Quassim Cassam wants you to know that conspiracy theorists have bad character. In other words, bad thinking is not just bad thinking; it’s also a vice. Maybe Cassam is right. Intellectual character or the lack thereof is often overlooked, at least in general conversation. It’s not that we have an overabundance of trust and tolerance in our public discourse, which is obvious to anyone, it’s just that we tend to see people who hold a multitude of unjustified beliefs as ill-informed, dim-witted, or maybe even insane. And while we easily find the nerve to accuse our ideological opponents of bad faith or insincerity, that’s mostly a purely moral accusation. Cassam’s idea is more interesting than that. The real problem with people who believe fervently in climate change denialism or 9-11 “trutherism,” is not that they’re dumb, crazy, or motivated by greed or power. Rather, it’s that they lack the intellectual character needed to form sound beliefs.
Think of an accountant who embezzles from their clients, a journalist who can’t find the courage to report the truth, or the employee who coasts on the job. These people are dishonest, cowardly, lazy. It may even be that these morally malformed creatures just can’t help themselves, such is the nature of their bad character. It’s the same with intellectual character. The belief formation process doesn't go wrong on account of low intelligence or a merely cognitive failure of rationality, rather, what’s to blame is a bad intellectual quality in the person. It’s not clear whether this approach takes the terms psychologists and philosophers already use to name rational shortcomings and simply recasts them as character terms, or, whether it proposes alternative (morally-laden) terms and concepts with allegedly more fundamental causal power, but never mind. I actually don’t doubt that a non-trivially large portion of conspiracy theorists have at least temperamental characteristics that lead them astray – characteristics that can’t be reduced to or equated with bad faith, mental illness, or purely cognitive failings.
My worry is instead over how poisonous this approach could be to our discourse: How about this for a possibility: suppose, every once in a while, our views turn out to be wrong (heaven forbid), but instead of merely expressing our disagreement we accuse our interlocutors of possessing deep character flaws for disagreeing with us? Let’s take one example that’s particularly frustrating to me, the so-called “Hot Hand Fallacy" basketball players, coaches, and fans are said to employ (that this is a topic I would cite as frustrating as opposed to something important like, say, climate change, may reveal something about my character, but that’s a topic for another day).
In basketball, a player who hits many shots in a row is often said to have "the hot hand.” But statisticians have painstakingly pointed out that there’s no such thing. People just have a tendency to see patterns in randomness. Basketball coaches who, in the face of this evidence, still cling to their belief in the Hot Hand are accused by Cassam of having bad intellectual character; it's not only that they hold a mistaken view about their sport. As for the Hot Hand Fallacy itself, there really is something compelling in the research of psychologists like Gilovich, Vallone, and Tversky, (hereafter GVT) who first identified the belief as a fallacy in the 1985 paper “The Hot Hand in Basketball – On the Misperception of Random Sequences.”
GVT cleverly got a bunch of survey participants to agree that after a player hits a shot or two, the player’s next shot has a higher percentage than normal of going in, and this belief in rising probability was debunked by their research. Further, it’s demonstrable that random sequences of numbers are indistinguishable from what appear to us to be hot streaks. In other words, random numbers sometimes streak as well - 10101111111111 might look like a pattern, but random sequences also behave this way at times. You could even call each term H or M (for hit or miss) rather than 1 or 0 for sake of maximizing the sense of similarity to shooting. Basketball fans have a hard time accepting all this. It’s not an exaggeration to say that conversations on the Hot Hand are often contentious. Tversky says “I’ve been in a thousand arguments over this topic… and I’ve convinced no one.”
The topic even found its way into our pop culture when former Clinton Treasury Secretary, Harvard President, and Winklevii naysayer Larry Summers paid a visit to the Harvard Crimson basketball team for a pep talk. Summers asked the players if they believed in the hot hand. The players all nodded. Summers then informed them that they were wrong, firmly explaining the fallacy, the content of which must imply that years of practice are incapable of building the muscle memory capable of getting a player in the kind of groove that can lead to a genuine hot streak – how inspiring.
