Arguing from a Gap of Perspective
This post gives a name to a concept that I’ve encountered in many discussions recently: The Gap of Perspective. The concept is very similar to Inferential Distance in that there is a difficulty conveying your point with appropriate strength because of a huge difference in knowledge or experience. On top of that, the Gap of Perspective is based on an irrational distribution of opinion that runs inverse to the arguments, mostly because of tradition. The term Gap of Perspective is supposed to highlight that the other person does not update her opinion according to what the arguments suggest, instead staying closely to her original opinion. The reason for this is that she can’t see the arguments or evidence from your point of view. Thus, despite of overwhelming arguments for this sane perspective, people update their belief only minor steps away from the socially established perspective. I elaborate on this using some controversial examples that I need to hold my tongue back about in everyday life, because what I consider sane is considered radical by many of the people I interact with. Like with Inferential Distance, I feel it is important to notice the Gap of Perspective in conversations in order to understand the frustration of certain discussions and better cope with it.
Let me state first, that this is probably not a novel concept, because once seen, it feels obvious in a lot of cases. However, I don’t recall having seen it stated this way on LW. I feel like Tim Urban came pretty close with his elaboration of the Idea Spectrum which does avoid the possibility of one opinion being way saner than the other, which is perfectly fine for his line of thought.
This article contains quite some of my personal opinion in the examples, which is backed by many arguments that I will not repeat here. I mainly use the most obvious arguments, while hoping to avoid strawmanning. In the end, the Gap of Perspective is exactly that: A huge difference in perception of a topic caused by a huge difference in knowledge or experience, plus the failure to update the beliefs appropriately.
This is not a post of what people should belief. It’s about how it is sometimes necessary to look at a topic from a different perspective in order to get a reasonable consensus and notice when conversations turn (hopelessly) toxic. Also this post is a way to structure my thoughts about many frustrating interactions that I and potentially you encounter in our everyday life.
A Gap of Perspective
Opinions vary, which is mostly a result of upbringing, education, knowledge and experience, a great deal of which is formed by our society. No one would argue that society is always right, best shown by the shifts of societal opinion, e.g. on smoking, seat belts, homosexuality and maybe in general on (mostly) not burning witches anymore. This posts talks specifically about one-dimensional opinion distributions, like the ones stated in the previous sentence. We can call the distribution of opinions here the opinion spectrum. On this spectrum, I want to allocate two positions at (or near the end of) the edges of the opinion spectrum, which I call the established (widely accepted by society) and the sane (has a pile of good arguments, but is often not widely accepted) position:
Take smoking, for example: The sane position is (for us) obviously not to smoke (health, costs, harm to others, annoying others, health, environmental pollution, fire hazard, and did I mention health?). But how did the opinion spectrum in the range from fish swim, bird fly, humans smoke to smoking kills on this look in the 1960s?
Admittedly this is just me scribbling semi-arbitrary lines. But the facts that your grand-parents can tell you that smoking was allowed in planes and trains (have you noticed the non-smoking signs that are still in planes in 2021?), or that in any pre-1970-movie people were smoking all the time, show us the established opinion was pretty far from what we nowadays consider the sane position . If I’d redraw the opinion spectrum for smoking, I could probably find data nowadays on how the opinion has shifted and would be hard-pressed to find a single established point, since it highly depends on the country and culture. But it is hard to argue that the distribution of opinions has shifted a lot closer to the sane position, as indicated by a lot of policies (taxes, mandatory filters, smoking bans in certain public areas, especially indoors).
I am not arguing about what brought this change about and where to go from that. Instead, I’d like to send you (with your knowledge and being a non-smoker) back to the 1960s and ask you to argue with any person about smoking. How would you feel? Frustrated? Aghast? Despairing? Similarly, if we brought a habitual smoker from the 1960s to our time, she would probably feel the same.
But, you say, surely they would see the truth of our ways and adjust to our time. Sure. Exactly my point. In a society, where the sane (call it scientifically sane, maybe) opinion predominates, it feels right to do the right thing. On the other hand, in a society, where the established opinion is far from the sane opinion, you will have a hard time talking to people, like trying to convince people to stop smoking in the first half of the 20th century.
