Binary Thinking

I have had three brief political conversations recently that astounded me, as they were with pretty smart people — two with a libertarian with biochemistry education, one with a progressive with cell biology education.

LP: If people are afraid of COVID, let them just stay home.
DM: Refusing to wear masks on a plane is a rather selfish thing to do. It says that your (trivial) right to not wear a mask is more important than their right to go in public.
LP: You’re a communist, go live in China.
DM: Seriously?
LP: Other than N95, masks have been proven to be ineffective. Someone shot water at all the masks and the only one that stopped the water was an N95.
DM: Viral infection is a probability game, not all-or-nothing. All masks, even lousy ones, stop some water, thus some virions — reducing the probability of infection. It is very simple math. Several global studies have shown reduced (not 0, not 100%) transmission where masks are used more.

DM: XXX is a pathological liar.
LP: All yyy lie, that’s what they do.
DM: OK, so you are happy to pay $100 per gallon for gas?
LP: Huh? Of course not, what does that have to do with anything?
DM: Well, $100 is the same as $5, because neither of them is zero. That is using the same logic as you are using. You are saying that someone who lies 20-30 times per day is the same as someone who stretches the truth 2-3 times per week, because neither never lies.

PP: I won’t vote for XXX because they are the same as YYY.
DM: Really? On almost every political measure, XXX and YYY are very different.
PP: But XXX is not ZZZ.
DM: On most issues, they are like this:
PP: XXX is not ZZZ.

A recent study found that (no surprise) the US is becoming polarized faster than other democracies ( Why? What can we do about it? I hypothesize that thinking in terms of false dichotomies and false equivalences has increased, and contributes to this problem. Binary thinking is lazy thinking, but it makes us feel more sure of ourselves, more certain in the face of high anxiety and cultural ambiguity, makes us feel good about ourselves. A recent paper in Scientific American’s fall 2022 special edition, “Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories” by Melinda Wenner Moyer highlights high anxiety as the emotion most correlated with jumping to conclusions and believing conspiracy theories. Though I do not have the evidence to back this up rigorously, I wonder if binary thinking is also a reaction to high anxiety, specifically caused by the complexity and ambiguity of reality. Binary thinking is surely very highly correlated with extremism, because it justifies anger and hatred.

Is it worse than it used to be?

Category thinking is a very strong human trait (Douglas Hofstadter in “Surfaces and Essences” argues that thinking is equivalent to categorization+analogy), and perhaps defines us as human. It has been around ‘forever’. And lazy thinking is much more common than even academics like to think (see especiallly the brilliant “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman). What has changed, in my mind, is what we apply this to. It was true for most of my life (I believe) that when people did not know anything about a topic, they would generally not force their opinions on others, and certainly no one would send hate mail to anyone who disagreed, especially when it is something they know little about. Darwin said those who know least are the most certain, so over-confident thinking has been around a long time. But what seems different to me is the acting on it. Hate mail, threats (and sometimes acts) of violence over things that are opinions, throwing yourself on the floor in a hissy fit when asked to wear a mask, spitting in the face of those wearing masks (isn’t masks the most trivial of issues??), people acting extreme over minor issues.

As cited above, our society is more polarized than ever before , and politics relies on name-calling hyperbole more than ever before. A politician recently said that of course they use extreme language, the more ridiculous and extreme the claims they make, the more money they get in donations. Did that happen in the turbulent ‘60s and ‘70s? I don’t remember it. Compare the 1964 election with an extremist running (Goldwater pretty much washed out with ‘in your heart you know he’s far right’) with the 2020 election with an extremist running. And in 2022, more outright extremists running for office than ever.

In a recent discussion on this topic, someone suggested that the US mythology is represented by our superhero movies. I agree, and therein perhaps lies a problem. In more ancient mythologies, the heroic characters (Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Achilles, most of the Greek, Norse, Hindu pantheons, so many others) are deeply flawed and often morally ambiguous. Superheroes might have psychological issues but are neither flawed nor morally ambiguous.

I was in the tech-ed community 27 years ago and a hotly debated issue was whether internet search (only Alta Vista, Google did not exist yet) would distort thinking and raise a generation of people who think every question has a simple answer. Many educators were passionately arguing about this. Now twitter, the meme, the short Tik-Tok video, and exchanges by messaging have taken over discourse, and hyperbole is the order of the day. Perhaps they were right to worry, but perhaps it’s more complicated than that.

My hypothesis is that increased reliance on false dichotomies, a notable rise in the use of binary (lazy) thinking contributes to the polarization and extreme and self-righteous behavior, and that a mythology (and our entertainment culture) that glorifies binary (superhero) thinking certainly doesn’t help. And high anxiety from an increasingly complex, multi-cultural, morally ambiguous context triggers this lazy thinking. And echo chambers just ramp up certainty of the extreme and often wacko views.

Absolutism (there is only one right way) is a variation of binary thinking. Certainly in biology (and therefore in humanity) that is rarely, perhaps never, the case. Darwinian evolution is perhaps the best example of this. For any problem posed by environments, there is a kaleidoscope of viable solutions. Reproductive strategies vary greatly, from 1 to millions of offspring at a time. Lifespan strategies differ. There are even significant variations to seeing. Most prominently, arthropods, cephalopods, vertebrates have very different solutions. Of course bats and birds take different approaches to flying, and wing movement patters differ greatly across the flying range. The diversity of organisms within any one ecosystem is clear testimony to many good solutions to the same complex problem.

But absence of absolutism does not mean unrestrained relativism. It is certainly not true that all answers are equally valid. The history of life is full of extinctions — there are many more wrong answers than right ones. Even species that don’t disappear morph into different other species in order to adapt, a kind of extinction as well.

For complex problems, there are several ‘right’ answers, but also an infinite number of wrong answers.

Is there anything we can do to move the needle on binary, false-equivalent and false-dichotomous thinking, other than giving everyone benzodiazepines? Now that it has been proven that extremist language gets more rather than fewer votes, (certainly more ‘likes’!) is there a way back? If our entertainment helped drive us here, can it help pull us back? Education was supposed to help prevent the gullibility for wacko rhetoric (years ago, in high school debate club, anyone using false dichotomies or false equivalence was called out and lost almost by default), but clearly it hasn’t. Why not, where has it failed? My guess is that education no longer teaches discourse or argument, only how to get good test scores. (It never did, really, just some in advanced English in my day.) There are no tests for open minds, only rewards for certainty (self-righteousness, arrogance).

It seems likely that absolutism and binary thinking are a symptom or a result of rampant cultural ambiguity and the anxiety it produces. One solution (the nationalist approach) is to attack multiculturalism and globalism, and attempt to reverse that. This is an extremist all-or-none reaction, which in my view serves no one well. My reading of history is that increased nationalism leads to war. I wonder if it is possible instead to treat the symptom. Call it behavior modification, which, despite a deserved bad reputation, sometimes works. Can we build a campaign to call out false dichotomies wherever we see them, campaign to add models of discourse in a serious way to our education goals, help people develop the mental and rational tools to deal with cultural anxiety incrementally instead of wholesale rejection and extremism? Can we help people reduce cultural anxiety with rational argument? Clearly not, but perhaps developing non-binary thinking habits in other areas can have a spread-of-effect.

I have not developed the idea well yet, but I would like to make a game that helps develop discourse and discourages or punishes binary, dichotomous thinking.