Perils of Binary Thinking and Polarised Debates

For a practitioner who spends any time on social media it is easy to get the sense we are in the death throes of informed debate. Authorities (often self-proclaimed) seem to constantly spew forth evangelical proclamations, push their ideology and promote others who espouse their doctrine, and decry those who express contrary views. Sadly, it appears there are no shortage of young zealots eager to answer the call to join the modern crusades conducted on a social media battlefield. In this post we will explore the trend for binary thinking and polarised arguments that fuels the tribalism we see on these platforms, and how this is increasingly creeping into sports science and medicine circles. We will then attempt to plot a path back from the edge of the abyss, and bridge the divide between factions to allow us to return to real debate.

COMFORT IN CERTAINTY AND STRENGTH IN NUMBERS...

We want things to be straightforward. We crave certainty, particularly when forced to navigate complex issues. We yearn for easy answers, however facile. We flock towards those who profess to know, and are impressed by those who make claims with absolute certainty. We derive comfort in those who project this illusion of certainty, and feel a sense of safety in numbers when surrounded by those who share this illusion with us.

It is both striking and on the surface quite baffling how quick we are to jump into one camp or another on any particular topic. Part of what makes aligning to a particular camp or school of thought so beguiling is the sense of security and belonging that comes with it.

Groups of individuals who feel they share the same superficial interests and habits of thought consider themselves part of the same enlightened tribe. Being part of this 'imagined community' provides a sense of safety and certainty, and helps define an individual's subjective sense of self, both as a person and a practitioner.

An imagined community is a community of people who don’t really know each other, but imagine that they do
— Yuval Noah Harari

As the saying goes, the problem with binary thinking is that it is always one thing or another. Everything is an either/or scenario: right versus wrong. Good versus bad. Left versus right. We seem to need to paint one party as the hero, and the other must be the villain. The unstated assumption is that there are in essence only two viewpoints or conceivable options available to us.

@@Binary thinking is at the heart of polarised debate@@. Polarisation is both cause and effect of the tribalism we see in the field and the interactions we see on different platforms.

MODERN TRIBES...

Tribal behaviour is very much in evidence within the factions that have become increasingly prevalent in our respective fields. Tribalism fuels polarization within any society, whether we are talking about practitioners in a particular discipline or the academic community. In a circular fashion, this polarisation then serves to create further distance between respective tribes and factions.

Entrenched positions and the distance between partisan groups are very difficult to overcome. Once established, there is increasingly little meaningful (or civil) engagement between factions. The polarised debates we see on a given topic are most often not really debates at all, but mudslinging aimed at the opposing camp.

Interestingly, this scenario occurs regardless of whether our opinion on specific issues is in fact consistent with the actual views of others within the group we identify with (or individual members of the groups we view as being 'the opposition'). This contradiction has been noted in the literature, and has led authors on the topic to make a distinction made between 'issue-based ideology' and 'identity-based ideology'.

BELONGING TO A CAMP SHAPES BEHAVIOUR...

As alluded to earlier, identifying with a particular school of thought provides a sense of social identity. The elements that define social identity include not only a sense of inclusion and belonging to our chosen group, but equally important is that this is to the exclusion of others.

‘In groups’ are implicitly judged to be superior to ‘out groups’, and the judgement is seated in the connection between the group status and the self concept rather than any objective facts
— Lilliana Mason

The particular group we identify with profoundly shapes how we behave towards others and entertain sources of new information. What is striking is that this is often entirely independent of any consideration of the information presented on the specific issue.

Essentially, it is less about considering the merits of the respective positions on an issue, and far more about staunchly defending the stated position of our imagined community of choice. The sense of allegiance and group identity is a big part of what drives our opposition to contrary views, particularly when voiced by those we associate as being 'the opposition'.

Our views of the opposing camp and their views, both on an individual and group level, is largely a projection, distorted beyond all recognition so that it bears little relation to the individual humans concerned. This hostility is aimed at a label (‘the opposition’). All that seems to matter is that it is framed as the ‘opposing view’ and hence we staunchly oppose it.

These effects of Identity based ideology... are psychological and emotional, and help explain how “liberals” and “conservatives” may dislike each other for reasons unconnected to their opinions
— Lilliana Mason

The animosity that we conjure those who we deem to be on the other side clearly isn’t rational, and generally bears no relation to the merits of the individual, or the substance of their argument. We largely refuse to entertain arguments or points of view regardless of their merit simply because of our dislike or sworn opposition to the source, and dismiss it out of hand without considering the merits what is being said.

TRIBES OF THE SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY...

Polarisation and tribalism in society is most often studied in the realms of politics and religion. However we can increasingly observe these traits and behaviours in the scientific community. In particular, tribalism and polarized debate are becoming ever more prevalent in the fields of sports science and medicine, and related fields or ‘industries’ (notably strength and conditioning).

Often what lures us to identify with a particular group is that they espouse a world view we find appealing. As I have written about previously, we are particularly quick to abandon our critical thinking when the particular doctrine speaks to our bias or something we desire to be true.

Proponents of a particular school of thought are quick to distance themselves from others who align with the opposing ‘team’. This 'us versus them' mentality can increasingly be observed in the public interactions between advocates of different viewpoints. Antipathy is shown towards those viewed as holding an alternate position.