So the larger the gap between established and sane opinion, the harder it is to argue with someone . It is also harder to be at the same time educated and mentally healthy . This gap, I call the Gap of Perspective.
Let me explain the motivation for this term: Assume you got teleported into a society with a huge gap between the sane and the established opinion. Like it’s the 21st century and people still get imprisoned/burned for homosexuality . So the spectrum of opinion looks like this:
Now, you are on the sane side and want to argue with someone (Frank), who is living in this society. Frank is pretty reasonable and open-minded and won’t report you to the authorities. Now if you talk to Frank, he thinks from the perspective of the established opinion, while you start thinking from the perspective of the sane (or rather established in your original society) opinion. What would be the best-case result of such an argument?
You leave Frank slightly doubting the established opinion, so his opinion shifted slightly towards the sane position. Which makes sense, but feels frustrating and unsatisfying because you wanted to convince him to be at least close to the sane position. I mean, your arguments are completely reasonable, comprehensive and well-founded, while the status quo is seriously bollocks. But even worse, if you had talked to John instead of Frank, who is way less open-minded and has stronger ties to society, he might have shifted his opinion even beyond the established homophobic point. What? Did I mention your arguments were completely reasonable, comprehensive and well-founded?
My personal opinion is that this is due to a huge Gap of Perspective. If you could just make John see the world through your eyes for an hour, he would understand and potentially end up accepting homosexuality, tending more to the sane side of the opinion spectrum. Less convinced than Frank, but it would have been a huge shift. Sadly, there is that huge gap where you can’t make someone take your perspective. Unless… see later.
For now I want to highlight some key points:
A lot of hopeless discussions start from a huge distance between sane and established opinions. A consensus will always land close to the established position unless you manage to convey the sane perspective to the other person as the starting point of the discussion.
If the positions are really far away, your arguments might even convince the other person to go further away from the sane position (e.g. when the other person just labels you an idealist, commie, leftist, radical). Of course it is not just about the distance, but more about the distribution. Broader distribution of opinions should improve the mobility of opinions, allowing for more radical changes of mind (e.g. when the sane position is also widely accepted in society or at least in your peer group).
Noticing the width of the Gap of Perspective should invite you to rethink your discussion strategy. If you can’t take the other person’s perspective, you won’t understand why he disagrees so much with your arguments. And if you don’t manage to put the other person in your perspective, your arguments will only lead to a small shift of opinion, which might even be in the opposite direction of what you intended.
Results of arguing with a large Gap of Perspective
Personally, I feel mostly frustrated and hopeless in the face of discussions featuring a large Gaps of Perspective and don’t know how to deal with people whose opinions are so far away from mine. I noticed that this can even escalate and make wonderful people turn introvert and saturnine (yes, I guess that is the right word). Sometimes I observe someone (including me) shift their opinion beyond the sane position and becoming radical. What I mean by that is: ignoring of counter-evidence against their position, getting caught in echo chambers of singular opinion, and being depressed with society as a whole. From personal experience, I can state that living on the sane side in a society where that side is considered radical does serious harm to your social capabilities. Of course, everyone feels they are on the sane side, but there are just plenty of good examples where one side has clearly superior arguments and the society does not update appropriately or at least not in a timely fashion.
Of course we can’t avoid the discourse about topics just because society is stuck in a singular or bipartisan position. But how do we achieve (a) a broader distribution of opinions, to increase opinional mobility; (b) a faster movement of the established to the sane position in the society in general; and (c) a greater shift of an individual’s opinion towards the sane position in particular?
I don’t want to discuss this on a societal level, but instead focus on the individual, thus I will only talk about (c). For a great approach on thinking differently about (a) and (b), look at the amazing blog series by Tim Urban .
Move away to a saner society
The (potentially) obvious solution for your own frustration is to move somewhere else, where you find agreeable people. If you are in the US, maybe Canada is an option, or just change to a State that seems cool enough? I fear, there is no evading your insane politics unless California declares independence. If you are in Europe, there are some countries converging on reasonable policies in many areas, the sane ones coming to mind being The Netherlands, Denmark and Finland, in my personal opinion.
