The Temptation to Bubble

by gressettd5 min read23rd Sep 201529 comments


ReligionSocial & Cultural DynamicsConfirmation Bias
Personal Blog

"Never discuss religion or politics." 


I was raised in a large family of fundamentalist Christians. Growing up in my house, where discussing politics and religion were the main course of life, the above proverb was said often -- as an expression of regret, shock, or self-flagellation. Later, the experience impressed a deep lesson about bubbling up that even intelligent and rational people fall into. And I ... I am often tempted, so tempted, to give in. 

Religion and political identity were the languages of love in my house. Affirming the finer points of a friend's identical values was a natural ritual, like sharing coffee or a meal together, and so soothing we attributed the afterglow to God himself. We can use some religious nonsense to illustrate, but please keep in mind, there's a much more interesting point here than "certain religious views are wrong".

A point of controversy was an especially excellent topic of mutual comfort. How could anyone else be *so* stupid as to believe we came from monkeys and monkeys came from *nothing*! that exploded a gazillion years ago, especially given all the young earth creation evidence that they stubbornly ignored. They obviously just wanted to sin and needed an excuse. Agreeing about something like this, you both felt smarter than the hostile world, and you had someone to help defend you against that hostility. We invented byzantine scaffolding for our shared delusions to keep the conversation interested and agree with each other in ever more creative ways. We esteemed each other, and ourselves, much more.

This safety bubble from the real world would allow denial of anything too painful. Losing a loved one to cancer? God will heal them. God mysteriously decided not this time? They're in Heaven. Did your incredible stupidity lose you your job, your wife, your reputation? God would forgive you and rescue you from the consequences. You could probably find a Bible verse to justify anything you're doing. Ironically, this artificial shell of safety, which kept us from ever facing the pain and finality reality often has, made us all the more fragile inside. The bubble became necessary to psychologically survive.

In this flow of happy mirror neuron dances, minor disagreements felt like a slap on the face. The shock afterward burned harder than a hand-print across the face. 

25 years and, what seems like 86 billion light years of questioning, testing, and learning from that world-view, can see even beyond religion, people fall into bubbles so easily. The political conservatives only post articles from conservative blogs. The liberals post from liberal news sources. None have ever gone hunting on the opposing side for ways to test their own beliefs even once. Ever debate someone over a bill that they haven't even read? All their info comes from the pravda wing of their preferred political party / street gang, none of it is first hand knowledge. They're in a bubble.

Three of the most popular religions that worship the same God will each tell you the others are counterfeits, despite the shared moral codes, values, rituals and traditions. Apple fanboys who wholesale swallowed the lies about their OS / machines being immune from viruses, without ever having read one article of an IT security blog. It's not just confirmation bias at work, people live in an artificial information bubble of information sources that affirm their identity, soothe their egos, and never test any idea that they have. Scientific controversies create bubbles no less. But it doesn't even take a controversy, just a preferred source of information -- news, blogs, books, authors. Even if such sources attempt to present an idea or argument from the others who disagree, they do not present it with sufficient force.

Even Google will gladly do this for you by customizing your search results by location, demographic, past searches, etc, to filter out things you may not want to see, providing a convenient invisible bubble for you even if you don't want it!

If you're rational, there's daily work to break the bubbles by actually looking for ways to test the beliefs you care about. The more you care about them, the more they should be tested.

Problem is, the bigger our information sharing capabilities are, the harder it is to find quality information. Facebook propaganda posts get repeated over and over. Re-tweets. Blog reposts. Academic "science" papers that have never been replicated, but are in the news headlines everywhere. The more you actually dig into the agitprop looking for a few gems, or at least sources of interesting information, the more you realize even the questions have been framed wrongly, especially over controversial things. Without searching for high quality evidence about a thing, I resign myself to "no opinion" until I care enough to do the work. 

And now you don't fit in anyone's bubble. Not in politics, not in religion, not even in technical arenas where people bubble up also. Take politics ... it's not that I'm a liberal and I miss the company of my conservative friends, or the other way around. Like the "underground man" I feel I actually understand the values and arguments from both sides, leading to wanting to tear the whole system apart and invent new ways or angles of addressing the problems. 

But try to have a conversation, for example, about the trade-offs of huge military superiority the US has created: costs and murder vs eventually conceding dominance to who knows who, as they say-- you either wear the merciless boot or live with it on your neck. Approaching the topic this way, and you may be seen as a weak peacenik who dishonors our hero troops or as a monster who gladly trades blood for oil; you're not even understood as having no firm conclusion.

Okay, so don't throw your pearls before swine you say. But you know, you're going to have to do it quite a few times just to find out where the pig-pen ends and information close to the raw sources and unbiased data begin. If you want to hear interesting new ideas from other minds, you're going to have to accept that they are biased and often come from inside their bubble. If you want to test your own beliefs, actively seek to disprove what you think, you will have to wade through oceans of bullshit and agitprop to find the one pearl that shifts your awareness. There is no getting around the work.

Then there are these kinds of situations: my father has also left the fundamentalist fold, but he has gone deeply into New Age mysticism instead of the more skeptical method I've taken. I really want to preserve our closeness and friendship. I know I can't change his mind, but he really likes to talk about this stuff so to stay close I should really try hard to understand his perspective and ideas. But even asking to define terms like "higher consciousness" or explain experiences of "higher awareness" or try to understand the predictions about human "evolutionary" steps coming up ... and he falls back to "it can't be described" or "it's beyond our present intelligence to grasp" or even "beyond rational thought" to understand. So I can artificially nod along not understanding a damn word about it, or I can try to get some kind of hook into his ideas and totally burst his bubble, without even trying. Bursting someone's bubble is not cool. If you burst their bubble, they will cry. If only inwardly. Burst their bubble, and they will try to burst yours, not to help you but from pain.

Problem is, trying to burst your own bubble, you're breaking everyone else's bubbles left and right. 

There is the temptation to seek out your own bubble just for temporary comfort ... just how many skeptical videos about SpiritScience or creationism or religion am I going to watch? The scale of evidence is already tipped so far, investing more time to learn more details that nudge it 0.0001% toward 100% isn't about anything other than emotional soothing. Emotional soothing is dangerous; it's reinforcing my bubbles that I will now have to work all the harder to burst, to test, and to train myself to have no emotional investment in any provisional belief. 

But it is so, so tempting, when you see yet another propaganda post for the republicrips or bloodocrat gang, vast scientific conspiracy posts, watch your friends and family shut down mid-conversation, so tempting to go read another Sagan book that teaches me nothing new but makes me feel good about my current provisional beliefs. It's tempting to think about blocking friends who run a pravda outlet over facebook, or even shut down your facebook account. It's tempting to give up on family in their own bubble and artificially nod along to concepts that have no meaning.

To some extent, I am even giving in by writing this ... I would like to see many other rationalists feel the same way and affirm my perspective and struggle with this, and that reinforces my bubble, doesn't it? There are probably psychological limits and needs that make some degree of it minimal. We're compelled to eat, but if give ourselves over to that instinct without regard or care it will eventually kill us.

Don't bubble, don't give into the temptation, keep working to burst the bubbles that accrete around you. It's exhausting, it's painful, and it's the only thing keeping your eyes open to reality.

And friend, as you need it here and there, come here and I'll agree with you about something we both already have mountains of evidence for and almost none against. ;)