Lo and behold, it turns out there’s new data. It purportedly shows that there really is such a thing as a groove, (and therefore the Hot Hand) and that the phenomena can be teased out empirically. The data are apparently persuasive enough that even Summers has given a nod, “Better data plus better statistical techniques means we’re going to understand the world much better.” Openness to new data is certainly the kind of virtue we should all aspire to, but before we break our arms patting ourselves on the back, new data doesn't resolve the problem of ambiguity that’s lingered all along.
Ludwig Wittgenstein taught us to pay close attention to the way words are used. GVT got people to agree that a player with the Hot Hand who hits a shot would display a rising probability of success on subsequent shots, but again it turned out this phenomena couldn't be justified statistically, so, fair enough. But to this rabid basketball fan of over 30 years, that definition sounds, while not altogether incorrect, still a bit tortured when presented as exhaustive, perhaps to say something the torturers needed to get on record in order to proceed. But again, never mind, I don’t want to quibble with what some portion of people out there think the hot hand is.
What no fan worth his vintage jersey would believe is that GVT’s definition represents the only common way the concept is used, and, indeed, if the researchers had been as curious about the subtleties in the way people use words as they were about statistical implications, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation, as thoroughly clarified theses that narrow their headline claims tend to get less attention than sweeping ones. To be fair, GVT did allow that all the things people mean by “hot streak” might not be captured by their analysis. But over the years, the general notion of a hot hand has been said to be dis-proven by clever statistical techniques, and in any case GVT then pivoted back to their exhaustive definition, asserting without authority that however the terms “Hot Hand,” and “hot streak” are employed, the common ways all imply that “the probability of a hit should be greater following a hit than following a miss,” and that “the number of streaks of successive hits or misses should exceed the number produced by a chance process.” In other words, the common notion as defined by GVT happened to line up perfectly with what their research claimed to disprove. But in the end, the researchers are psychologists, not ethnographers, linguists, or Wittgensteinian philosophers, so maybe we can give them a pass.
It’s just that the way the issue has been presented over the years has produced a messy conversation. So per Cassam’s accusation of bad intellectual character, we have little idea what the coaches have in mind when they dismiss the assertion that a fallacy is at play, because too little time has been spent clarifying the issue, too little attention paid to sifting through what might be meant by the key terms allegedly being debunked. Let’s be clear that it won’t do to simply retreat back to GVT’s exclusive definition of the hot hand, because the issue gains its popular traction from the incredulous reactions from basketball fans (and apparently now, coaches) who are all entitled to their untutored uses of the concept, but whose views on the sport they love are dismissed by the statistical cognoscenti. Sure, the data tell us that admonitions from fans such as “Give it to Toney, he’s got the Hot Hand!” turn out to be bits of advice that aren't any more reliable than following random chance, even if Toney appeared to be on a hot streak.
Everyone should admit that this is an interesting result, and certainly the average fan isn't entitled to just any belief. But the claim is sweeping in that, in order to demonstrate that the Hot Hand doesn't exist, we would need to show not only that we do a poor job of spotting hot streaks taking place in real time, or that our odds of predicting whether the next shot will go in aren't better than random chance. No, we’d also have to show that our retrospective looks at, say, Jamal Crawford's 16 consecutive made shots in a 2007 NBA game are not memories of a hot-streak in the relevant sense, and in fact each shot was either random or was due to skill only on a case by case basis – that Crawford was in no groove. That, no study has done, and it’s indeed hard to imagine how any could. That might sound like an unreasonable standard to have to meet, but after all, that would be the implication of showing that the Hot Hand doesn't exist.
