education philosopher

On Reading What One Agrees With

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on June 20, 2009

It seems to be a truism about people that we gravitate toward thoughts that we agree with, and tend to be much more critical, if not outright avoid, that which we disagree with. This is something that I try like hell not to do, even though I still find myself engaging in this habit more often than I’d like. When reading a book, it is much more comfortable to read those viewpoints I agree with and avoid books espousing ideas I think are wrong. The former is leisurely and the latter can be downright stressful.

Currently, I am reading a book called Fingerprints of God, where a journalist symapthetic to religion journeys to see if god can be proven by science. As an atheist, I tend to disagree with many things written in this book, and to be honest, I find myself from time to time pausing to “internally argue” with the author or one of the scientists she profiles. This is what I mean when I say that reading what one disagrees with can be hard work – mor unnerving than reading a book should be.

But quite frankly, for all of that, I become quite bored reading things I agree with over and over again. As an atheist, there is a hidden twinge of excitement in reading books espousing disbelief in god, but that twinge, at least for me, goes away after a while. One can only read the same arguments again and again. While I have recently read Thomas Sowell’s excellent Housing Boom and Bust, a libertarian explanation of the ’08-’09 recession that I pretty well knew I would agree with, I tend to read works by libertarians sparingly. It may be frustrating to read works from elsewhere on the political spectrum, but at least it does not often get old.

It is not easy to admit that reading those I disagree with can be difficult and uninviting. In fact, it is something of a humiliating confession. I feel like what I am saying is that I am only comfortable being exposed to ideas I find “safe,” or the cultist who refuses to engage with anyone else outside the cult.

But I think this is how most people feel; they would rather read confirmation of their opinions than attempts at refutation. Why? My guess is that (a) refuting refuters is harder work than agreeing with proponents; and (b) it is gratiftying to hear someone validating one’s own views and something of an insult to hear people attacking them. (In the behavioral sciences, the tendency to scrutinize opinions one disagrees with more than those one agress with is called “confirmation bias.”)

But, on the other side, – the reason I try to read things I disagree with – is that it reminds us that ours is not the only opinion out there. Getting used to hearing others’ opinions and arguments not only helps one exaine their own case, bolstering or revising it as necessary, but also keeps us conscious of the fact that our opinion is not the only one held.


One Response

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  1. David said, on June 21, 2009 at 1:18 am

    There are advantages to reading either type, and I think it’s important to split your time between them. If you only ever read things you agree with, then don’t come trying to change my mind… If you spend more than half of your effort investigating counterarguments in the long term, you’re probably wasting your time. And if you’re worried about being too set in your ways, you’re probably not one of those who needs to worry =).

    I’ve found back-and-forth discussion to be different than reading, so that even the people I’m extremely similar to are constantly stretching me. The people I disagree strongly with I’m finding less and less reason to spend time discussing things with. I just try to answer whatever honest questions they have for me and avoid getting drawn in too deep. With the people I tend to agree with, OTOH, I pay special attention to the things we disagree about.

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