sense. Instead of wasting time and effort in petty fights between small interests, whole nations managed transform big chunks of their economic fabric. At the same time, a sense of shared purpose was established and nurtured: people found purpose in the effort, and relief in living in a far less conflictual society. Collaboration was offered in lieu of conflict: since the economy is (very much!) not a zero-sum game, (almost) everyone got to live better in material terms, but (almost) everyone also got the crucial added benefit of sharing a common purpose, a sense of truly (visibly, demonstrably) working for the common good. What is not to like?

[Note: we now know very well why fascism shouldn’t be trusted, but at the time little or no historic precedents existed, so it was much easier to buy into it. Only the few blessed with the gift of clear-headed foresight managed to recognise the error, and frequently paid a terrible price for it.]

Herein lies my problem. The allure of fascism is strong, because it does work (for a while).

Let’s recap, and indulge once more in an exercise of over-simplification. What defines the fascist ideology?

  1. National identity is established by glorifying the will of the people, channelled via the state. Generalised consensus is a hard requirement, even if it may be merely perceived and not factual.
  2. Dissent is immoral, because it hinders progress towards the common good. Internal conflicts, all of them, are deemed wrong, repulsive.
  3. Since the focus is on efficient, concerted efforts, the government cannot be impeded in its decision-making. Thus, counterbalancing powers are depicted as conflictual and at best, morally irresponsible.

Aside: proper, historic fascism achieves the above while retaining notional markets, private property and private investments. Fascism of the (nominally) communist variant differs a little: private property, private investment and markets are removed, while the core elements of fascism (1-3) are retained.

Before summarily looking at what makes fascism a bankrupt ideology, I wish to fast forward to today and have a look at present-day Britain (I suspect many similarities can be drawn with the US as well, for obvious reasons).

What are Brexiteers shouting from every podium they can exploit? That the people have spoken, that “Brexit means Brexit” and that whoever quibbles is betraying the democratic mandate (the will of the people). That’s point 1 for you. 52% of who voted (37.47% of the whole electorate voted to leave) urgently need to be perceived as expressing the unique, unquestionable will of the people, and the government is its only legitimate interpreter.

Remainers are branded Remoaners, asked to stop complaining and start collaborating for the common good. Dissent is immoral and should be silenced. Whoever points out problems and inconsistencies is playing Britain down, constraining our ability to proceed towards the common aim. Point 2? Check!

What is really worrying, is that even the necessary democratic counterbalances are actively being demonised. For the Daily Mail (and the whole right-wing block of newspapers), the high court judges who dared to interpret “the rule of law” (their job) and conclude that parliament has the right and duty to hold the government to account are “enemies of the people”. That is point 3, without compromise. Shouted out without fear, guilt or shame.

Why is this even possible? Because the allure of fascism is powerful. People recognise that internal conflicts are costly: a less conflictual society, where we could all share a common sense of purpose is naturally (and understandably) perceived as a good thing. Therefore, all the people shouting “but that’s fascism” must be wrong: if something is recognisably good, it simply cannot be the apex of all evil. Well, the inference is correct: fascism has good sides, it is not exclusively bad, and that is why it is dangerous. What is wrong, and the reason why I’m writing this, is the depiction of fascism as entirely evil. It is indeed very bad, but that doesn’t mean 100% bad.

The conclusion is inescapable: Britain and, worryingly, the US as well, is experiencing a resurgence of fascist or at best proto-fascist ideas. It is happening, the evidence is on the first-page titles, it is not a matter of opinion.

Wait, fascism really is a bad idea.

We come to the easy part: considering all the upsides of fascism, and considering how much better our lives would be without so much conflict and competition, why is this resurgence a bad thing? Because a fascist state is always, inevitably oppressive (from the start) and destined to become dysfunctional. The combination is the most toxic that has been ever experienced, it never leads to good outcomes, ever.

Why Oppression? It should be obvious. If a whole nation is supposed to collaborate towards common goals, whoever disagrees with the aims needs to be marginalised. Their voice needs to be irrelevant, otherwise collaboration degenerates into inefficient debate and a battle of conflictual visions emerges instead. How dissent is made irrelevant may vary, but the oppressive drive is necessarily always present.

Dysfunctionality, is it inevitable? Let’s say that in the 21st century the powers of technological progress make it “magically” possible to have a form of benign fascism, in which dissent is made irrelevant without the need of hurting anyone (a best-case scenario, which is impossible, but illustrates my point). What happens when the all-powerful government decides to implement the wrong policies? It happens that whoever can spot the error and wishes to correct it may be labelled as a dissenter, as such, whoever understands a problem that has been overlooked will be immediately marginalised. Result: the error will not be corrected. Everyone makes mistakes and governments are made of fallible people. Therefore, a fascist society is able to keep orderly moving towards the wrong destination until the bitter end, it actually does so with ruthless efficiency. History provides countless examples of the degeneration of fascist regimes: if all goes well they crumble under their own dysfunctionality, if things go wrong, they drive whole nations into the abyss.