If I show you the results of a player's shots over time (H’s and M’s), say, a string of shots like Crawford's cited above, and you show me a randomly generated sequence (also call each term in the sequence H or M, for effect) you do not win the argument by simply showing me that random sequences also sometimes cluster in streaks, not without begging the question. The most you've done is to raise a case of underdetermination. In other words, one activity is admittedly random (the number generator) and the other, basketball, is at least allegedly influenced by human practice and skill, in a way that allegedly sometimes leads to grooves or “in the zone” experiences. That randomly generated sequences can look just like streaks doesn't mean “in the zone” experiences aren't occurring in one of the data sets. Just from the sequences the researchers laid out before us, (the shots and the random sequence) we simply can’t tell if both sets are random or if one contains genuine hot streaks – the data can bear both interpretations.
But before we get too enamored with data, maybe we can just think about it like normal people, which is an avenue that’s been open all along. Have you ever swung a hammer all day? If so, did you get better as the day progressed? Were there parts of the day when you somehow managed to hit the nail right on the head, rather than hitting your thumb, for a long period of time? The question is whether each swing was independent or if the swings at least some of the time bore a relationship to one another. That is, if the swings were related by virtue of being in the pattern of movement you somehow achieved via all those swings. To be fair, the researchers were focused on basketball, not hammering, but both are physical activities, and the Hot Hand skeptics would have us believe that physical grooves cannot exist in shooting a basketball – that the influence of an “in the zone” experience could not be felt throughout successive shooting attempts.
After all, grooves are what Hot Hands are often made of. It’s not necessarily that basketball fans believe that some mystical quality has befallen an athlete or that somehow this power is such that we must throw the athlete the ball and that the next shot will go in. That may be what some fans mean some of the time, but that’s not an exhaustive list of the concept’s uses. A retrospective look at a practiced athlete with muscle memory operating in a groove will do, so far as fair use of the concept goes (notice that this look-back doesn't necessitate the general belief that each time a player hits a shot or two, that the probability of subsequent shots going in rise). No one needs to consult statisticians or philosophers to confirm how obvious this is, just talk to some folks at a sports bar or ballgame and see if that use passes (“wow, Crawford really had the Hot Hand that night”). Our own reports of our naive experience shouldn't be a trump card, but to doubt the most obvious forms of our experience in the face of ill-fitting data is to be constitutionally fickle.
So what should I say about Cassam’s mention of the hot hand fallacy when employing his suggested method of assessing intellectual character rather than just sticking to evaluating reasons? Given the irony that the so called fallacy was dragged out by Cassam to demonstrate the bad character of coaches who believe in the Hot Hand, not to mention that the data are now divided on the topic? If there are any character assessments that apply, I’ll leave them to others, and we can imagine the back and forth that could ensue from there. In the wake of that thought, I wonder if our public discourse has the capacity for many negative assessments of one another’s intellectual character – how long we can go before our conversations become fit for cable news rather than reasoned discussion.
Mike Elias says
>suppose, every once in a while, our views turn out to be wrong (heaven forbid), but instead of merely expressing our disagreement we accuse our interlocutors of possessing deep character flaws for disagreeing with us?
>Rather, it’s that they lack the intellectual characcterto form sound beliefs.
What is “intellectual character”? Consider moral character, and what it is — it is the ability and the willingness to override motivations that would inhibit moral action. It is to decide to be moral in the face of motivations for immorality. Therefore, we could say intellectual character is the ability and the willingness to override motivations to believe what we may be motivated to believe for reasons other than clear understanding. If one claims to be interested in understanding, but has an emotional or identity-based attachment to a point of view, and that person is unable or unwilling to override that attachment in order to understand something more clearly, what ought that be called besides insincerity? It seems that such “accusations” (which I see more as abductive reasoning) are a promising avenue for inquiry when it comes to teasing apart sincere discussion from motivated reasoning within public discourse. A litmus test for how trustworthy a pundit could be, for instance, how inconvenient to him the ideas he is willing to entertain can be. “Accusations” of insincerity need not be malicious or frivolous; in an era where reasoning can be tortured to appear to support any conclusion, struggle is one of the few ways we have of knowing that we hold our beliefs for no reason other than because we want to understand.
