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The Quixotic Engineer

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Be A Rational Agent

Living next to [America] is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.
-Former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau on Canada/US relations

With four major political parties to choose from (not to mention the rising Green party), Canadians are afforded some protection from the strongly polarized politics found down south. However, you can't live in America's hat without forming some kind of opinion about what's happening. After being linked to this extreme-left video and this extreme-right one in the space of a week, my internal BS sensor was overworked and I felt the need to throw in my 2 cents on the issue.

In both of the aforementioned videos, these amateur interviewers head down to the opposite camp's rally and start doing Michael Moore style interviews (i.e. lots of talking heads and very little substance). In a textbook example of the Straw man fallacy, they single out the dumbest/loudest people in the room and start asking them directed questions about various controversial topics. These people make incredibly ignorant claims and hyperbolic statements (comparing Bush to Hitler? see Godwin's Law), which the filmmakers love because they can use these to discredit the entire party.

While these videos are really nothing more than amateur footage on YouTube, they're symptomatic of a larger social issue; namely, the kind of groupthinking that's emerging from these political parties. It's easy and fun to belong to a group. You all believe in the same things, so you can get together and act smug about how you've got it all figured out. You can insult the other party's viewpoint without fear of a counter-argument. If a moral problem is too complicated to think about, you can follow the party line with zeal. By subscribing to the beliefs of a group, you're immediately undermining yourself as a rational agent. You're substituting your own reason with the reasoning of the group, and groups are notoriously unreasonable. As Dilbert author Scott Adams put it:

As soon as you tell me "Carl joined a group," I can tell you Carl is no longer as rational as he used to be. His judgment will start to conform to the group’s judgment, and the group’s judgment will be based on some ever-drifting sense of values that lost its rational connecting tissue long ago.

It's in this spirit that I invite you to assert yourself as a rational agent by challenging your assumptions. Engage in meaningful dialogue with people who do not share your beliefs, and play Devil's Advocate sometimes. As author Stephen Covey described it: seek first to understand, then to be understood. If someone is able to argue persuasively against an idea you hold, either research a counter-argument or consider changing your beliefs.

As Chris Rock so eloquently put it (video embedded below, NSFW): in the end you'll find that you're liberal about some things and conservative about others, and that's the way it should be.

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