Monday, February 9, 2015

Adding Context to Debate (revisited)

I was wrong once, and now I try to never repeat that mistake. All the buzz in the news about ISIS and how vile they are, have had me entangled in a few debates. Usually, since I’m not pro-government propaganda, I’m accused of being on ISIS’ side and of changing the subject. That brings me to the topic of wanting to, or needing to, adding context to vs obfuscating a debate. 

The human mind can only hold a few ideas at any one time. When we debate (orally, but this applies to the textual internet as well) it usually helps to focus on the subject at hand, as time constraints don’t allow for much more. Thus, when I try to add context to any situation, I am called out for changing the subject, for muddying the waters. Is that what it is?

Adding historical context to any debate is needed. For those who only want to look at one situation in a vacuum (as if such things exist), then that is an effort to take out history, to make sure no one can see the situation for what it is. Only a child comes to the world without history. We then try to teach them things. Let’s not move away from that. Keep teaching and adding context.

No one’s perfect: I would like to say that when it comes to geo-politics, I’m good about adding context. Yet I tend to, sometimes off hand, dismiss that which I hate, when it comes to domestic politics. Say it comes from the extreme right and it’s against Obama (not always, but a lot of times); I’ll assume it’s baseless and not even look into it. So the context, in this respect, becomes noise and is lost. What to do in such a situation? When I moved out of the south, there were, at the time, many straw-men that I was aware of and didn’t want to hear anymore. Thus when cries came up about Obama’s birth certificate, I dismissed them as just these straw-men. I still think that was a correct decision. What then of the context versus noise?

I once argued with a friend of mine who said I should take every opinion I hear seriously, and only when I can take in all the facts can I make a decision for myself. This is true. In theory. I held this view when I was young and tried to adhere to it. I was more well read about many subjects than most of my peers, I dare say, and still I ended up being wrong (some people’s heuristics ended up trumping my ‘evidence’, so take from that what you must). How is that? There is limited time, and I, simply, ended up taking in the wrong information. This is part of the reason why I’m so adamant about figuring out the best way to read the news.

What can you learn from this? That when people (me included) decide to cut out context, they are, in fact, being defensive and even smart, for there is much context that is put out there to be noise (or propaganda) and one must live one’s life, so it isn’t feasible to go through all of it. What’s a human to do (and this goes for all levels, one can only truly be an expert in one very niche subject in this life, and even then, I’m sure you aren’t absorbing all the information available)?

Well, to cut through the noise, one must find a good source (academic ones tend to be the best). This is hard. Very few sources have the impeccable credentials of not being wrong, or of not allowing their biases — let’s be honest, they will all have biases — to muddy the truth. This leads us to looking for prophets; especially these days when the media is so fragmented and opinions are hard to trust. But we must find them. And when something does not seem right, when that gut feeling has been honed with learning and critical thinking, one must be able to take the time to take in different evidence and move from there.

So take in the context as best as you can. One thing we should not do is reject context because it flies in the face of what we want. This does not mean, if it flies in the face of all evidence, for this is when we must cut off the noise. Note, I said “evidence”, not what you’ve been told, or what you think.
Also think about the sources you’re using. I would say that books that have been, on some level, peer-reviewed, need to be considered. As well as those in the academic world. And in the end, one should always use whatever knowledge and experience they have to judge. This is not always sufficient, as I can attest to. Some times, growing up, we simply place our faith in those authority figures around us. It’s not easy to usurp them. Not on our own. But we must try. That’s why having a diversity in education, as well as in one’s reading list, as well as in one’s news list, are of paramount importance.

Does this make sense? We’re talking about massive amounts of information thus using critical reading skills will be needed. Be skeptical about most everything that you read. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

And what when context is propaganda that is meant to obfuscate? After all, it has been shown that on internet comments, if the first one is contrary to the article, people will still believe it on some level, thus when someone does it they are influencing the debate, even if they have no evidence for their views (see climate change as well as the evolution debate). Unfortunately, we seem to believe that which we read with great ease. Again, look into what the sources are (never easy, rarely automatic) and how certain conclusions are based on reliable sources (even harder for real time news).
But, oh, to find that prophet.


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  1. Sounds like more hippie tripe. The man who believes nothing will fall for anything. That's what adding context is an attempt to do: to muddy the waters, to pull people this way and that, then to let them fall for nihilism. Like ISIS, basically.

  2. Indeed, like I said, muddying the waters can matter, and a lot. But there is the matter of not adding anything to the debate. And very few situations outside of a science lab are best seen in a vacuum


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