On the other hand, I’m not advocating making moral denunciations of people whose attachments to their beliefs are incredibly strong — it would be unreasonable to expect everyone to have the psychological health necessary to meet our standards of intellectual character. I don’t think people with these attachments are insane or stupid — they are a certain sort of unhealthy, a certain sort of terrified; terrified of who they would be if they believed something else, and that they are unable to reconcile their sense of self with the new idea. They are confronted with a sort of death when challenged to change a belief that shapes their identity. I have been through this process myself a number of times, and it is terrifying, and there is only a certain pace at which a person can go at any moment.
That speaks to another contribution people can make to public discourse — we can make it more forgiving, more nurturing of the courage and vulnerability it takes to change one’s mind (and thus one’s identity). People need to know that their ideological opponents will not take the opportunity to dance on their dignity (“ha ha, we were right and you were wrong”) if they changed their minds.
Public discourse may indeed be a matter of intellectual character, so what we can do is contribute to an atmosphere that rewards the growth of intellectual character rather than punishing people for not having it in abundance already.
Jay Jeffers says
Thanks for the comment. Good stuff. To draw some parameters, I more or less believe there is such a thing as intellectual character (that’s one ingredient in the gumbo, along with education, social situation, etc.). People who are self-conscious about standards of belief tend to hold one another accountable to these standards. Philosophers, scientists, and wonks in general are likely candidates for this group, but some educated laypeople as well. I’m all for this practice continuing unabated, but either in formal settings like journals and conferences (i.e. the big leagues) or in relatively private interpersonal contexts.
But I don’t trust us with the explicit license to assess one another’s intellectual character in general public discourse. Case in point, none of Cassam’s socioeconomic peers are conspiracy theorists or basketball coaches. And, in his haste to assess the intellectual character of the latter, he made a mistake. Pointing out his haste is routine for this kind of discourse, so it’s not as if we don’t critique one another as-is. Would it add anything if I pointed out that his haste is a kind of character flaw of glib superficiality or something? (not that I am saying that, for the record).
I’m even open to evaluating the character of political demagogues, but, when it comes to people who seem to sincerely believe in things we find ridiculous, it doesn’t take much courage to point out that the people with bad intellectual character are all the other people, and, to the extent that we apply the practice to one another (in the same socioeconomic/cultural space, roughly speaking) I don’t see how it could help (there’s plenty of disagreement available on other topics, even after we all agree to eschew conspiracy theories).
I can say that if the method of assessing intellectual character prevails, your preferred way is kind and gentle enough that I would want you to oversee it. But, knowing all of us, I’m skeptical that it wouldn’t be used as a cudgel and skeptical that the assessments would always be justified, and Cassam’s inaugural public proposal serves as a nice example of the way I think it would go.
Mike Elias says
Thank you for the thoughtful reply.
>But I don’t trust us with the explicit license to assess one another’s intellectual character in general public discourse
Why not? There may be a Darwinian effect to it, that while there may be a mess at first, the process will sort out some uncommonly credible people and discredit some commonly credited people, and we will know that it is not a trick of the lighting.
Perhaps I am being idealistic. Most people — and I say that not as an elitist but as a (amateur) psychologist — probably lack the intellectual character to consider others’ intellectual character relevant, and things could get out of hand somehow. However, I don’t see how including it in discourse could do particularly more harm than the current level of unchecked confusion, vagueness, and absurdity already does. It *would* be used as a cudgel and assessments would *not* always be justified, but at least it would be taking a one-step-back perspective on our current discourse. We could perhaps see the whole bar rather than just the few brawlers within arms’ reach of us. Not just what are people saying, but why are they saying it?
Furthermore, it would make absurd claims more absurd, and therefore more visible. In a discussion about intellectual character, hypocrisies become more prominent. For that reason, it might be an accomplishment to get a discussion started around intellectual character, because while it may be mayhem at the outset, certain groups will quickly run out of ammunition.
