Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Learning and Persuasion: Rationality and Experiential Learning

The "torture" post just below led me to make a larger comment about how "the public" comes to coclusions about things. My understanding of the development of "Conventional Wisdom" and "Public Opinion" is about learning, not persuasion. Let me explain what I mean by learning versus persuasion. Persuasion is a reasoning process that can take place, theoretically, in an instant. Persuasion is what this blog is about (on a daily basis, although you might later agree with me that its larger purpose is to promote learning). Persuasion is about deductive or inductive reasoning, or it may be about emotional connection - it's about rhetoric and reasoning. Persuasion is essentially a static process.

Learning, by contrast, is a dynamic process that requires time. Learning proceeds from the belief that a person at time A may not be able to understand a concept, but may later be able to at time B. Hegel has something to say about the way the mind learns: he posits that you cannot go from A to Z directly, but MUST proceed through the intermediate stages of understanding along the way. The mind must, he argues, adopt and then later discard stages of understanding as it proceeds to superseding stages of understanding. This broad and somewhat bastardized reading of Hegel is useful here to distinguish leraning from persuasion.

A related concept is "Bayesian updating." This concept- which RBR can speak about - is not necessarily theoretically arrayed on either side as learning or persuasion. It can denote merely learning new information and updating one's preferences, or it might mean acquiring new understanding through experience, thereby updating one's preferences. I want to put a bracket around this concept unless RBR can say more about it that helps, since it may confuse more than help. It may or may not be a useful way to think about this. But it is crucial to realize that even something so rational as game theory can allow for experiential process learning. I'm not arguing against rational-actor assumptions, but against a particular "hard" rationalist view of them.

My argument about torture, in short, is that the public needs to learn; it cannot be persuaded. Learning requires digesting narratives. (forgive the pomo talk). Learning takes time. That is why the TV show "24" was so deadly. It provided a narrative that torture was necessary and effective. [I joke sometimes that "drama is more important than truth." It's only half a joke. Greeks understood that drama was a way of condensing the time of learning by allowing the audience to participate and experience the learning of characters on stage. This is what liturgy is about too, but I digress].

I will make the same argument about negotiations. Negotiation/mediation between opposing parties is not merely a process where we put our cards on the table and discover an optimal solution. At a radical, rationalist place, some people take this view. Some game theorists may simply decide that negotiation is about finding this optimum. Others may take a different approach, since game theory is a flexible tool. I believe that negotiation requires learning. The positions of both parties need to evolve, and evolution requires time. Persuasion alone will not accomplish the change. Solutions are not just rhetorically, but literally unthinkable until the opposing parties to a conflict undergo experiential learning about the other. Crucially, what changes is not just the information available to parties (which could theoretically be downloaded instantaneously) but the ability to process and combine the information to seeing new possibilities.

Experiential learning posits that the solution to a problem may not be visible ex ante, at least not to the parties involved. Note that I am not saying that it takes a while to persuade people to see the truth. I do not mean to present a static image of sweeping away cobwebs or the scales from the eyes. I am talking about seeing with new eyes.

Whether solutions to problems are visible ex ante to scholars considering the issue is another matter. I think the answer is yes. This is not a mystical process about coming to know the unknowable. But the problem is that one cannot persuade one's colleagues easily, because one must make statements about where the parties will be in the future that seem unrealistic and impossible now. In other words, a scholar may be right, but will not be believed by his colleagues. He may have to teach them.

The Obama administration believes in collecting parties together "at the table" to talk. He is not suggesting that they merely explain themselves, but that they explain themselves to each other, and allow their own understandings to change. I urge anyone interested to read Uri Savir's discussion of the Oslo process in 1994. It's called a peace "process" for a reason, I think. Not because it takes time to persuade, but because the parties need to experience and learn.

Matchmaking involves this sort of prescience - to see in the parties what they cannot see for themselves.