[Note: real-world fascism has always been extremely nasty to dissenters. This is enabled whenever opposition is successfully labelled as immoral (a pre-requisite): the morality claim calls for punishment. Therefore, all fascist systems carry at the very least the danger of becoming violently repressive. As far as we can tell, they either are oppressive from the very start or do become nasty quickly enough.]


Present-day fascism promises to solve the problems created by liberal democracies, mainly by providing a more efficient (and gratifying) way to coordinate efforts. Unfortunately, it comes with the upfront cost of being oppressive (despite my example, I don’t think benign oppression will ever be possible). This should be enough to repel it. Who wants to live oppressed?
If that’s not enough, the secondary effect of silencing dissent is an inherent inability to detect and correct mistakes. As a result, fascism promises to solve some problems, but is only able to deliver this promise at its onset: sooner or later, inefficiency necessarily prevails. In other words, fascism merely appears to solve the problems in question, but in fact it postpones them without resolving them, allowing them to grow out of control. In short: fascism is a problem that you really don’t want to have.

Am I saying that Britain and the USA are inevitably sliding into fascism? No. I’m saying that the danger is real, and it is real because many people who sincerely believe that fascism is bad may be unable or unwilling to recognise the current trend. They are, because they have been told lies, (mostly well intentioned) lies about fascism, in this case. Therefore, I’m trying to follow my own advice and expose these lies as much as I can.
In the next post, I plan to discuss how much we should worry and what we should do about it.

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Posted in Politics

How to dismantle the web of lies

In the previous post, I’ve concluded, with Ben Walters, that we need to “make art that wins hearts and arguments that win minds“. The aim is to contrast the rise of populism, or, following the current slang, fight against post-fact politics. This is a hard thing to do, and unfortunately, a reactive endeavour as well. However, I do think that the challenge posed to democracy by the establishment of any web of lies is the kind or problem we have to manage: it comes with democracy itself and I don’t see how to eliminate it without undermining democracy itself.

Since there can be no general formula telling us how to make art that wins hearts, and since I know little about art in general, I will concentrate on what we know about what kind of arguments actually do win minds.

One could (probably should) start with the study of classical rhetoric. However, my inclinations are biased towards philosophy (typically modern) and standard science. Thus, I’ll draw from a range of ideas I’ve encountered in the last few years, and see if a coherent picture emerges.

To start from a very general point of view, this EGG article (with discussion) by the usual Artem Kaznatcheev offers a good launchpad. Seeing arguments through the metaphor of war very emphatically leads to disaster. That’s because it shifts the objective: instead of trying to improve knowledge (or to get closer to the truth, if you can bear the hyperbole), in a war-like argument the aim is to show that your counterpart is wrong – there are winners and losers, knowledge might improve only as an accidental by-product. More promising approaches try to focus on constructive strategies, however, as I write in the comments, the metaphor of midwifery doesn’t satisfy me in full: it still encourages me to consider my own position as privileged, creating a dangerous asymmetry. From where I stand, a better approach should incorporate the notion that both myself and my debating partner might be wrong (indeed, the assumption is that we are always somewhat wrong!) and that therefore the aim is for both to learn something from any given disagreement. Easy, uh? Not at all, but for now, I’m inclined to conclude that good old Socrates is useful, but not enough. Better strategies are needed. Where can we find them?

One place is this excellent article by Tom Stafford. Stafford draws from a wide range of primary sources, what we learn, among many other useful things, is that one effective strategy is to ask for mechanistic explanations: if someone has a belief that you consider false, a good way to find out who is right is to ask for detailed, mechanistic justification of said belief. If the belief is unfounded, such a justification will be hard to construct, and as a consequence, it is likely that your counterpart will start doubting their own position (Fernbach et al. 2013). Otherwise, you will get the chance to revise your own beliefs (one would hope). Result: someone should learn something either way…
Moreover, a recent study (Tuller et al 2015) hints at an even more profound mechanism: apparently, being asked to make your opponent’s point has a measurable effect in shifting your own position towards reconciliation, but only if you feel accountable to the opponent herself. This chimes powerfully with my beliefs (bias alert!): in order to have any hope to improve each-other’s beliefs, it is necessary to start by a position of mutual trust. Tom Stafford himself makes a very similar argument, offering a convincing explanation of why expert opinion had little if not counteracting effect on the case of the Brexit referendum.

The common thread is symmetry, and when symmetry is unachievable, mutual trust. In other words, to debate constructively, one needs to shift away from the default “I’m right, you are wrong” position, and at the very least try to figure out who is less wrong. Ideas in both debaters may shift, hopefully improving along the way. Fine, but isn’t this in direct contrast with my current aim? If I’m claiming that a web of lies has been established and that we need to disassemble it, how can I then claim that we should approach the task by assuming that we may be wrong, and there is no web of lies? Well, I don’t know, but I also don’t see any other way (I may be wrong, after all!), so let’s see if I can find some more helpful ideas.

