Erisology

It didn’t take long before I got to inventing a word. Previously I’ve disparaged making up words that end in -ology, and I have no excuse now except that it’s okay when I do it. And at least I’m not putting an english word onto the greek suffix, like an animal.

Normally I don’t like catchy neologisms. Since I work in the consulting business I come across many of them, each more contrived and cringey than the next, all designed to capture a concept and plant it in people’s minds in a way that sticks whether they like it or not. But some of them actually have a pretty good insight-to-hokeyness ratio and deserve some love. I hope “erisology” can fit into this category.

Erisology is the study of disagreement, specifically the study of unsuccessful disagreement. An unsuccessful disagreement is an exchange where people are no closer in understanding at the end than they were at the beginning, meaning the exchange has been mostly about talking past each other and/or hurling insults. A really unsuccessful one is where people actually push each other apart, and this seems disturbingly common.

The word erisology comes from Eris, the Greek goddess of discord, who proved already in antiquity that you could get people into fights by giving them ambiguous messages and let them interpret them self-servingly and according to their own biases.

Disagreement is a broad concept, and erisology encompasses many things. A couple of subtypes can be identified right away: One is “cognitive erisology”, which is the study of how human thinking creates misunderstandings because of its many inadequacies. Another, “differential erisology”, is the tracing back of disagreement to very basic differences in sensation, perception and emotion between people. “Philosophical erisology” tries to read between the lines of what people say to tease out the deep philosophical assumptions they make, often beneath awareness and as a rule difficult to talk about because they are so abstract and foundational. “Environmental erisology” studies the effect of the environment on the nature of disagreement – like geographical features, economic conditions, the design of technical systems. “Social erisology” zooms out and studies disagreement between groups of people, situations where different people are arguing about different things and the feeling of being on opposites sides of a tribal war subsumes substantive disagreements on particular issues. On the other side of the micro-macro divide, “applied erisology” is where you try to analyze and diagnose particular exchanges to find out what is going wrong and why.

These categories are not mutually exclusive. Many examples fit into more than one of them, and maybe there are more varieties I haven’t thought of. This is a work in progress, at least I hope it is.

Socrates became famous and infamous by poking at people’s intuitive notions of how the world worked, showing that they didn’t hold up to scrutiny and were, at best, limited and distorted. Different experiences, different economic, cultural and physical environments make people’s limited and distorted worldviews limited and distorted in distinctly different ways. For most of history, this wasn’t necessarily a big deal. You mostly hung out with people who had a very similar worldview to your own, because they had the same environment and similar experiences. People could differ somewhat in innate dispositions, but everything else pushed them in the same direction.

Fast forward to modern large-scale, pluralistic, information-saturated and intensely connected societies. Differences in worldview are much less a matter of geography. Instead the complex interplay between temperament, personal experiences and self-selected communities allow, or possibly even encourage, people to develop their worldviews in radically different directions. Call it “filter bubble” if you have to.

Today we are also much more prone to abstraction than we used to be. In the past, most of the concepts your worldview consisted of stood for fairly concrete things. Now, especially if you’re highly educated, you’re likely to have a very complex worldview with lots of abstract concepts. And abstract concepts, being a step or six removed from concrete experience, are not strongly tethered to the real world. There is more room for them to drift and be wildly different from each other, and when stitched together into narratives almost become mutually unintelligible. And in today’s world radically different communities aren’t kept apart by geography. Everything is a click away. The rise of outrage journalism, social media wars, things ending in -gate etc. and a general degradation of decency in public discourse must be understood in the light of this.

Our current situation of (by historical standards) hyper-abstraction combined with easy ways to associate with like-minded people (still a blessing, compared to the alternative) creates a kind of intellectual diversity our monkey-brains aren’t equipped to handle out of the box. They need help, and erisology should try to fill that need. Like we need nutritionists to understand how to eat well in the extremely unnatural food environment of modern society, we might need erisologists to be able to coexist peacefully in societies with increasing ideological fragmentation.

With the Internet, niche media and social media, the need for erisology has suddenly become great. But because these things are so open and transparent the materials needed have also become available; we’ve got access to so much writing and this offers greater opportunities to explore people’s thoughts than ever before. We’ve got the need and the means.

