By Auguste Rodin - Photography at the Soumaya Museum, taken by ProtoplasmaKid, Public Domain,
philosophy, Political Theory

On the “Backfire Effect”

tl;dr – how do you convince people of your worldview when “facts” based on yours only tend to reinforce their own? Are you open-minded enough to accept challenges to your own worldview?

I’ve been thinking more and more recently about something psychologists call the “Backfire Effect.” Both with respect to recent elections, and with respect to – mostly – online discussions. The Backfire Effect is the empirically noted tendency of a lot of people to hold on to their previously stated positions even firmer once these positions have been “factually” disproven by someone else.

Now, it’s important to say that people doing this – most people, apparently, potentially, if only at times, I would hope, including myself – probably aren’t opposing the principle that reason, or facts, should prevail.

They are, however, likely asserting that reason, or fact, is not always an absolute term, but relational one. One that fundamentally depends on axioms – the foundational assumptions about the nature of the world, about logic, and anthropology, that are assumed to be true and thus need no further explanation.

Unfortunately, outside of the realm of the likes of gravity, particularly with respect to all questions regarding human organisation, or “human nature”, there’s not many axioms that are universally shared. Which means that there aren’t as many facts as there are people trying to convince others that their thought process is wrong.

And that’s what makes the idea of “factually disproving” someone so problematic, and ultimately, backfiring. It’s not simply factual errors that cause people to close up and rally behind their axioms, thus conveniently allowing them to disregard the information presented as a “fact” – based on a different axiomatic structure – as untrue.

It’s not facts that threaten deliberation, it’s disagreements about how we can derive facts. And given the increasing heterogeneity of social structures, axiomatic structures are more and more political – which, to a degree implies the forceful establishment of official axioms, thereby giving them a clear-cut advantage over others. Sadly, I doubt that it is commonly understood despite its fundamental importance for social organisation.

So, tl;dr, here’s my questions for you to ponder over the weekend: how do convince someone that their worldview is wrong. Do you think you are open-minded enough to accept challenges to yours?

image source: Photography at the Soumaya Museum, taken by ProtoplasmaKid, Public Domain,

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German Politics, privacy

Noch ein Schäuble-Klassiker

Via ein Clip, der wohl heute morgen im ARD-Frühstücksmagazin gelaufen ist. Dort gibt es eine Rubrik names “Kinderreporter”. Heute befragten die Kinderreporter Politiker zum Thema Überwachung. Am Ende des kurzen Beitrags mache ich mir vor allem Sorgen über die technische Kompetenz derjenigen, die für die gegenwärtig anstehehende Kodifizierung grundsätzlicher technischer Fragen des menschlichen Zusammenlebens verantwortlich sind. Und natürlich stelle ich mir die Frage, ob man von der Antwort des Innenministers Wolfgang Schäuble auf die Fragen der mit einer Minikamera spielenden Kinder (“Wir wollten Ihnen mal zeigen, wie es ist, wenn man überwacht wird oder ausspioniert.”) auf sein Menschenbild bzw. Demokratieverständnis schließen kann.

“Wir tun aber die Leute nicht ueberwachen und ausspionieren. Nur wenn es ganz schlimme Boesewichter sind, wo die Polizei hingucken muss, aber so brave Kinder wie ihr ueberwachen wir nicht.”

Hier ist das Video –

internet, privacy

The un-googleables of bygone days.

After reinstalling Windows, I just reattached a hard drive with a few hundred scanned childhood picturs and watched Picasa index them. At some point I started googling the names of some of the people on the pictures I haven’t been in touch with for at least a decade, only to find that Google is usually totally oblivious of their existence, which, to my own surpise, surprised me.

So I’m wondering – has it already become unusual to not have a googleable online identity?


We didn’t start the rhyming.

Maybe someone should tell the Guardian’s higher education columnist David Cohen that claiming to not know Billy Joel doesn’t make anyone look younger – just a little ignorant. Ignorant though he may be about pop-classics, Mr Cohen writes about a very entertaining website called ‘philosophy songs’ featuring a number of philosophically inspired re-lyricised cover versions of well known songs. The site was apparently created by Alan White, a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin Colleges.
Here’s the lyrics of his re-working of Billy Joel’s 1989 hit “We didn’t start the fire” – mp3s of his loose singing to what are apparently general-midi files of the song are available.

Billy Joel’s song listing major events of the second part of the 20th century seems to be helpful for school teachers when explaining recent history. I wonder if Mr White’s quick run through the history of philosophy could also be found useful in elementary philosophy courses…

We Didn’t Start Inquiry
(Sung–loosely–to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”)

“All is water”, “All is air”,

“There are numbers everywhere”,

apeiron and logos, Eleatic thought-block–

Sophistry, Socrates, Plato’s reminiscences,

Aristotle’s physics (apriori / ad hoc). . .

Hellenistic Hippo-crat–Ages Darken after that–

Abelard, Maimonides, Proslogion proof,

Avicenna, Guanilon, Occam strops his razor on,

Galileo drops the ball–inertia’s set loose–


We didn’t start inquiry,

But with ideas churning we can kindle learning–

We didn’t start inquiry,

But with questions going we can foster knowing!

Descartes doubting everything, Leibniz’s monads mirroring,

Locke, Spinoza, Newton, Machiavellian prince,

Reid maintains the will is free (Hobbesians compatibly)

qualia’s primarily the Berkeleyan sense. . .