Instead of moving the country, you can also find groups that you identify with. Thanks to the internet, like-minded people are easier to find, but then you are also in the danger of landing in an echo chamber and alienating yourself from your environment. I highly recommend to not rely only on the internet to interact with those groups. Find like-minded people in your hood. Start/join an EA/LW/ACX/whatever group. Or found your own shared flat or commune.
Why do I recommend this at all? Isn’t moving really hard on yourself? Yes, but so is living in a society that you only share the location with. So instead of fighting the tide, you leave a toxic environment. The other two remedies are about changing opinions instead.
I can see two paths to changing the perspective of someone to approach the sane side of the spectrum. One is the hammer, that is overwhelming evidence that hits you like a chair, in the face. Three kinds of hammer come to mind:
A huge catastrophe, e.g. the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters, which led to huge shifts of opinion on nuclear power plants in some countries . An even greater but less known example is the flood that almost drowned half of Holland thereby leading the Dutch to become the best dyke-builders in the world.
Something happening to a close friend/relative, e.g. a friend dying in a car accidents changes your opinion on wearing seat belts, an acquaintance dying of lung cancer manages to shift your attitude on smoking.
Something happening to you, e.g. you having a crash with your motorbike making you averse to riding motorbikes. Or getting diagnosed with type 2 diabetes might update someone’s attitude on nutrition.
Some things I would love to count as a hammer, like geneticists figuring out that there is an existing biological cause for homosexuality, scientists finding no difference in average IQ between different races, etc. But none of these revelations seem strong enough to convince people to a fundamental change of perspective. Rather, the opinion is being updated still from the established perspective shifting only by small bits. Likewise, the pile of evidence for smoking being unhealthy did not appear at once, but instead needed at least 1.5 generations to propagate change, even on the individual level. And we’re still not sane there. Similarly the evidence for the theory of evolution is piling up and we’re still not at a reasonable point of discussion on a societal level.
Hammers to bat you across the Gap of Perspective in one big hit do exist, but it seems (at least short-term) unethical to actively employ them for a change of perspective.
It needed a catchy word, so the staircase it is. I like this term, because climbing stairs is a slow and incremental process which requires both time and effort to shift the perspective from the established to the sane opinion. In my own experience (call it anecdotal evidence) I see opinions can shift/be shifted towards the sane end mainly by two means: books and role models. You might want to add articles/news/social media/podcasts here, but I think this is in a huge danger of putting you in an echo chamber.
I could add a lot of arguments in favor of books here, but I think the crucial point is that books have a lot of space to elaborate and repeat their arguments and it absolutely requires time to read them. So you have time to slowly adjust your perspective in incremental steps. And once you made it through the book, you’ll find another five books that you want to read on that point. If someone were to ask me about why I think meditating is a good idea, I’d recommend them a book. Sam Harris has put down his arguments in a well-written manner, while for me it’s impossible to explain it well in just a few arguments. Evolution? Richard Dawkins! Less wrong? The Sequences/HPMOR/Daniel Kahneman.
Beyond books, I think that role models (mainly friends) are of huge importance. Of course I could point at some high-level heroes and idols (like I just did with Dawkins and Harris), but they mostly influenced me through their books. What I mean are personal role models, friends, acquaintances, colleagues with whom we interact on a regular basis. Seeing your friend being at or moving towards the sane perspective makes you consider it a reasonable alternative to the established perspective. For example, meeting a rational anarchist after high school would have probably left me thinking something like “what a radical person”. But having shared an apartment with someone being close to these ideas and recognizing that he/she is smart and has good arguments leaves me more with a “what a cool person with reasonable points”.
One note on influencers: Podcasts are cool and practical, news aggregators and pseudo-social media are convenient. However, they mostly do not fulfill the most important criterion: giving you time and space to think about an idea from multiple angles by keeping you occupied with it for a while. How many articles can you read in a day? Will one of them strongly shift your opinion? How about ten articles of a similar kind? Maybe better? I think it took me all 3(?) chapters in the Sequences about lottery to finally accept it is completely irrational to play it and I’d better get a piece of cake for the money. What convinced me? Mostly the new improved lottery, but then I think it was mostly the combination of articles with multiple angles on the same topic . I would give a strong plus for open podcasts without a time limit, as well as reasonably researched articles that carry you further to other articles. Also blogs and platforms that follow on a topic for longer periods of time and are potentially written by different people. However, pseudo-social media is arguably not a good influence on people’s opinion unless it brings them to a decent platform like LW/ACX.
