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Is social media killing intellectual humility?

"One way the internet distorts our picture of ourselves is by feeding the human tendency to overestimate our knowledge of how the world works," writes philosophy professor Michael Patrick Lynch.

Image: Shutterstock / Big Think
  • Social media echo chambers have made us overconfident in our knowledge and abilities.
  • Social psychologists have shown that publicly committing to an opinion makes you less willing to change your mind.
  • To avoid a descent into epistemic arrogance and tribalism, we need to use social media with deep humility.


"Every liberal loves the figure of Socrates," Jonathan Rauch writes in his 1991 book Kindly Inquisitors, "who has taught so many people the method of skeptical inquiry and the importance of intellectual humility—of trying to keep in mind the difference between what you know and what you just think you know."

But in the social media age, is Socrates—who died proclaiming, "I know nothing except the fact of my own ignorance"—still the liberal ideal? Or has the internet ecosystem destroyed intellectual humility by rewarding echo chambers, public commitments, and takedowns over earnest truth-seeking and discovery?

Egos in echo chambers

An echo chamber is an infinity of mirrors.

Photo: Robert Brook via Getty Images

"One way the internet distorts our picture of ourselves is by feeding the human tendency to overestimate our knowledge of how the world works," writes philosophy professor Michael Patrick Lynch, author of the book The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data, in The Chronicle of Higher Education. "The Internet of Us becomes one big reinforcement mechanism, getting us all the information we are already biased to believe, and encouraging us to regard those in other bubbles as misinformed miscreants. We know it all—the internet tells us so."

In other words, the internet encourages epistemic arrogance—the belief that one knows much more than one does. The internet's tailored social media feeds and algorithms have herded us into echo chambers where our own views are cheered and opposing views are mocked. Sheltered from serious challenge, celebrated by our chosen mob, we gradually lose the capacity for accurate self-assessment and begin to believe ourselves vastly more knowledgeable than we actually are.

Could we begin to change the social media economy so that it rewards good-faith discourse, discovery, and the free exchange of ideas rather than epistemic arrogance and tribalism?

The consequences of public commitment

But it's not just the social reinforcement mechanism of like-minded crowds that is killing intellectual humility. It's also our own digital trails—the permanent records of our previous opinions.

"Here's another way that Twitter may harm democratic debate," New York University Stern School of Business professor Jonathan Haidt tweeted in January 2020, attaching a couple pages from Robert Cialdini's seminal marketing book Influence. "Publicly committing to an answer makes people less receptive to info suggesting they were wrong." In the excerpt from Influence, Cialdini summarizes an experiment by social psychologists Morton Deutsch and Harold Gerard in which three groups of students were shown a set of lines. One group was asked to write down their estimates of the lines' length and turn their estimates in to the experimenter; the second group was asked to write down their estimates on a Magic Pad, then erase the pad before anyone could see; and the third group didn't write down their estimates at all. After the students were shown new evidence that suggested their original estimates were inaccurate, Cialdini writes:

The students who had never written down their first choices were least loyal to those choices. . . . [B]y far, it was the students who had publicly recorded their initial positions who most resolutely refused to shift from those positions later. Public commitment had hardened them into the most stubborn of all.

Thanks to social media, most of us have publicly committed ourselves to our opinions. Our feeds are years of publicly published diary entries with our frozen-in-time thoughts on politics, news, relationships, religion, and more. Savvy social media users worry about how their digital trails will affect their future job prospects, but few people worry about how their digital trails might be affecting their own minds. By committing ourselves publicly to our present opinions, we may be hardening ourselves to future information that would otherwise change our minds—and thereby foreclosing upon our capacity for intellectual humility.

Rewarding hot-takes and takedowns

All we need is more likes.

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

Even if some people are open to changing their minds, they're unlikely to come across the kind of content that will provoke earnest discovery and growth on social media. With its currency of shares, retweets, likes, and ratios, the social media economy picks losers and winners. It rewards atta-boys and pile-ons; memes and humiliations; short, brutal interactions where a winner "crushes" a loser.

"Twitter is obviously full of the notion that what we should do is condemn those who disagree with us," University of California, Berkeley, political scientist David Broockman tells Vox in an article on How to Talk Someone Out of Bigotry. Broockman and his fellow researchers are experimenting with "deep canvassing," a technique of patiently engaging voters in 10-minute, in-person conversations while listening nonjudgmentally. Unlike social media interactions—which are brief, performative, and often judgmental—deep canvassing has been shown to be successful at changing people's minds.