I thought of calling this blog Erisology, but decided against it. It felt too restrictive. I do intend to write a lot about it, serious examples and not so serious examples. But I want to write about other things too. Sometimes I might even want to argue myself and not just dissect arguments. So Everything Studies it is.

While the word is new, I’ve been interested in the topic for a long time. I just didn’t see it as a distinct concept until recently, when I went back to re-read a paper I wrote for a course in the history and sociology of science. Both that and my subsequent bachelor’s thesis in philosophy were, in retrospect, erisology.

My bachelor’s thesis was about how differences in how scientists and lay people conceptualize the self causes failure of interpretation when scientific statements about the self and the will are transplanted into the public arena. The result is needless confusion, anxiety, and hostility to science.

The other paper was an analysis of the underlying assumptions of the sociological texts our professor had assigned, and how they conflicted with mine. This course was part of a rather unusual engineering education that included a lot of economic, historical, philosophical and sociological perspectives on science and technology, all in an effort to create a new kind of well-rounded engineer. This professor was a social constructionist and gave us texts to read that broadly reflected this perspective. I, however, had the perspective of a typical engineer and this encounter went about the way one would expect.

I was no stranger to social constructivist and postmodernist ideas, but I had encountered them mostly through criticisms and they meant little to me besides “ridiculous nonsense”. Reading whole texts like this vindicated much of my distaste but also made me understand that there was method to this supposed madness.

It’s exasperating to read something were the author’s preoccupations and thought patterns are so unlike your own that you want to launch into a long counter argument every other sentence. The kind of background assumptions that float by unnoticed when you agree with them work very differently when you don’t. What happens when you read a text by someone with a very different underlying worldview is that things sound not so much simply false but some combination of nonsensical and outrageous. “Bullshit” captures the feeling rather than “false”.

But by looking closely I could piece together what the authors really meant. It’s interesting how so many things are implied and unsaid (and how, if you agree with these things, you don’t even notice). A writer may leave things unspecified for several reasons: they might not be aware of their own assumptions, they might think they are obvious, or they might just think the reader agrees. Or all three.

It became clear to me, for the first time really vividly, that when people said things that seemed weird, confused and obviously wrongheaded to me, it wasn’t isolated cases of ad hoc irrationality or mistakes, but made sense when viewed as expressions of a whole alternative system of thought.

The paper was supposed to be five pages long. I wrote a long discussion about the authors’ use of the words “determinism” and “reductionism”, what they actually meant by them and why I disagreed but understood why they saw things differently. I managed to squeeze it in on double the allotted page count by using a slightly smaller font. I’m normally quite lazy, so if I was willing to do a lot of extra work and take the risk of getting a lower grade for ignoring the instructions then I must really care about this.

I still think social constructionism is about half-right, half-wrong. The expression is way overused, what it’s actually supposed to mean is often unclear and its philosophical foundation is shaky to inadequate. But there is something valuable there, I sometimes find myself reaching similar conclusions but from completely different directions. It could just have been expressed much better, and by that I mean that it should have been expressed using concepts and words that I like and feel comfortable with. Then it would have been much more rigorous and more easily understood… I’m joking, but also kind of not.

There is of course lots of erisology writing already. It’s scattered across several disciplines, like philosophy, political theory, psychology, cognitive science and sociology. Economics and linguistics also come in. I really don’t have a large catalog of good references, so I’ll just pick some.

The focal point of erisology is perhaps role of words. They take center stage in cognitive and philosophical erisology, and play a strong supporting role in social erisology.

Words are so central to both our thinking and our communication that it becomes imperative to learn how they work, how we interpret them, how we form categories and how our word-based views of the world clash with each other and the actual world, with sometimes messy consequences. An important figure here is Ludwig Wittgenstein, who made a fuss after his death when his Philosophical Investigations argued that many philosophical problems weren’t problems at all, but simply the result of philosophers misunderstanding how language worked. He argued some questions should be dissolved rather than answered.

Wittgenstein’s basic idea that words can be as much a hindrance as they can be a help in understanding the world, and finding out which questions are meaningful and which aren’t, is extremely important and started a new era in philosophy. Partly at least, as not everyone bought the consequences.

The LessWrong sequence A Human’s Guide to Words is what you get when you distill a half-century of post-Wittgenstein philosophy mashed up with cognitive science, computing and mathematics. It makes great erisology writing. In general, the literature on cognitive biases has strong relevance for erisology. Most social constructionist writing could be too, if it was less about politics and more about cognition.