What gives me hope about it is that perhaps there is an end to a discussion of intellectual character. Perhaps rather than an eternal series of back-and-forth straw man arguments, there is a set of relevant facts that are limited in number and scope, and can be compared to one another to arrive at a clear and reasonable judgment in a debate.
Especially in today’s age where it’s so easy to ideologically self-segregate, we need some sort of mechanism for deciding whom to trust in matters about which we ourselves are not experts. Discussions of intellectual character seem to have potential for this. For instance, every human being should be able to say, “I, at least in some way, am a hypocrite.” One who is unable to publicly and repeatedly utter that sentence can’t be trusted to accept if he is mistaken about something in his field. It’s not that he necessarily is mistaken; it’s that because he lacks the intellectual character to admit even a basic and unavoidable human limitation, let alone a flaw in his opinion, laymen would have no way of knowing. I think politics would be an ideal field in which to roll this out (in fact, I’ve had it in mind throughout this whole reply, and probably the last one too).
Like full-disclosure requirements for product endorsements, there could be full-disclosure for vested interests in opinions. Each can make his case; e.g., “I originally believed this, but changed my mind” would be a point in one’s corner because it shows an inconvenience was overcome in order to accept new information.
It’s far from perfect. It is very flawed, as you cogently pointed out. But it seems to be an advancing step in distilling truth and integrity in a world with no shortage of information. It seems all we can do sometimes is endeavor to have higher-quality problems, and I think this could produce them.
>I can say that if the method of assessing intellectual character prevails, your preferred way is kind and gentle enough that I would want you to oversee it.
Thank you for that. Along those lines I want to soften this statement:
“For instance, every human being should be able to say, ‘I, at least in some way, am a hypocrite.'”
There *may be* perfectly legitimate psychological reasons that a perfectly earnest person may not be able to say that. In general, it still seems a good litmus test.
Anyway, great article.
Jay Jeffers says
Thanks again, Mike,
I guess I agree that hypocrites COULD be more obvious, (I hadn’t thought of that possible feature, actually) but, not that I’m calling Cassam a hypocrite per se, there was an element of dark irony in his method, given his message and his treatment of the Hot Hand. Still, people all over twitter are thrilled at the chance to revel in the bad character of conspiracy theorists, and no one even noticed the bit about the Hot Hand. Not an auspicious start to the method of assessing character.
But again I hadn’t thought of the possible benefits. I guess time will tell if Cassam’s method gets started!
Jay Jeffers says
I think GVT would be obliged by their original research to say that Csikszentmihalyi was wrong that there is a state of Flow, or, that whatever impact this Flow is supposed to have, they can debunk that supposed impact by showing that random sequences look just like Flow, and that we can’t reliably spot Flow experience occuring in real time, at least not by observation of performance alone. If they played as fast and loose with defining Flow as they did with defining hot streaks, they would define Flow in a way that would allow them to say that it doesn’t exist.
Part of what I was trying to say is that, no matter what the data say from here on, DVT’s original claim was ill-conceived. They found something interesting, but not interesting enough to warrant the headline claim that emerged from their original research.
Jay Jeffers says
That is, insofar as a sport or activity has measurable hit or miss metrics. I don’t think GVT’s research would oblime them to deny that, say, a singer could attain Flow.
Yes, I think all of that is right and is another means by which to show that the original claim was ill-conceived. The flow of a musician certainly has its parallel in sports (and any other kind of performance) and I’m convinced that this is one of the primary reasons that so many find the dramatics of contemporary sport compelling. Personally, I know this is why the men’s college tournament is so much fun because flow is usually involved in unexpected upsets or uniquely memorable performances. Of course, it’s fairly easy to construct a weak definition of “hot hand” or “flow” in such a way as to show it to be mistaken readings of patterns in randomness — that is, if one is okay with making Popper roll over in his grave.