Scott H Young

Why It’s Hard Not to Be a Hypocrite


I recently came upon this quote from the social-news aggregator reddit:

“What I’ve seen is that in the museums and in the textbooks, whenever they claim to show the evolutionary differences from one species to another, it relies on illustrations and drawings… not any material evidence.” – Wendy Wright

The comments mock the obvious hypocrisy of rejecting evolution because of the lack of “material evidence”, yet accepting creationism. From the critics’ perspective, how could anyone not see the obvious contradictions in their beliefs?

The answer may be because it’s really hard to debug self-contradictions, even those as apparently obvious as this one.

The Brain of a Hypocrite

In the book, Inside Jokes, Matthew Hurley hypothesizes that our sense of humor is an evolved trait, designed to reward the effort of debugging our knowledge.

The full theory is complex and technical, but one interesting feature is the proposed brain architecture for why humor works. In order for humor to make sense, beliefs naturally fit into two categories: active and long-term.

Active beliefs are the beliefs you have, implicit or explicit, in your mind consciously at this moment. For myself, an active belief is that I’m currently writing this sentence. For you, an active belief might be that you’re definitely reading this sentence, or sitting at your computer.

Long-term beliefs are all the other beliefs you hold, and are stored in memory. I have a belief about how the earth orbits the sun, but until this moment, it wasn’t in my conscious thinking.

The key difference is that you can only notice contradictions between active beliefs. Contradictions between long-term beliefs will go unnoticed unless they are both activated and consciously assessed.

This distinction is just a hypothesis, but it does have intuitive appeal. The reason we’re so full of self-contradictions is that rarely do both those contradictory beliefs get activated simultaneously so that we can consciously observe the hypocrisy.

This is probably not the only reason (identity-entangled beliefs are probably another culprit) but it helps explain why being intellectually consistent is so difficult.

Debugging Intellectual Hypocrisy

If Hurley’s theory suggests why it’s easy to be full of contradicting ideas, it also suggests a possible solution. If you can activate beliefs that normally don’t get activated simultaneously, that would go much of the way in helping you debug them.

One way to do this is to think original thoughts. If you have chains of reasoning which connect the gaps between ideas that are normally separate, you can notice contradictions and fix them.

This too, it turns out, is more difficult than it appears. Although we tend to believe that each segment in our stream of consciousness is new, they too may reflect more habit than original insight.

Eleizer Yudkowsky suggests here that the brain may use a method known as caching in cognition. Caching is a process used by engineers, in which answers are pre-computed to save time. Multiplication tables are a type of caching, where you recall memorized products rather than compute them.

If cognitive caching exists, it means that our thoughts are rarely original. Thinking about the premise, leads you down the garden path of familiar arguments until you reach your predetermined conclusion.

Thinking Original Thoughts

The notion of thinking original thoughts is very similar to holistic learning. In fact, I think there’s probably a relationship between the two ideas. Creating connections between disparate ideas allows you to not only root out contradictions, but also to create new insights.

Thinking original thoughts, which avoid the cached answers we’ve generated, isn’t easy. In fact, it’s probably impossible to do so most of the time. But the more you can think original thoughts, the better, both for exposing your self-contradictions and for gaining new insights.

I don’t have a specific answer for thinking more original thoughts, but here are a few practices I’ve tried to adopt in my own life, to encourage that goal:

1. Read books to change your mind.

If you already agree with the conclusion, it’s probably not worth reading the book. Unless the author exposes a new theory or thinking pattern in the middle, why invest time just to confirm your cached thoughts?

2. Have intelligent debates with people.

I appreciate when people offer well-thought critiques of the ideas in my articles. Although sometimes it can be frustrating when I feel we aren’t discussing the same concept, I appreciate the challenge of someone dissenting to my viewpoint. Of course, the goal needs to be to inspire original thinking, not to “win” an argument.

3. Don’t write the same idea twice.

This is a hard goal (with over 1000 articles already published), but I strive to write about a new idea each time. Or, if I take a similar conclusion, I need to take a different path to reach it. As a writer, I feel this forces me to think more original thoughts, even if the price is more frequent frustration deciding what topic to pursue.

4. Learn across multiple genres.

I recently had a conversation with Cal Newport, where he pointed out how non-fiction authors subtly conform their books’ appearance and style, as a signal to their audience. Self-help titles, therefore, tend to look the same intentionally—so self-help readers will gravitate to them.