Hume causes Kant to wake, Kierkegaard gets into faith,

Wollstonecraft, Kapital, the Origin’s proofed,

Nietzsche outwits superman, Mill’s utilitarian,

Peircean pragmaticism works up new truth–


Russell’s denotation scheme, Godel crushes Frege’s dream,

Popper, Whitehead, Dewey, James, Santayana, Royce–

Novel time of Einstein, tables turned by Wittgenstein,

undetermined quantum cats that die by choice. . .

Carnap, Tarski, Reichenbach, ordinary language acts,

Ayer, Strawson, on “Two Dogmas”–gems true grue–

Anscombe, Kripke, Frankena, Dummett, Putnam, Plantinga,

Barcan Marcus, Rorty, Lewis–even me and you!

Political Theory, USA

It’s Been A Hard Day’s

and I’m having trouble with my computer. So I won’t be exactly long winded for a change ;-).

There are many reasons for people to pursue a particular lifestyle or live in a particular culture. Some do it by choice [disregarding for practical reasons that any discussion about “choice” will sooner or later approach the “free will” dilemma], others less so – if for genetic or societal or whichever reasons. And in many instances there is no clear-cut criterion for a moral ranking of any of these lifestyles or cultures – they are incommensurable.

I have been confronted with this thought twice tonight. For the first time while I have been reading a recommendable essay by the University of Chicago’s Richard A. Shweder. It is called “Moral Maps, ‘First World’ Conceits and the New Evangelists” and deals with some problems relating to the seemingly eternal moral rivalry of “cultural relativism” and “moral universalism”.

Richard A. Shweder is an anthropologist, but as he states himself in the essay, that doesn’t actually say a lot about a person’s belief system (anymore). I very much enjoyed reading this essay although I do not agree with his final conclusion that the world’s cultures will not converge economically if cultural conversion to western values should indeed be a condition for this to happen. But read and decide for yourself.

And then – the second time – I found a practical example of the new evangelism/moral universalism Mr Shweder was alluding to – even within the geographical “west” – an article on MSNBC news about a new mission Southern Baptists (apparently a larger American evangelical denomination) have assigned themselves to –

“The Southern Baptist Convention announced a new initiative Tuesday to convince gays that they can become heterosexual if they accept Jesus Christ as their savior and reject their ‘sinful, destructive lifestyle.'”

I might disagree with Mr Shweder with respect to the question of cultures choosing less productive economic models over more productive ones in order to preserve socialised identities in the very long run (in my opinion, the real question here is, how exactly does de- and re-institutionalisation of cultural elements and their importance for individual identities work in reality – a question to which the Iraki “adventure” will probably add some observations) but I doubt the Southern Baptists will be particularly successful on their latest mission…

OK, now that was a bit longer than I thought it would be.

Economics, quicklink

Semi-daily discussion on Sen’s paradoxon

A neat little discussion occurring at Brad DeLong’s Semi Daily Journal, regarding the question whether Sen’s paradoxon – which basically says that it is possible to dream up utility functions which would allow liberalism and the pareto principle to be in conflict – is actually a paradoxon. And it is evolving into a real debate about the different meanings of liberalism/libertarianism. Be sure to check read the comments, at least flip through them if you don’t have two hours to spare…

Political Theory, US Politics

Famous Words.

Not that I think the current international crisis is even slightly reminiscent of the danger posed by the Cuba Missile Crisis in 1962, the words JFK used in his speech to the American people are worth remembering in these days.

“Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right-not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere, and, we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved. Thank you and good night.”

compulsory reading

Numbers You Don’t Need

While browsing through today’s WIRED newsletter, I found a link titled “Life on earth given 500 million years“.

Apparently, two American scientists have written a new book. Accordinly, their publishing house has decided to give them some PR backing by putting out strange press statements. I haven’t read the book but I am pretty sure the content is accurately summarised by the following statement by one of its authors, Mr Brownlee, an astrophysicist –

“The disappearance of our planet is still 7.5 billion years away, but people really should consider the fate of our world and have a realistic understanding of where we are going (emphasis added).”

As much as I subscribe to mr Brownlee’s statement in principle, I suspect he does not really grasp the importance people are rightly attributing to the earth’s eventual fate, in some 7.5 billion years, according to current estimates – nil. We know that the universe will eventually collapse or freeze and still have not stopped procreating. We also know that growth is theoretically impossible for the universe as a whole, as there is only a certain unchanging amount of energy (and thus matter, remember e=mc2). But we still have not stopped thinking about supporting the economy by buying a new car.

The more distant the future, the less important it is to us. For a simple reason – there is an increased likelihood we won’t actually see it. As John Maynard Keynes famously put it, “in the long run, we’re all dead”. Finance people, the world’s finest when it comes to quantifying things, have put this into an equation and the result was the “Net Present Value”.

We might care about what happens to our grand children, and possibly even their grandchildren. But there comes a point where the Net Present Value, or the perceived importance, of future events becomes zero – as long as Keynes’ assumption about our personal fate in the long run is universally agreed upon.

Should that change, I would be the first to reconsider my judgment on books like the one mentioned above, even despite the logical impossibility of immortality (the longer you live, the higher the chances to die of an unnatural cause; if you could theoretically live forever, the possibility of an unnatural death would logically become infinite; and yes, this “unnatural” death could then be caused by the earth being fried or a freezing universe).

Until then, however, people really should NOT consider the fate of earth in 7.5 billion years. Sure, it’s an interesting fact to know, but, honestly, more than anything, it’s a number you don’t need. What people really SHOULD consider is the fate of earth in, say, 50 years.

That’s obviously a very partial analysis, but it would be a far more relevant albeit far more complicated one. Which is surely why too few actually do attempt such an analysis. But it would certainly yield some numbers one could actually need.