Going deep into philosophical erisology, there is another book that’s more narrow and esoteric but incredibly important when it comes to understanding differences in conceptions of free will, causation and responsiblity (which lies buried somewhere down below in many disagreements, notably political and social ones). Owen Flanagan’s The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of Mind and How to Reconcile Them, was a major influence when I wrote that bachelor’s thesis. I we could clear out confusions about the self, it would instantly vaporize a whole lot of disagreements.

Similarly, Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What? goes part of the way to explicating scientists’ and social constructionists’ views to each other and find out exactly what they disagree about when it comes to the nature of science. Not ALL the way though. I would have wanted some more pedantry. Still though, it’s important as a “bridging book” between the The Two Cultures, which is something we need more of.

My absolute favorite on similar theme, is an incredibly thorough examination of the debate surrounding EO Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975. Ullica Segerstråle’s Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate chronicles the controversy surrounding the book, and she shows how this wasn’t just an academic or political clash, but a situation where a whole array of oppositions lined up. As a review of the book puts it:

This is Segerstrale’s mission in the second part of her book, in which she shows how a whole series of oppositions figured at various times. Yes, this was part of the old nature-nurture argument, but the protagonists were divided not just as hereditarians versus environmentalists or proponents of free will versus determinism, but also as existentialists versus essentialists, modellers versus scientific realists, metaphysicians versus logicians, naturalists versus experimentalists, even urban versus rural intellectuals. Their differences, just as in the wider science wars that she turns to briefly in the last part of the book, were a rich blend of moral, methodological, epistemological and, on occasion, ontological commitments. They could never have a strictly scientific dispute because they had little common ground on what good science was. All, in their own ways, were seekers after truth, but they disagreed on where it was to be found.

Read it. Some reviewers called it overlong, and I guess it can be if you’re not that interested in the subject. I am though, so I love it and wonder why it isn’t better known.

The biological roots of human behavior is one of those areas where complexity, ambiguity and strong feelings come together in the worst of ways. There are other such topics with high emotion-to-clarity ratios, and they all carry a certain morbid fascination for the erisologist: Religion, of course. Politics, yep. Moral qualities of economic systems, the justness of crime and punishment, rights and responsibilities, come on in. Gender relations, now here we go! Ethnicity and identity, yes please! Even tastes in art and culture. It seems like the confusion and the anger reinforce each other (this probably deserves its own post).

Basically, if there is a topic you’d be unwise to discuss with a stranger, that’s probably because that topic tends to lead to destructive disagreement. Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind is the go-to book for describing the pre-rational intuitive nature of thought on “politically controversial”, or in LessWrong parlance “mindkilling”, topics. Or so I’m told, I haven’t read it yet (I have two small children and an old house, so my reading list is growing uncontrollably, like the weeds in our neglected vegetable patch) but have read about its main thesis. The book belongs in the canon of erisology because of how it’s brought the fundamental irrationality of (mostly political, but not only) disagreement to public attention.

Clearly the human mind “politicize” certain issues, and your position on them becomes a question of allegiance to a side and not a personal belief or value. How this tribal instinct works and how it interacts with our capacity to create intuitively resonant and deceptively coherent narratives to make sense of the world is a key issue.

Besides Haidt and many articles propping up lately lamenting the increased political polarization in the United States (which also applies where I live) and explaining scientific findings about our tribal instincts (seeing the need and possiblity for something like erisology seems to be quite common, but I’ve never seen anyone suggest it should be considered its own field of study) Scott Alexander explores the issue often and brilliantly. There is too much good erisology in his writings to mention it all, and he has had a great influence on me, but the very best is probably his great trilogy of political tribalism: I Can Tolerate Anything But the Outgroup, Five Case Studies of Politicization and Ethnic Tension and Meaningless Arguments, and what could be seen as its two-part prelude: Against Bravery Debates, and All Debates are Bravery Debates. If I were to add a postlude, it would be The Toxoplasma of Rage although parts of it may be overstated.

There is lots more to write on this. Considering the breadth of the topic, probably most of the things I think about and intend to write about could be filed under some species of erisology. Maybe that makes the concept too broad, I don’t know. The category “things people disagree about” may overlap a lot with to “interesting things”.

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