In early November, the New York Times published an opinion piece titled How I Became Extremely Open-Minded that chronicles the struggle of its author, Ross Douthat, with Lyme disease. Douthat’s eventual, desperate resort to an “exotic treatment” that was derided in online forums as “purest quackery” in fact proves to be very effective in his case. “This kind of experience—of falling through the solid floor of establishment consensus and discovering something bizarre and surprising underneath—is extremely commonplace,” he writes. “And the interaction between the beliefs instilled by these experiences and the skepticism they generate from people who haven’t had them is crucial to understanding cultural polarization in our time.”
In 2019, The Guardian ranked Thinking, Fast and Slow by the Israeli behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman at number 76 on its list of the 100 best books of the twenty-first century; but surely this psychological treatise would rank higher in our world today, mid-pandemic, mid-“masking wars,” mid-“vaccine wars.” Kahneman’s surprise bestseller is doubtless to credit, at least in part, for the astonishing rise in awareness of confirmation bias, the tendency to seek information that supports rather than challenges one’s views. In response to the data shared in yesterday’s MICDS COVID-19 response update, for example, a proponent of masking in schools might exhibit confirmation bias by focusing on the high case rates among unvaccinated adolescents relative to other populations but ignoring the very low incidence of serious cases among school-aged children. Similarly, an opponent of vaccination might exhibit confirmation bias by focusing on this same low incidence of pediatric hospitalization but ignoring the obvious protection against serious infection that vaccination nevertheless affords.
Before the term “confirmation bias” existed, the character Augustine St. Clare in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin identified its essence among pro-slavery Christians in the antebellum South, who were inclined to cite those biblical verses that justified human subjugation but ignore those that protested it. “Suppose, however, that something should bring down the price of cotton once and forever, and make the whole slave property a drug in the market?” St. Clare asks. “Don’t you think we should soon have another version of the Scripture doctrine? What a flood of light would pour into the church, all at once, and how immediately it would be discovered that everything in the Bible and reason went the other way!”
The words “always reason” signal the conclusion of nearly every one of my weekly letters to you. My repetition of this imperative intends to encourage, simultaneously, a constant foregrounding of new information and a constant backgrounding of preexisting bias. When I was in college, I heard a professor of religion tell a joke about the discovery of a skeleton in a Jerusalem cave that was proved indisputably to be the remains of Jesus of Nazareth. When a prominent Christian theologian was informed that this finding invalidated all of his scholarship on the resurrection of Jesus, he replied, “You mean that he actually existed?”
“Always reason” requires a kind of joy in error. Much higher-ranked than Thinking, Fast and Slow on The Guardian’s “100 best books” list, at number 21, is Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I recall being deeply affected by my reading of this book when it was published, and the history of humanity that it describes has without question framed and informed my thinking about our species since that time. I was a little taken aback, therefore, when I learned that The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow, released just last month, challenges Harari’s central thesis. Could Harari have been wrong? Could I have been? Well, so be it. Joy in error. I am looking forward to hearing what Graeber and Wengrow have to say.
Douthat concludes How I Became Extremely Open-Minded by expressing his desire “to move between the mainstream and the fringe without becoming a captive in either territory.” He is “more open-minded about the universe” than he used to be, and “much more skeptical about anything that claims the mantle of consensus.” It is healthy, after all, to be skeptical about the things other people tell us. It is perhaps even healthier to be skeptical about the things we tell ourselves.
Always reason, always compassion, always courage. My best wishes to you and your families for a very happy weekend ahead.
Head of School
This week’s addition to the “Refrains for Rams” playlist: Opus 17 by Dustin O’Halloran. This season of wonderful performances by our MICDS band, choral, and strings musicians—not to mention Grayson Marks ’23’s moving recital at today’s Upper School assembly—brought O’Halloran’s “new classical” work to mind. His other creations include the soundtrack to the 2016 film Lion. (Apple Music / Spotify)