To me it appears that books can put you on a slippery slope with inverted gravity, making you ascend towards a saner point of view. Maybe they tilt the staircase so that the sane perspective is suddenly down. In addition, friends are of particular importance to not lose your mind in the conflict between what you read and what the society around you believes.
Animal (product) consumption
First, I am not arguing (here) that you should go vegan. What I want to argue is to start the debate on animal (product) consumption from near the sane instead of the established side of the opinion spectrum. The arguments in favor of veganism are pretty overwhelming, ethically, environmentally and (mostly) health-wise . In 2021, the spectrum looks qualitatively like this, with a lot of people having animal products in every single one of their meals. There is still hope, because there is a huge middle ground and a wide distribution of opinions, though:
Still, somehow I live among mostly reasonable people (even lesswrong-readers) who think it is totally normal to have no single meal without an animal product. Whenever I have an argument with such a NoMealWithoutAnimalProduct-person, for them it feels like a huge concession if they would eat one animal-free meal per week. (For a lot of people, even a meat-free Friday in the canteen seems unfathomable).
Seen from the plant-based side this “effort” feels not even like a drop in the ocean. Seriously, you have objectively correct arguments and the other person would not even stand watching Dominion, but here they are not even taking you seriously. Because they are still caught on the other side of the opinion spectrum.
A reasonable perspective should start from a plant-based diet and slowly ask which parts you can add ethically and environmentally, as well as what you should add health-wise. Plus, of course you can add a bit for your personal well-being. First, view nutrition through the eyes of a vegan. Only then, decide whether you need more protein (no), how much meat/animal products you need to fulfill your nutritional requirements, and whether it is ethically/environmentally acceptable for you to eat chicken, fish or eggs. If everyone could just look through these eyes, we could still have some rainforest left in the next years (or enter your polemic, but well-founded statement here).
Need a hammer? Watch Dominion. Rewatch after two weeks, best with a friend.
On a even more serious note: How many meat-consumers would be able to slaughter the animal they eat ? I don’t dare to bet here too much because at least the older generations have probably done this in their life and would laugh here. But I think this would be a real hammer-blow for plenty of young people to look at the animal that they want to eat.
The staircase: I don’t feel like reading here helps too much. Everyone who hasn’t read the facts about the horrific animal food production and its devastating environmental impact has probably been living under a rock in the recent years (if you are living in a level 4 country, that is). Books about nutrition are interesting though, and I find vegan cookbooks (which I was laughing at until recently) make living more plant-based actually attractive. Personally, I find that living with and meeting vegetarians and vegans is the best that can happen to slowly shift your opinion here. It has brought me on a years-long staircase up towards veganism and with hindsight I feel grateful for meeting these people enabling this comfortable shift.
Belief in (belief in) God(s)
Tricky topic, but I would state here that the evidence for there being metaphysical entities influencing our world in a conscious manner is abysmally small. So how do we explain this, then?
Again, I am not here to explain this (and yes, admittedly these lines are pretty arbitrary but suitable enough to convey my meaning). I want to point out that if you want anyone far on the established side (believing in God(s)) to seriously consider their position, a simple argument won’t do (as you have probably found out). My experience taught me to ever avoid this discussion, as long as the other person thinks belief in God(s) is separate from other beliefs.
Actually, there is a very workable hammer, but sadly it only works in reverse: Any credible appearance of a God and Him/Her breaking some laws of physics would probably greatly shift my opinion on the spectrum above. I feel like a lot of religions actually use this to convince their sheep of the Truth. I met at least two persons of incredibly different religious upbringing who were both convinced of their belief because God spoke to them in one of their dreams. :facepalm:
I think the only workable way here is to hand people a copy of The Selfish Gene, Letter to a Christian Nation, The God Delusion, Sapiens, The Sequences, and to talk about it. Actually reading the original Bible or Quran is also helpful for doubting their conviction, but I guess this is only for people who already disgress from dogma. I am not so sure about meditation because it is tainted by so much esoteric nonsense that it might lead some people further astray.
