This is why I don’t believe you

April 5, 2021

A week ago I was injected with the COVID-19 vaccine, or the “genetic therapy experiment” as my friend calls it.

Am I 100% thrilled about getting the vaccine? No.
Do I think it’s the socially responsible thing to do? Yes.
Am I mad at people who don’t choose to take the vaccine? No.
Do I wish the powers-that-be would focus more on helping the general public become healthier so viruses like COVID weren’t so deadly? Yes.
Do I believe the COVID vaccine is the lesser of two evils for me, personally? Yes.

It’s complicated, so I decided to sum up my thoughts here, because this is an important topic, but I’m not just talking about vaccines. I’m talking about epistemology.

Since I only recently learned that word, I’ll give you a quick and dirty definition — epistemology is the branch of philosophy that’s concerned with knowing things, and especially how we know things. I’ve found that the more I understand the process of knowing things, and especially my own habits, tendencies and predilections, the better equipped I am to understand the world around me.

So who am I writing this for? Who is it exactly that I “don’t believe”? The mainstream media? My anti-vax friends? Scientists? My neighbor? The answer to all of that is “yes”. Let me explain.

Trust Me, It’s Complicated

Back in March of 2020 I wrote an essay called Uncertainty in the Age of Coronavirus, where I made the case that we are extremely uncomfortable with uncertainty. Let me just re-iterate that statement, because it’s the basis of what is happening here.

We are scared to death of not knowing.

Jumping to conclusions is a protection mechanism against the feeling of confusion and hey, I get it — confusion is no fun. But neither is ignorance.

The people I don’t believe, are the ones trying to tackle problems outside their pay grade. Sometimes we’re driven by the fear of uncertainty, but sometimes it’s because we don’t realize how complex a problem really is. We think it’s simple, but as we do more research it turns out there’s more to the story.

There’s a thing called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which has become very popular lately due to it’s relevance in today’s culture.

Simply put, when we set out on a journey to know something (especially on a complex topic), we tend to go through certain phases. The first phase is reached rather quickly, and it’s marked by over-confidence, and lots of conviction. It’s referred to as “mount stupid” on the graph below.

Let’s take the COVID vaccine, for example. If you have a high degree of conviction when you speak about the vaccine (either for it or against it), but March 2020 was the first time you did serious research about virology, you are on mount stupid. This shouldn’t even be debatable. Vaccines and preventing the spread of viruses is an immensely complex topic that you can’t possibly understand without years of rigorous study.

And yet, look at what comes after “mount stupid” — the “valley of despair”, and who the hell wants to be in a valley of despair? It sounds terrible. So what do we do? When we get the slightest hint that maybe the dude on YouTube overusing ALL CAPS and dispensing “TRUTH” is full of shit, we double down on our conviction.

We go deeper into our echo chamber, and find evidence of why we’re right, which in today’s internet is not just easy, but actually built in to the algorithms of the social media companies (and YouTube). They don’t profit from your valley of despair, but they love people on mount stupid who can’t shut up about how smart they are. It’s really good for business.

Echo Chamber Squared

While we’re talking about echo chambers, let me pose a modern day koan:

How do you know you are in an echo chamber?

Most of us will admit we’re in an echo chamber, but how do we know?
Answer: That information is coming from the echo chamber.

Stop and consider that for a minute. It’s like a flashlight shining on itself. The mind illuminating the mind. We call it self-awareness, but it’s just our mind playing tricks on us to avoid that uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty.

Your whole life is inside your echo chamber, and when you think you’re “outside” your echo chamber, it’s really just your echo chamber’s version of being “outside your echo chamber”, which of course means you’re still inside the echo chamber.

This is most obvious when you ask people about folks they disagree with. Typically what happens is they give you a “straw man” version of the other person’s argument, which is to say a dumb, unintelligent version of it. That’s because the echo chamber is your only source of information, but it fools you in to thinking you aren’t in one by feeding you information about “everything”.

So what should we do? How do we make sense of anything if all we’re being fed is what we already believe?

That’s a great question, because there are still decisions to make around topics that we can’t fully understand. How does one decide whether to get a vaccine? What initiatives to support? Who to vote for?

Here’s where we need to start.

Making Sense of the World is Super Duper Hard

If we don’t start here, nothing is possible. Life is complicated, and even the smartest humans on this planet are humbled by how hard it is to know things. They are constantly living inside big questions, and they marvel at how unknowable so much of life is. Because it is. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is probably sitting atop mount stupid and/or selling you something.

