Challenging Your Own Thinking: Surface-Level Memes & Steel-Manning Opposing Ideas

Incitation: With COVID-19, the 2020 U.S. Presidential election, and (perpetual) religious ideologies as a catalyst: Why do many believe that the “other” is crazy and wrong? Can they not see that wherever there is significant discourse in ideas, there is usually something of substance there?

Quiddity: It seems that a combination of Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect, the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and the Out-Group Homogeneity Effect help to explain why many are so confident in their views and see “others” as crazy and wrong. Part of the same problem get’s exacerbated by the meme-ification and straw-manning of idea structures.


Let’s get right to it: Our cultural environment has made us attackers of opposing ideas– and as a result, we either signal our virtues by advertising them on social media or by displaying them in yard signs… or we hold onto silent rage, constantly making remarks only to ourselves, in our head, with all of the familiar cognitive biases that come along for the ride.

What’s most surprising to see, on such a large scale, is the inability of many to understand their own shortcomings and biases when it comes to interacting with opposing ideas.

I’ve heard all of the excuses, just like you have: People don’t have any time to do the research. There’s too much information. The information is too confusing. There’s better things to worry about… And actually, I agree with most of these arguments– just not in the traditional sense.

Opinions Are Useful

Whenever we come into contact with ideas or choices, we form an opinion (but not necessarily a well thought-out viewpoint) that describes the “thing” to us in terms and in reference to other things we’ve experienced in life. This is completely normal and of mostly no consequence in everyday life (e.g. “It’s only 11:00 AM and there’s a really long line at Chipotle. The people in line must have all thought to beat the crowds. Ha.”… When in reality, there could be a BOGO sale before noon that day… But in the end, it really doesn’t matter. Whether your opinion is true or not is of no consequence). In these instances, it’s not worth our time to perform a journalistic deep-dive into the truth. When ideas or choices are of more consequence, however, it is in our best interest (and the interest of others) to better understand why we hold the opinions we have and how to challenge our own ideas– in order to either change our views or solidify what we already believe. And the time to do this is when the choice or idea before us has real consequence in our lives; for example: in religion, where to live, who to vote for, our health, the education of our children, self-defense, and so on.

Being Bigger than Your Ego

In these cases, we need to move pass the tendency to straw man arguments with weak, cherry-picked meme-ification of the “other.” Put another way, whenever there is a critical mass on the “other” side, there will always be meme-able instances where the other sides’ argument(s) can be made to look ridiculous and oversimplified. If one group can portray another this way, there’s certain to be an equal and opposite opportunity in the other direction.

Yet, this is exactly the reason not to succumb to this– because where there is a critical mass of belief, there’s usually a solid underlying value-structure that can tell us something useful about why the belief exists in the first place.

Whew. Now that we’re completely passed the tendency to meme, we need to get passed the next hurdle: Out-Group Homogeneity Effect. This effect basically says that we view the “other” as being all the same within their group while simultaneously viewing “our” group as rich and diverse. This effect gives rise to things like promoting oversimplified stereotypes and straw-manning opposing arguments.

When we stop letting modern memes do the “deep thinking” for us and realize that others are likely just as diverse as we, we can steel-man their arguments and truly get to the point where we take on the real sub-ideas head-on and with integrity and tact.

Steel-manning a view is as simple as researching respected thought leaders with a view that’s different from yours and concisely and charitably putting together an argument for the other side as though your debate team’s first place trophy depended on it. As a result, you’ll become more humble– and you’ll either adjust your views in a more nuanced way, have sympathy or empathy for others, or double-down on your original views… Or you’ll activate a combination of these.

How and Why Did We Arrive Here?

“The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”– Charles Bukowski

The Dunning-Kruger Effect explains this in part: that the less a person knows about a topic, the more likely they are to not know that they don’t know enough to have an informed opinion. Think about your areas of true expertise: you likely have more questions about the field than the average person would. In short: the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. This of course translates into everyday life– in politics, religion, and other topics. So, beware that most people (not experts) who have something to say about a topic likely have no idea what they’re talking about– and on the whole of the macro analysis doubly so, because as Lao Tzu noted, “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.”

The second affect is one of my favorites, called the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect. A simplified example of this effect is when you read an article about a topic you’re deeply familiar with, noticing all of the author’s errors, omissions, incomplete thinking, missteps, and backwards display of cause and effect… Only to move on to the next article and read every word, thinking it’s all completely true and complete.

A useful way I’ve found for getting past this (and on a side note: a good way to choose what articles or books to read in the first place) is to ask yourself what type of information would be helpful in forming your opinion or what result would change your mind– or in other words, what questions would you expect the author to answer if s/he were to thoroughly and honestly provide answers to true journalistic arguments? If the author doesn’t answer these basic questions, regardless of the data or conclusions they do provide, you can feel confident in dismissing the piece in lieu of another that is be more complete. Because, as renowned British economist Ronald H. Coase noted, “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything.”

In the case of COVID-19 for example, I don’t just want to know about new cases, as that doesn’t say enough. What is helpful is seeing the data for available testing capacity, the rise in tests vs. the rise in cases (did one outpace the other?), R-naught, insights into self-selection in testing, hospitalizations per 100,000 people, data by age groups and co-morbidity, insights into long-term effects of the disease, and so on. Whenever a stance on a topic divides along party lines, for example, you can be sure that the answer isn’t owned by either side, but rather it is likely located somewhere near the center.

Both the Dunning-Kruger and Gell-Mann Amnesia effects are frameworks for understanding how we can think better– and they’re begging us to take back our mental sovereignty and think for ourselves.

Conclusion and Useful Frameworks

Opinions are useful. Keep them and don’t worry about them being wrong. Yet, a good rule-of-thumb is to measure the importance of an opinion on a longer-term horizon– say, one year. For example, you can ask yourself the following for every dearly-held opinion: “If this view is eventually determined to be completely backwards, would this have an adverse effect either way on me or those around me?” “No” in the case of “The Green Bay Packers are a better football team than the Chicago Bears.” “Yes” in the case of “Good diet and exercise is a myth.” Don’t worry about challenging opinions of no consequence, but do worry about challenging those that will have long-term effects, good or bad.

Go beyond your ego. Avoid the tendency to live in memes, even though they can be quite entertaining “zingers.” Steel-man the other viewpoint and try to come to an objective conclusion based on new and better information– and don’t be afraid to adjust your opinions based on this. Human beings have a tendency to not like to admit when we’re wrong. Yet we’re the most free when we’re able to freely adjust our thinking.

You may be smarter than you think you are (but most of us aren’t). Don’t confuse authority and experience with intelligence or being unbiased. Think for yourself and don’t base your stance on whether or not you’ve gone against the grain. Embrace “slow journalism” and draw from a variety of sources including history, science, philosophy, mathematics, psychology, technology and networks, art, et cetera… and simply thinking for yourself.

Categories: Geopolitics

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