(Even though I wanted to avoid the societal level I can’t just not point out that it would be very helpful if people were talking about human values instead of christian values, and if states would stop being interwoven with certain religious groups.)
This is way more controversial than the above examples because the case is really not clear here (and might be quite individual). I still want to point out two extreme points of view which have a very hard time talking to each other. I am not calling any of it sane but we do roughly know where to find the established perspective.
On one extreme I imagine children in a >30h/week prison where they have to learn by repeating stuff written in books. I learned the Chinese term 读书 (dú shū, reading the book) for learning a book by heart and filling out an exam by vomiting the text back out. I’ve also heard the related german term bulimia learning. That is, no place for initiative from the students, creativity, or playfulness, in school. On the other extreme: unstructured play (which is kind of a pleonasm since play is by definition unstructured), leaving children to pick up everything they want on their own.
The first extreme can be used as an exaggerated version of what education is like in most level 4 countries, probably you’ve been there to some degree. The details strongly depend on which country you live in and who your parents are. The second extreme is pretty much the education that is depicted for hunter-gatherer societies with children learning from their seniors by playing together.
Again, I am not arguing for or against a side here. But if you try to argue for the unstructured play side in our society, you mostly feel the Gap of Perspective. Despite a lot of good arguments for an education system that allows for way more free play, as well as many good arguments against putting children sitting in classrooms for most of their young life, people usually can’t be convinced this is worth thinking about because they don’t know most of these arguments.
It seems that none of the things that should work as a hammer, manages to open up the discussion to create a more children-friendly education system. Not even when many scientists confirm that teenagers have a later sleep cycle and show poor performance because of lack of sleep will the time table be adjusted. (I don’t know how a lot of schools in the US seem to manage to implement this, in my European country this not even up to discussion, afaik.)
Again, books and role models: Reading Rutger Bregman’s Humankind helped me shift my perspective a lot, but then I wasn’t that opposed to it from the start. What I found way more convincing was meeting people who had a less formal education (or had less formal education). Finding them decent, educated, and successful human beings helps a lot. But then maybe there is selection bias here, because better educated parents send their children to more creative schools? Anyway, the case for strictly formal education being successful or efficient in conveying knowledge to children and developing their personalities seems highly doubtful, not even considering the (mental) health aspect of it.
I find myself tempted to imprint the Gap of Perspective on any frustrating discussion that I have. But the case is rarely as one-dimensional as stated in the above examples. Still, I can think of a few more, and so can you probably:
Cars in cities: Cities are mostly established for cars, not for humans. There are lot’s of arguments to fundamentally change the way we plan cities and new districts to create more and healthier space for humans and a better quality of life. But since planners start from the established perspective “every household needs a car”, we end up with a car-friendly new district with hopefully decent paths for pedestrians. If the planners were to start thinking from my (don’t call it sane, call it wishful thinking) perspective, they would design the city for humans and bicycles, while disincentivizing car ownership by providing convenient public transportation, bicycle paths, car sharing, and making having your own car a hassle. Starting from there you can compromise by adding a bit of space for private cars, but the district would be for humans first, ending up way closer to my dream space and enabling a huge shift in quality of life in cities. Luckily, this is not only a dream in some places.
Homosexuality: Still a political issue in a lot of countries. On an individual level, the old generation still lives in an established perspective (and guess who is ruling, mostly). Facts of genetics didn’t help too much, even “liberal” countries did not accept homosexuality legally until very recently. I once introduced conservative people to a flatmate, that they only later learned about was lesbian, thereby dealing an unintended hammer-blow to their opinion and shifting it way more than any facts could have done. But besides this, introducing a shift of perspective here seems like it will take a new generation.
“Using” facebook: You already know it: pseudo-social media makes you unhappy. You are not using facebook, facebook is using you. Still, usage of it is established. No matter how good the arguments against it, you just don’t manage to delete your account. I mean, what more arguments do you want besides it making your life miserable and it making a lot of other peoples’ lives miserable? It constantly spying on you? It predicting and exploiting your mood shifts? This is not something we can blame on any old and long established patterns of thinking. This is what you are still using. I really don’t know any way to shift opinion here, besides being a role model and acting as if not having facebook would be the most natural thing in the world.