There is increasingly less real engagement during scientific debates. One side does not entertain the substance of what is being said by the other, and what is heard is distorted and misinterpreted in a way that further fuels the animosity. Increasingly we are seeing esteemed figures in the field publicly vilify opposition both on a group and individual level and ridicule the views represented.

THE MODERN BATTLEGROUND...

If we accept that social dynamics play a significant role in this context, it follows that social media provides a natural platform to connect other members of the camp we identify with. By extension, social media has also become a place where we do battle with others we consider to hold opposing views.

Events such as seminars and clinics also serve as social gatherings, and a forum for like-minded individuals to promote a particular ideology. On occasion it can appear that gaining support for a doctrine is the primary objective, beyond the pretence of sharing ideas or debating different viewpoints.

I recently attended a ‘conference’ that became such a social gathering for those who share the same bias and alignment in their narrow viewpoint. Over the two days of the event for the most part the selection of presenters and the content delivered was skewed to promote a distorted and polarised view of a complex subject matter, largely to the delight of the audience (with a few notable exceptions). The lack of balance and moderation was such that the event had the feel of a recruiting drive for a cult, rather than a conference or scientific forum to debate ideas.

TENUOUS CONNECTIONS...

Among the masses who make up the audience for these displays, it is increasingly common to adopt an entrenched position without any real basis or intellectual attachment.

@@Aligning with a camp is part of how we differentiate ourselves from others@@. As we have spoken about, this is to the exclusion of those we deem to be ‘other’, and with this comes resistance to information we perceive to be conflicting.

Those who are quick to claim allegiance with a label, camp, or school of thought do not necessarily possess a coherent opinion or considered view on the topic at hand. Often the most staunch acolytes cannot claim any real depth of understanding.

Nevertheless we find hordes of eager recruits to the cause, many of whom haven’t troubled themselves to read up substance behind the doctrine they have signed up to. Beyond the buzz words most only pretend at a working understanding.

FACING OBJECTIVE REALITY…

It is rare for us to even to acknowledge the assumptions that form the bedrock of our often tenuous mental models of the world, let alone question them. Many of the universal ‘truths’ we hold so dear are fabrications. Upon closer inspection many conventions in practice amount to little more than systems we have dreamed up and orders we have imagined, essentially built upon myths and suppositions.

@@As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality@@
— Albert Einstein

The unwelcome reality is that there are very few absolutes, particularly when dealing with complex adaptive systems. We are dealing in probabilities, with few certainties. There are very few rules that apply universally to all situations and individuals. Those who deal in absolutes are at best deluded. When confronted by 'authorities' who project certainty and speak in absolute terms, this alone should give us pause.

@@One thing that being a scientist has taught me is that you can never be certain about anything… You iterate towards the truth. You don’t know it@@
— James Maxwell

STEPPING OUT OF THE ECHO CHAMBER...

As I have noted previously, it is hard to escape the tendency to gravitate towards like-minded individuals who share our biases. It is beguilingly easy to find ourselves in an echo chamber where we are surrounded by those expressing the same views that we hold. @@Ultimately we must step out of the echo chamber if we are to seek enlightenment@@.

It is possible to hold more than one view in our head at the same time; indeed this is necessary if we are to derive an independent viewpoint. In order to triangulate a balanced position there is a need to entertain multiple information sources; we must consider diverging viewpoints in order to arrive at a sensible position somewhere in the middle.

Intelligent individuals learn from every thing and every one; average people, from their experiences. The stupid already have all the answers
— Socrates

A friend and colleague named Angus Ross, who is one of the great free thinkers I have come across, is shamelessly non-exclusive in his intelligence gathering. As Angus has told me, he is prepared to learn from everybody; this includes those who he does not necessarily agree with, or feel any particular affinity towards. This is rare wisdom and demonstrates the merits of being agile in our thinking in how we objectively entertain information independently of our subjective feelings towards the source.

From a wider perspective it is possible, and in fact highly likely, that we will not agree 100% with others on a particular topic. We can agree to differ, and it is still possible to have respect for others even if our thinking on a given topic does not align. Moreover, we should allow that those who we dislike might nevertheless have something to say that is of merit.

IN CLOSING…

The fallacy of binary thinking is all too prevalent in the Information Age, and this is one of the great ironies of the era. These trends are exemplified in the interactions and conduct we see on social media. The forces of polarisation are to be resisted at all costs if we are to achieve real engagement between factions and genuine debate.

We must recognise that aligning with a group will ultimately restrict our thinking and narrow our frame of reference. We need to resist the the lure of false certainty, and the sense of safety in numbers and imagined community that comes with claiming allegiance to a particular camp.

To seek enlightenment requires that we first step out of the echo chamber. In order to triangulate an independent and considered viewpoint we must be ready to entertain diverging points of view.

In doing so we must remain mindful in how we entertain and critically appraise information from various sources. This applies especially when we encounter ideas or perspectives that differ to our prior learning. Much like an athlete, we must develop our agility in how we deal with diverging views and sources.

Equally, we should not give a pass and suspend critical thinking when we encounter something that speaks to our bias or something we wish to be true. We should apply the same scrutiny regardless of the appeal of the message. @@There is very little that we should swallow whole@@.

Conversely, there is generally some nugget or element of what is being presented that we can learn from and find value, even if we do not have an affinity for the speaker or the particular camp that they represent. This ability to objectively entertain the information presented independently of our subjective feelings towards the source represents a higher order skill, largely because this is not natural or intuitive for most humans.

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