Equally True, Equally False

Note: I am not entirely satisfied with the phrasing in this post and would be happy to hear alternate articulations.

I have noticed that many unproductive conversations involve two people arguing about a phenomenon at two different levels of analysis.

Trivial example: You tell your children to “hold still” for a photo. One of them, inevitably, responds that “it is impossible to hold still because they are above absolute zero.”

“I’m holding still,” and “I am not holding still (because I am above absolute zero),” are equally true statements in different contexts. In the context of a photograph, you are only supposed to be as still as you can be. This is understood from context; no one feels it necessary to explain that you don’t need to stop the rotation of the Earth (which carries us along at a fast clip,) the beating of your heart, or the vibration of your atoms every time a picture is desired.

In the context of grains of pollen suspended in “still” liquid, the unstoppable motion of individual atoms does need to be noted and explained, as Einstein did in 1905.

The claim that Brownian Motion prevents you from holding still for a photograph is wrong, but the claim that it prevents grains of pollen from holding still in liquid is correct. Likewise, the claim that you are holding still for a photo is correct–and the claim that the pollen is still because you are holding the water still is wrong.

The weather is hard to predict, but I can predict with great certainty that July in the northern hemisphere will be hot, and next January will be cold–and vice versa for the southern hemisphere. These are different levels.

I recently read a well-written essay that I can’t find now but would like to link to if someone has it on the difficulties of discussing pretty much anything with certain types of people.

The discussion went like this:

Ordinary person: The sky is blue.

Academic: Excuse me? Do you have a source for that claim?

Ordinary person: What? The sky is blue. Everyone knows that.

Academic: For starters, there’s no such thing as “the sky.” The solid blue dome that ancient people thought surrounded the Earth is just an illusion created by the scattering of light. If you went up there, you’d discover that there is no “sky” to bump into. You’d just keep going straight into space.

Ordinary person: You know perfectly well that the term “sky” just refers to that expanse of blue we see over us.

Academic: Do you even know about Rayleigh scattering? The “blue” color is just an illusion due to the scattering of light. At night, when there’s not enough light for Rayleigh scattering, the sky is black. Man, you need to get out more.

These two people are both correct, but they are arguing at different levels. In normal, everyday conversation, the sky is, indeed, blue. People understand you perfectly well if you say so, and people also don’t call the sky blue while stargazing or watching a beautiful sunset.

People who are studying the way air molecules scatter light, by contrast, need to talk about the color of the sky in more technical detail in order to do their jobs.

Thankfully, no one actually gets into fights over the color of the sky because most people (even small children) understand the social context of communication. The point of speech is not to Say True Things, but to be understood by another person. If the other person understands me, then my words have done their job. If the other person does not understand me, then I need to rephrase. If I insist on speaking about something at a different level from what the other person is talking about, then I am being an ass who contributes nothing of worth to the conversation. (Note that we consider a consistent pattern of such conversational dysfunction, without inability to correct it, a symptom of mental disability.)

This normally understood conversational feature breaks down under three circumstances:

1¬†Confusion. Sometimes when we learn something new, like “color is an illusion,” it takes us a while to reconcile the new and old pieces of information in our minds.

Science, and thus our ability to learn technical information about the world, is a very recent invention on the scale of human history. A hundred years ago, people didn’t know why the sky is blue; two hundred years ago, they didn’t know what stars are made of. They didn’t have technical answers; they only had he lower-level explanations.

So it is understandable that people, especially students, sometimes take a while to integrate new information into a coherent view of the world, and in the meanwhile respond at incorrect levels in conversation. (Nerds do this a lot.)

2 Cognitive dissonance. This is similar to confusion, but happens because people have some reason–usually political bias–for wanting a particular answer. People may be genuinely confused about colors, but no one experiences cognitive dissonance about it. People experience cognitive dissonance about questions like, “Are men and women the same?” or “Do gun restrictions save lives?”

It is much easier to invoke confused logic to support your points when you want a particular outcome for political reasons.

3 Deception. This is confusion on purpose.

There is an old story¬†that when Denis Diderot was in Russia, visiting the court of Catherine the Great, he managed to annoy her majesty via his arguments in favor of atheism. Catherine called upon the great mathematician Leonard Euler to defend God. Euler proclaimed, “(a+b^n)/n = x, therefore God exists,” and the great but mathematically uninclined philosopher left in confusion.

The story is probably not true, but it illustrates the principle: sufficiently complicated arguments can confuse non-experts even when they are totally irrelevant. (Related: SSC post on Eulering.) Switching levels on someone is a fast and easy way to confuse them, especially if you have studied the subject more than they have.

People do this when they want a particular outcome, usually political. For example, people who want to promote trans rights will recount an array of technical, medical intersex conditions in order to claim that the biological categories of “male” and “female” don’t exist. Of course, the biological categories of “male” and “female” do exist, as do people with rare genetic disorders; the one does not disprove the other, and neither tells you what to do about anything trans-related.

I feel like there needs to be some efficient (and recognized) way of saying, “Yes, this is true, but on a different level from the one I am addressing. At the level I am addressing, this is false.”