Alcohol consumption: The facts are clear. But still, alcohol consumption is established and any argument on how we can further disincentivize the consumption still argues from the point where it is totally acceptable to have beer or wine daily, or to bring alcohol as a gift to friends and family.
Working on things we don’t believe in: This is a big and controversial topic. But the socially accepted (established) perspective is that you need a job to make a living and that it is totally acceptable even if your position is incredibly useless, harmful (designing ad targeting algorithms at a tech giant), or wasteful (designing or marketing the next generation self-driving smart fridge). It is a trap. Hard to walk around in our societies, mostly because most of the readers of this article will like their jobs despite the above mentioned attributes. Designing self-driving smart fridges is probably quite challenging and fun for an engineer. However, in my opinion, a sane perspective should start from considering the needs of human beings instead of aiming for full employment for everyone. Future automation or further technological disruption will arguably highlight the need for a change of thinking here.
All this leaves me wondering, where else are we still looking through the eyes of our cultural tradition instead of a reasonable perspective?
One point that I feel I have to mention here (again): I am not saying there is no progress. That would be a ridiculous statement. On pretty much any of the above examples (though arguably not on the last one), almost any nation in the world has shown progress towards the sane side of the spectrum. However, this shift is still way too slow considering the mountains of good arguments and piles of skulls that exist for most of these examples on the established side.
A friend who was reviewing this article asked me to add more on the topic of remedies to further shift an individual’s opinion. But all I’ve offered thus far is summed up as: “Give him a book.” This is certainly not great advice, especially since books can also be more misleading than individual articles or blog posts (same argument, more time, more exposure). They definitely don’t have an inbuilt sanity-guarantee. Still, I think it’s the most efficient way to get someone to acknowledge your point of view if there happens to be a good book on the respective topic.
After some pondering, a more romantic vision of shifting someone’s mind seems feasible under certain circumstances: It should be possible to get people close to you to see the world through your eyes by describing it better. Two ideas to that end:
Write a fictional (short) story or put down your ideas in some sort of readable article and read it to your friend. I wonder how many sci-fi books have been written with that motivation. And potentially most of lesswrong?
Have you ever walked blindfolded with someone else guiding you and describing the world? Maybe it is wishful thinking, but have you ever tried really describing your perspective to someone? Like not in a few sentences but really talked about it for as long as it takes with the other person only listening? I am a bit fond of the quote The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply. (by Stephen. R. Covey). I think that it is possible to get another person to see through your eyes. But there has to be the will and appropriate communication for it.
What could you take from this article?
A lot of discussions are doomed to be frustrating because of a strong asymmetry between two perspectives, one being culturally established, the other having a huge pile of good arguments. Sometimes the established perspective also has a lot of skulls in their basement.
To obtain a sane consensus, the discussion would need to start from the perspective having the pile of good arguments. However, discussion usually starts near the established perspective and people update their opinion often only with a small step near the established perspective.
The result of this is that opinions change only slowly, mostly. In order to have people see the world through your eyes, they mostly need a book, time to doubt, and someone to talk to.
For a great discussion how scientists were still smoking in offices while the stacks of correlations between smoking and cancer were piling up on their desks, I highly recommend The Book of Why by Judea Pearl. ↩︎
Yes, you can always meditate and still be happy. But violating your own convictions in everyday interactions is still hard on your psyche. ↩︎
If you still want to say anything that would say this makes sense today, please read The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee. ↩︎
To the historians of the future: As of 2021, everyone is anxiously waiting for GoT book 6, Kingkiller book 3 and Tim Urban’s next blog post. We have high hopes that the latter one will appear during our lifetimes. ↩︎
Let’s not discuss how harmful this shift is environmentally, please. ↩︎
Of course, lottery is not that simple. But take lesswrong in general. Reading only one article would not seriously shift your perspective. Reading many of them over a long time has probably had a huge impact on your way of thinking. ↩︎
If you don’t think so, try writing down your pro-animal-consumption arguments and find a reasonable vegan to discuss them. ↩︎
This refers to the “short-term unethical” I mentioned above. It seems cruel to make (young) people watch the slaughtering or even slaughter the animals they eat themselves. However, long-term I find that idea defensible. ↩︎