Ideas flow easily into empty vessels

I remember a few events in college.

I went to a small liberal arts college in the Netherlands. The students were almost all left wing and anti-war/anti-us foreign policy. I was sitting in an extra curricular lecture on the Syria conflict organized by an American professor. She had invited the head of a pro-washington think tank to come in and talk about the conflict. What followed was 40 minutes of propaganda. Pictures of dead children. Descriptions of how the Syrian regime was barrel bombing civilians. Conspicuously absent was any mention of the various atrocities committed by the Washington/turkey backed rebels. At the end of the lecture the presenter passed around a letter and asked people to sign demanding tougher military action against the Syrian regime. Of the 60 or so left wing students, I’d say more than half were willing to sign. All it took to convince them to put their name to bombing a foreign country was a 40 minute lecture.

Another memory from university. I was the coach of the debating society. An older PHD student, a former successful Indiana lawyer, who attended our sessions asked me to attend an event with him. It was a show debate between me + him and another team formed of two students or professors. I can’t quite remember. This took place during the height of the refugee crisis. The motion was something along the lines of "Europe should not accept refugees". We were arguing in against accepting refugees. The audience was literally only sociology PHD students. Almost all were pro migration initially. After 20 minutes of speeches by me and my partner and a sound crushing of our opponents, more than half of the spectators were convinced of our side of the motion. Many literally came up to us afterwards and told us that we’d changed their minds on the issue.

Why is it so easy to convince people of things, even things that they strongly disbelieve? A few ideas.

One reason is that most people are empty vessels. If you read broadly, your mind is filled arguments and ideas. Whether the question is land reform, a war, a law or any other pressing issue you’ll at least see the outlines of the debate. Know roughly what the different sides say. That gives you an inoculation to persuasion. You can tell when a speaker is missing one side of the debate. You aren’t as easily swayed by one-sided narratives or surface level arguments. On the other hand, when you read almost nothing and know almost nothing any argument or theory sound appealing and persuasive. If you think I’m being too harsh, I’m not. Of the students I shared classes with, almost none read beyond their course readings. Those that did read at best a book or two, usually poppy stuff. This is the intellectual elite. Normal people don’t have even that.

Another reason relates to the wrong amount of trust/epistemic modesty. Rationalists talk a lot about epistemic modesty. That’s part of it. You shouldn’t be ready to sign your name to a letter asking for the bombing of a country, essentially taking sides in a civil war, after a 40 minute lecture. You should realize that you are fallible, ignorant and that there are people whose sole purpose is to persuade you and who are pretty good at their jobs. A more important part and one not as often discussed is trust. Ask any mentalist or stage magician and they’ll tall you how important the social proof of the stage and the role is. Something similar happens when people listen to arguments from someone they perceive as being high-status. If I walked up to those same students in either case on the street or after a class and gave them the same arguments, I doubt more than 5% would be convinced. But when you have a stage and a role, people’s minds turn into mush.

It’s scary how easily influenced most people are. Maybe it’s not as bad as I think. After all a high-ranked liberal arts college essentially means your selecting for people who are agreeable enough to sit through years of school work and homework and study enough to get good grades. A sociology PHD means the same + being willing to swallow mountains of bullshit. Still, I’m not hopeful. My experience of people at work or in high-school wasn’t better.

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