We have tiny brains that have been loaded with all sorts of shitty software from culture. Add to that the fact that we have limited time, limited attention spans, and can probably only become a true expert at one, maybe two things in our short life spans.

From this place of humility, we have a chance of making good decisions.

And yet, most of the topics we spend time “caring” about aren’t actually worth our time, or more accurately, they aren’t a good investment of our time.

How much time and attention would you say you spent on understanding the presidential election in 2020 or in 2016? A lot? A fuck ton? I gave way too much of my energy to that shit show, and I’m willing to bet you did too. And was it worth it? Did you ever feel like you had a good grasp of all the factors at play? Did your vote really make a difference? How much does the president really effect your life (other than having someone to hate or love)?

Now consider how much time you spend in your local community. How many block parties did you throw for your neighbors? How much effort did you put in to getting that speed bump installed where the cars go too fast down that street? How much do you know about local elections in your town, and how much campaigning did you do for those candidates, some of which end up winning or losing by a few hundred votes?

When people come to me and want to debate issues, it’s not just that I don’t believe they do good sensemaking — it’s often that I just don’t care. Most of these topics aren’t worth my time, because for every hour I spend debating why there’s an opioid crisis, that’s an hour I can’t be building a deck, or making art, or massaging someone’s shoulders, or any number of things that might actually make my life or somebody else’s life a better place.

COVID vaccine — I had to decide whether or not to get it, so I put in some research, called a few smart friends, and decided. Then I moved the fuck on with my life, because ultimately it’s not that significant a decision (for me). I know I’m not going to be able to invest the time needed to be an expert, so I didn’t try.

It reminds me of that distinction from Stephen Covey, which I find incredibly useful when applied to my life. He talks about the difference between our circle of influence and our circle of concern. Here’s a diagram if you aren’t familiar with it.

We can’t change the economy, and even if we could, that task is way beyond our pay grade.

The circle of concern is mostly wasted time, and it leaves us frustrated, hopeless and dumber for having put energy there.

That’s the thing about these issues we fret over, when we realize the futility of trying to fully understand them, it often makes the decision easier, because we realize we don’t have a full deck of cards, and just have to play the hand we got dealt.

As a side effect, we don’t become self-righteous pricks about our choices.

I have wonderful, smart friends whom I rely on for their wisdom, and part of the reason I have those friendships is I choose to spend my time cultivating those relationships, versus trying to be an armchair expert on issues I have no business tackling.

Just imagine what all that wasted time could have been spent on. How many gardens we could have grown, how many friendships we could have deepened, how many books we could have read. It’s mind-blowing.

In Conclusion

Dan Carlin, the host of the Hardcore History podcast, and one of my favorite humans alive, said something about our current discourse that is worth repeating.

He said that the reason we can’t have productive, meaningful discussions about current events is that we’re like people in a book club who all read different books. Before the internet, we watched the same three TV stations and generally heard the same thing from all the news anchors. In some ways this was limiting, but what it allowed us to do was have a basis for conversation, because we watched the same thing and could talk about it.

Today, this disconnection is the cause of so many pointless arguments. The moment I know a conversation isn’t going anywhere is when the person starts spouting off “facts” from a source I’m not familiar with, or points to research I haven’t seen.

When this happens, we’re not in the same book club, because for me to thoughtfully engage with what they are saying, I would have to go back and do all the same research they did, as well as fact-check and verify that those sources are worth considering in the first place.

Yet, I consider this a good thing.

At the end of the day, when I’m talking to a friend or family member about anything from politics to pandemics, I’m not arrogant enough to think we’re going to make progress on solving the world’s problems. We’re talking to get to know each other, and I’m much more interested in what they feel and what they think, than any sources they quote, or any grand conclusions about life they believe they’ve stumbled onto.

Do you not want to get the COVID vaccine because you’re afraid of the government experimenting your body? I hear you. Tell me more about that, I’d like to learn more about your values and your life experience.

Have you been locked in an underground bunker for a year and refuse to see anyone because of the Coronavirus? I’m curious what made you decide that. I’d like to learn more about what makes you feel safe.

Do you love Joe Biden or Donald Trump like the grandfather you never had? What do you love most about them? We can learn a lot about people by the way they admire (or look down on) others.

At the end of the day, I may not believe you, but I care about you — and your opinion matters — not because it’s the ultimate truth, but because it’s one of the ways we create intimacy, and that’s far more important to me than any political stance or opinion will ever be.

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