While stylistic conformity may be inevitable, as a learner this should encourage you to span genres. I’m trying to add biographies, essay collections and foreign fiction to the categories of books I normally read, with this goal in mind.

Is all this effort to root out intellectual inconsistencies worth it? I think so. With each debugged inconsistency, comes a new insight. Just one “Aha!” moment, properly placed, can change everything.


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17 Responses to “Why It’s Hard Not to Be a Hypocrite”

  1. Ken Wert says:

    Very interesting thoughts. This is not a great sign when the commenter (me) starts by going off topic, but I believe you may be reading the quote’s intent wrong.

    Certainly I couldn’t know what Wendy Wright’s thoughts were, but the premise of her comment may have nothing to do with the condition of lacking material evidence, which is obviously even more lacking in a creationist explanation for life and all, and more that it is the context that creationism is dismissed out of hand as a possible explanation, in part, given it’s utter lack of material evidence, all the while supporting a theory that itself lacks such evidence.

    So it may not be the self-contradicting position it seems to be. Perhaps it’s more an accusation of sorts against those who would dismiss one while publishing and preaching the other as the, uh-hum, gospel truth.

    Regardless, I love the ideas you present about challenging ideas with books and debate. I love a good debate with sound-minded people who can argue out of a love of discovery rather than the need to crush the opponent with anger and vitriol.

    Here’s a question in closing: What is the benefit to always thinking new about an issue or topic or idea that you have previously wrestled with and was satisfied with the answer arrived at? Would it make sense to cache that answer, leaving some things in your life settles, at least for the time?

    Enjoyed the read!

    Have an awesome day, Scott!

  2. [...] original thoughts Posted on June 29, 2011 by ddcolrs Source: Scott Young website, Jun [...]

  3. Dan says:

    It’s not just hard, it’s impossible. I don’t like calling it hypocrisy though, I prefer inconsistency. I’ve got no problem with having inconsistencies, double standards, etc. It’s the inconsistencies and double standards other people have that bug me :P

  4. Brooke says:

    Scott,

    I know you can write more than this. Please pick a more relevant topic.

  5. Jonathan Downs says:

    I don’t think that Wendy’s comment was made out of Hypocrisy, but rather an emotional out-lash. As you wrote in another article, giving yourself titles causes a tribal mentality. She viewed evolutionists as the enemy, and naturally felt anger towards them. There was no logical method, just rationalization.
    Arguing sensitive things is more about changing hearts rather than minds. All the facts in the world have been presented to them, but it didn’t work so I don’t think your ‘read contradicting sources’ advice works.
    I would suggest that maybe the best solution is to make a habit of noting when you are angry in a debate or whatever. Then maybe you can calm yourself down, or try to eliminate your own bias.

  6. Michael says:

    Great post Scott!

    I agree with Dan that the “hypocrisies” between active beliefs and long-term beliefs are really just internal cognitive “inconsistencies”. Though the perception on hypocrisy arises when other people better remember these discrepancies. When such inconsistencies appear in hot-button issues (like creation/evolution) emotional biases kick in and are prone to blind the one who found an inconsistency from seeing their own similar gaps.

    Regarding the idea of getting more original thoughts from multiple geners … I love this concept. I’ve heard it said that genius is more about a person’s ability to see connections between many different ideas and subjects. (I know this isn’t my original thought, though I can’t remember where I read it).

  7. Scott Young says:

    Ken,

    From reading the context of the quote, I believe it was simply an off-hand comment made, and thus not deeply considered, rather than a sarcastic barb at evolutionists requirement of material evidence.

    Dan,

    It’s easy to see flaws in the world, harder to see flaws in yourself. I think clear thinking needs to be upheld individually if you want to see it in others.

    Brooke,

    My only standard when writing is that I write what I would enjoy reading. If this one isn’t to your liking, there’s nearly a 1000 others in the archives.