In philosophy, it is frequently assumed that progress is made via an ever evolving argument: people propose a thesis, someone objects, thesis is refined to account for objections and so forth. In this context, Daniel Dennett in “Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking” (2013, page 33 in my hard cover) has been advocating the four rules of criticism (an approach first spelled out by Anatol Rapoport). The key point is that criticism needs to start by trying to re-express the idea you are criticising in the best possible light. As Dennett himself specifies, the power of this method is that “your targets will be[come] a receptive audience of your criticism”, but to me, the even more important point is that proceeding in this way will give me a chance to fully appreciate what makes the idea I’m opposing convincing to some. You have to start by accepting the possibility that there might be something valuable in the idea you find disagreeable, making it possible that instead of producing a counterargument you might end up shifting your position. In other words, this strategy is an honest way of earning the trust of your debating counterpart: what could have been your opposition becomes a partner.
This leads me to an interesting detour: in Bayesian approaches to psychology, what counts are priors. How people evaluate new evidence is a function of what they already believe. Let’s go back to Brexit: a well-known interpretation is that people have rejected experts’ opinion and voted against the status quo. Could this strategy be wrong, but nevertheless rational? Sure it could. Imagine you’ve led a life where your birthplace and the social status of your original family meant that (honestly earned) success was almost impossible to achieve. The reality you have experienced is that the elites (including teachers, university professors and politicians) constantly assume they know better. The same people are also evidently busy protecting the status quo and their social standing. Under these circumstances, would it be irrational to assume that all advice to vote remain (offered by the same people who demonstrably have enjoyed the upside of an uneven playing field) cannot be trusted? Perhaps not! From a Bayesian perspective, the Brexit result immediately becomes less surprising and shows that playing the anti-establishment card was decisive. The Brexit camp has successfully managed to be perceived as anti-establishment and by doing so it has mischievously earned the trust of too many people. Naturally, I don’t believe this trust was justified: thinking that people like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage and Ian Duncan Smith are anti-establishment is like believing that the Pope is Buddhist. Nevertheless, this view allows to see why the web of lies constrained those who defended the status-quo while simultaneously enabling those who didn’t. It also allows to see why certain life experiences would automatically make people more subjective to this particular set of misbeliefs, without having to conclude that most of those who voted to leave are stupid or despicable bigots. I still think they are mistaken, but are so for very understandable reasons. I can also recognise how I could have been mislead in the same way (quite some time ago). Moreover, this reading is in full accord with Stafford’s evidence-based (speculative) explanation, and concurrently allows to approach a debate following Rapaport/Dennett’s recommendations.

Before painting the final picture, I wish to mention another short essay, by Deepak Malhotra: “How to Build an Exit Ramp for Trump Supporters” (paywall alert. HT SelfAwarePatterns). Malhotra’s academic profile specifies that he “is a professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. His teaching, research and advisory work is focused on negotiation, deal-making and conflict resolution”. Sounds promising! Reassuringly, Malhotra starts from noticing that:

[H]aving facts and data on your side is not enough. If someone’s ego or identity is on the line, overwhelming them with evidence will do little good.

I couldn’t agree more. I do have some reserves in the “building an exit ramp” metaphor (not symmetric enough for my taste), but nevertheless his 7 rules feel exactly right to me. In his case, the bottom line is that you ought to avoid direct confrontation at all costs (the whole approach looks entirely compatible with the midwifery view).

Overall, it seems to me that the art of (honest) persuasion is hard but not impossible. A few general principles emerge:

  1. Don’t assume the debate is one-sided. Being ready to learn will help at each step.
  2. Avoid confrontation and earn the trust of your debating partner instead.
  3. Try hard to understand the position you oppose. Don’t hide your effort.

To dispel misbeliefs via mere argument it is necessary to be trusted. Furthermore, instead of offering evidence in favour of our own beliefs, it seems that it is more useful to (honestly) ask your opponent to explain in detail what grounds their beliefs. This should be especially efficacious in case you can’t find these grounds yourself: gives you a chance to learn something while concurrently building mutual trust. Finally, swapping parts and ask each other to explain what the other believes is likely to foster better mutual understanding.
Because trust is a prerequisite, it’s important to approach this kind of exchange with an open mind: if your opponent will be led to believe that nothing she say may ever change your mind, trust will be withdrawn, jeopardising the whole enterprise. Overall, the art of persuasion looks very much as the art of mutual understanding: if it seems that I’m asking you to become a Zen master, it’s because I am. The best way to win minds is to stop trying, and try to learn from disagreements instead.

Bibliography and disclaimer.

Please note: this post draws on a couple peer-reviewed papers which explore psychological mechanisms and effects. For the full disclaimer, see previous post.

Fernbach, P., Rogers, T., Fox, C., & Sloman, S. (2013). Political Extremism Is Supported by an Illusion of Understanding Psychological Science, 24 (6), 939-946 DOI: 10.1177/0956797612464058

Tuller, HM., Bryan, CJ., Heyman, GD., & Christenfeld, NJS Volume 59, July 2015, Pages 18–23 (2015). Seeing the other side: Perspective taking and the moderation of extremity Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 59, 18-23 : 10.1016/j.jesp.2015.02.003

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