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Thinking Ladder (#399)
We need to call out lowbrow thinking and discourse, especially from our own side
The most impactful books are the ones that crystalize our thoughts and emotions on a topic, providing a framework for understanding and expressing them. This was my experience with Tim Urban's What's Our Problem?: A Self-Help Book For Societies, which I read earlier this year. The book delves into our current state of dialogue, polarization and social conflicts, tracing their roots.
One of the book's core principles is the concept of distinguishing between what we think and how we think. What we think refers to our beliefs or positions, which often align to the traditional left-to-right political spectrum. How we think concerns how we form those opinions and our willingness to change our viewpoints. To describe this, Urban asserts that our horizontal ideological spectrum is complemented by a vertical dimension, which he calls "the ladder.”
The ladder consists of four rungs ordered from top to bottom. Generally, it’s better to be on the top two rungs, which Urban characterizes as high-rung thinking.
Let’s dig into each rung in more detail:
The Scientist sits at the highest rung. A Scientist typically seeks out opinions that challenge their ideas, subjecting their beliefs to rigorous scrutiny to ensure their validity. In the scientific community, a concept is considered true only when it withstands attempts to disprove it. For this reason, the Scientist actually likes to be proven wrong or have flaws identified in their theories, as this helps them discover the truth and better understand the world.
One rung down, we encounter the Sports Fan. A Sports Fan passionately supports their own team; however, they generally desire fairness and objectivity. For example, few fans enjoy watching their team win in a contest that is fixed by the referee, even if they are happy to see a few calls go in their favor. Sports Fans are biased, but are open to having their views challenged and want everyone to have a fair shake in a debate.
The first lower-rung thinker we encounter is the Attorney. The Attorney, like a real-life trial lawyer, has one goal: defend their client (the idea or point of view) at all costs by highlighting information that helps their case and minimizing information that hurts it. The Attorney sees no need to acknowledge evidence to the contrary and is happy to bury it.
The lowest rung is where you find the Zealot. The Zealot has little regard for factual information and fervently presents their viewpoint with the unwavering conviction of a religious fanatic. Zealots are deeply entrenched in their own ideational fervor, often to the detriment of rational discourse and evidence-based reasoning. Zealots often respond to arguments against their beliefs with name-calling and attempts to silence or discredit.
In a high-functioning democratic society, we need environments where people are safe to debate and agree to disagree on a wide range of ideas. This respectful, thoughtful dialogue helps bring the best pressure-tested ideas to the surface and to evolve our viewpoints through an idea marketplace.
Conversely, a society of low-rung thinking is marked by dysfunction and division. Low-rung thinkers stifle intellectual growth by either silencing or ignoring dissenting opinions and by stoking tribalist fears.
A low-rung society places us in tribal echo chambers surrounded only by ideas that support our own beliefs, without understanding the perspectives of others. What results is a culture of polarization and isolation, where conflicting viewpoints are vilified and existing beliefs grow more extreme.
Does that sound familiar?
Whether it's on social media, in political debates, or on campus, perspectives are becoming increasingly polarized. Instead of appreciating the nuance of complex issues, everything is reduced to an “us versus them” narrative that pushes people further apart every day.
Upon reflection, Urban’s central point is quite convincing to me: our societal issues today aren’t necessarily due to our ideological beliefs, but rather the normalization of the low-rung tactics and methods we employ to express and discuss those principles.
We can all choose how we position ourselves on this ladder by emulating the Scientist and Sports Fan more and by calling out low rung tactics for what they are. Crucially, that means criticizing the Attorneys and Zealots on our side of the ideological spectrum—low-rung thinking has no place in a healthy society, even if the perpetrators are in your tribe.
I challenge you to keep Urban’s ladder in mind as you move through your personal and professional environments over the next few weeks. Where are you behaving like a Scientist by seeking contrary information, pressure testing your ideas and engaging with people who disagree with you? Conversely, where are you behaving like a Zealot, angrily shutting down any ideas that conflict with your own?
For a deeper dive into these concepts, I highly recommend tuning into the podcast episode I recorded with Urban.
Quote of The Week
"The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge." - Stephen Hawking
Have a great weekend!
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