    -Scott

  8. Jonathan says:

    I enjoy thinking about the subject of what makes a hypocrite tick. So thanks for opening up the can of wormholes, Scott. I’m not sure I agree with the premise of how to debug the hypocrite’s mind though. While I agree activating consciously a belief that clearly rubs against another consciously held belief would illuminate the contradiction, thereby making it easier to discard, most hypocrites aren’t for want of strategies to remove the contradictions. Rather, their contradictions are a strategy to reach outcomes they deem more important than “reality”. Watch a smart creationist debate and what you find is the critical method used ingeniously to subvert the honest answer with a preferred one. It’s not for unawares the hypocrite holds fast. Those of us who do the real deal math should consider a hypocrite is the white collar criminal to the liar’s labor. – Jonathan

  9. Scott Young says:

    Jonathan,

    My argument isn’t about “other” people as hypocrites–it’s about ourselves. I’m not trying to fix the world full of self-deluded people, but in trying to improve my own thinking.

    Obviously other biases affect our hypocrisies, but I’m taking for granted that *you* actually want to be more intellectually consistent, or at least aware of your own self-contradictions.

    -Scott

  10. Jonathan says:

    I appreciate the clarification, Scott, but with respect, I think you’re hedging a bit. You start your article explaining away how a creationist could hold such seemingly obvious self-contradictions. My point, to be blunt, is that critical thinking people aren’t hypocrites. There is no pretense in an unyet realized self-contradiction. Creationists, on the other hand, are hypocrites because they pick and choose facts against evidence knowingly appropriating that what fits their narrative. – Jonathan

  11. Scott Young says:

    Jonathan,

    It’s a matter of degree. We all have self-contradictions, even if less grandiose than the creationist hypocrisy I picked for the introduction.

    -Scott

  12. Jonathan says:

    My only issue with your article is the plank you dove from which is where my thread began. You’re collapsing two concepts: unknowingly holding self-contradiction (the critical thinker) and being in a state of hypocrisy (the Creationist). It’s a difference in kind, not degree, unless you’re arguing the Creationist is open to enlightenment, which, ironically, would in another way prove my point. – Jonathan

  13. Jlanedc says:

    I have a serious question and please don’t think I am trying to discredit your work because I am not, I enjoy your work and think you write interesting stuff.

    When one claims to have work published but it is published on their own website or blog that it discredits the authors who submit work, have it reviewed by multiple people (usually), and finally accepted to be published in a piece of media? It is obviously not a challenge to publish your own stuff but could it be credited more if there are enough people who read it? Does the “like” and other web buttons help with this issue?

    I have not concluded my opinion on this and would appreciate opinions of others (I wrote this for Scott’s opinion but I value all opinions)

  14. Adam Isom says:

    I love the (implied) suggestion of ‘activating’ or examing beliefs, something I try more lately and which is the message of a book I’ve read recently called The Big Questions by Solomon.

    From this article (especially the last paragraph) I’d bet you’re a long-time reader of Less Wrong. I think it might be the best resource for improving one’s thinking that exists, online or not, even though I’ve only recently found it.

    Yesterday I read a few articles and thought ‘hmm, this reminds me of Scott Young’s stuff, I bet he’d like it’. Activation Costs (http://lesswrong.com/lw/2y5/activation_costs/) is brilliant analysis, and I thought the articles linked to therein also had useful concepts, especially Cached Selves (http://lesswrong.com/lw/4e/cached_selves/). You could check them out if you find the time.

  15. Scott Young says:

    Jonathan,

    I disagree–I believe hypocrisy is a special case of a more base example of holding two beliefs that are fundamentally incompatible, but being oblivious to that contradiction.

    Jlandec,

    When I say “published” for my work, I mean in the broader sense of the word of having my work displayed publicly. “Peer reviewed” is another concept, of which doesn’t apply to my own. Although I agree there is higher quality amongst peer review, there is also a barrier to expressing ideas that don’t fit into the established themes and style of journals, so it’s not entirely better.

  16. Jonathan says:

    Scott,

    I’ll end my side of our debate with hypocrisy’s definition.

    Oxford: the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform; pretense.

    Wiki: Hypocrisy involves the deception of others and is thus a kind of lie.

    Webster: a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not; especially : the false assumption of an appearance of virtue or religion.

  17. Nasreen says:

    Good content, sweet read. But the first argument seems to be flawed. Creationism and the whole God story comes from a worldview that isn’t contingent upon physical evidence, merely strong suggestion. Evolution (the argument goes) is from a school of thought requiring evidence as a marker for truth. It is a God vs. Science mentality. It’s simplistic at worst, but at best can be used to suggest skepticism on both ends (which, I think, is fair)

    Nasreen

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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