I am reminded of Mark Twain's wonderful comment that, "When I left home at 18, I thought my parents were the stupidest people on earth. When I returned four years later, I was amazed at how much they had learned." You can't persuade teenagers; you must allow them to learn for themselves. The same holds true of public opinion, I believe. The meaning of history, race relations, gender relations- so much of our culture wars are about learning, not persuasion. It's why our politics is one of hoarse shouting, futile persuasion. And this is why a generational gap develops too, I think. Each new generation has different experiences than the one before it - starts at a different place.

So these are thoughts on a big debate in academia applied to some narrow political issues. I wanted to spend a half hour (when I should have been working) doing this. Now I need to shower and go to work.


Dr. Strangelove said...

If I understand you, then experiential learning is not really a substitute for persuasion but a necessary prelude to persuasion: person often must digest a new framework before they can be persuaded within the terms of that framework--and that process usually requires gaining new experiences. In this context, the process of teaching someone is a process of affording them new experiences that will allow them to understand a different frameworks--and the rational syllogism comes later.

A professor of mine once observed that one of the problems with how physics is usually taught is that we, "teach forward but understand backward, "by which he meant academics tend to structure their lesson plans as a semester-long exercise in the deduction of real world phenomena from first principles, even though most students learn better inductively, abstracting first principles from real world phenomena.

I remember in High School (this is so geeky of me--forgive me...) I was trying to understand how the same gravity that governed the motion of everyday objects could also govern the motion of the moon. What bothered me was that when you throw every day objects, they fall in parabolas, while the moon moves in a stately circle. (I had just learned about parabolas and how to graph them.) And then one day it hit me: "What if the moon keeps trying to fall down, but the direction of 'down' keeps changing--because 'down' means toward the center of the earth?!"

I still remember that moment of insight with great clarity. So I got out my quadrille graph paper and tried to draw tiny little bits of parabolas strung together. The smaller I drew it the better it looked. I actually did the calculations, to try get the plot exactly right--but it ended up as a complicated endless summation of little bits. I remember thinking that if I could just get the parabolic pieces small enough, then it would magically become a circle. I showed this to my father who said, "You really need to learn calculus."

It would be another year or so before I finally did. The formalism of epsilons and deltas proved a formidable obstacle for me. I actually argued with the teacher repeatedly that what he was doing was "dividing by zero" and made no sense. (I am not by nature an argumentative student. But I argued so much he ended up putting a question on the final exam, to explain why it was *not* dividing by zero.) And then one day I saw through the veil of weird notation and realized calculus was actually that magic of smallness I had been looking for: it lets you make those parabolas infinitesimally small, and the circular orbit truly does emerge as the limit.

All that is to say, both learning and persuasion were required. But I could only be persuaded by the formal logic until I realized the right framework--until I realized that by luck I already knew the shape of the hole in my understanding that calculus was meant to fill. I wonder if I ever would have understood it otherwise.

USwest said...

Dr. S, you are such a nerd. Loveable, but a nerd!

I encounter this relationship between learning and persuasion all the time.

I try to explain to an employee why her actions are counterproductive, and she is so trapped in her way of thinking that no persuasion or learning can take place. So I think about what my dad use to say to us when we were not persuaded or ready to learn , "you'll grow up one of these days."

I am not sure where this applies in this discussion, but we also learn differently as we age. In my world, we talk about the difference between adult learning vs. childhood learning.

Adults are, by nature, more independant and this, more likely to doubt. So until you can prove to them that torture took place, you can't persuade them about how to deal with it or teach them why it is bad.

The Law Talking Guy said...

It's worth noting pehaps that Alcoholics Anonymous has 12 steps, not just one (i.e., stop drinking).

Dr.S - teaching yourself, as you explained it, is a very powerful but rare experience for most people.

Dr. Strangelove said...

LTG: I would clarify that I certainly did not teach myself calculus, but I was ready for it when we got to it in school. The point is I believe I would have had a much harder time learning the subject if I had not had prior experience that pointed the way.

USWest: As I understand it, few people doubt the CIA did most of the things detailed in the torture memos. Many applaud the CIA for doing so, especially right-wingers. The trouble is that most Americans still believe torture is the only rapid and reliable way to extract critical information from terrorists. (Of course, torture is neither rapid nor reliable, and there are far better methods.)