Vox's Brian Resnick writes:

The new research shows that if you want to change someone's mind, you need to have patience with them, ask them to reflect on their life, and listen. It's not about calling people out or labeling them fill-in-the-blank-phobic. Which makes it feel like a big departure from a lot of the current political dialogue.

In other words, the kind of dialogue that actually has a chance of changing people's minds—of breaching their epistemic arrogance and forcing them to confront the limits of their own knowledge—is precisely the kind of nonjudgmental, long-form, authentic discourse that is not rewarded in the current social media economy.

So the big question is: Could we apply lessons learned from deep canvassing to social media? Could we begin to change the social media economy so that it rewards good-faith discourse, discovery, and the free exchange of ideas rather than epistemic arrogance and tribalism?

Use social media with humility

"Think about the last conversation you had where you thought, golly, that was such a great conversation," Institute for Humane Studies president Emily Chamlee-Wright said in an interview with Big Think. "The chances are good that it was a kind of conversation that left you feeling smarter. It was the kind of conversation where you felt like you discovered something new, that it left you deeply curious about something else."

Chamlee-Wright, a former economics professor and provost who has written extensively about discursive ethics, explains why intellectual humility is the first basic design principle of a good conversation.

[T]he world is an incredibly complicated place. None of us can ever have the full lock on truth. We can only see the world from a particular vantage point. And that means that our knowledge is going to have special insight because of our vantage point, but it's also going to be limited because of our vantage point. And so that limited knowledge that we can have about the world means that we must enter into any conversation with a deep sense of humility, because I need you to help me fill in my knowledge gaps. Right? And you need me.

Consider this: Social media presents limitless possibilities for good, learning conversations—like deep canvassing—between strangers across the globe. If each social media user approached online interactions from a position of deep intellectual humility, recognizing that every other user represents an opportunity to fill knowledge gaps and grow, our social networks could become an unprecedented engine of human progress—instead of the drag-down into tribalism they currently seem to be.

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Chronic stress and captive orcas

A new study lays out the case for the damaging effects of stress on orcas living in tanks.

Image source: Thanaphong Araveeporn/Shutterstock
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  • There are currently around 60 orcas living in concrete tanks globally.
  • Orcas' brain structures and behaviors strongly suggest smart, emotional, self-aware beings.
  • The study provides compelling evidence that the stresses inherent in captivity do damage to these naturally free-roaming cetaceans.

A study, "The harmful effects of captivity and chronic stress on the well-being of orcas (Orcinus orca)" recently published in Journal of Veterinary Behavior is the product of a unique collaboration of experts in marine mammal science, veterinary science, internal medicine and psychiatry. It makes the case for a careful consideration of the impacts of chronic stress on captive orcas, at least 60 of whom are currently in captivity. Most have spent years or decades of their lives in these conditions. 56.7% of these orcas were born in captivity, with 26 captured young. (Orcas are actually the third most commonly confined cetaceans — there are even more bottlenose dolphins and beluga whales held in tanks.)

The study explains how the continual, oppressive stress inherent to a captive orca's life is unhealthy and should be more thoughtfully addressed. Study lead author biopsychologist Lori Marino tells Big Think in an email:

"Our review shows that intelligence, complexity, and awareness are characteristics that make an animal more — not less — vulnerable to the effects of captivity. That seems counterintuitive because a lot of people think that the more mental resources you have the better you are able to cope with various situations. But it is also the case that the more mental capacity you have the greater your needs in order to thrive and the more extreme the impact of living in an artificial environment, that is, an environment outside your adaptive envelope."

While skeptics may consider it a leap to assume that orcas are intelligent and emotional enough to suffer the ill effects of stress, Marino responds, "That would be a claim in search of evidence. Stress is a common phenomenon in all mammals and many other organisms. The effects of chronic stress have been well-studied in mice, rats, dogs, etc." The study provides ample evidence that orcas are exceptionally intelligent, feeling creatures in any event.

The orca brain

Image source: FineShine/Shutterstock

The orca brain exhibits neurobiological traits that are considered prerequisites for complex psychology, emotion, and behavior:

  • a large brain size
  • an expanded neocortex
  • a well-differentiated cortical cytoarchitecture
  • an elaborated limbic system.

Even more important than sheer brain size is its size in relation to an animal's body. This is captured as the organism's encephalization quotient, or EQ. Says the study, "Odontocetes, and in particular Delphinoidea [the superfamily to which orcas belong], are the most highly encephalized nonhuman taxonomic group known … except modern humans."

Orcas also have the most highly convoluted, or folded, neocortical surface of all mammals including humans, and their ratio of neocortical surface to brain weight also exceeds the human brain's, suggesting an organ well-suited to higher-order functions.

Among a range of other clues presented by the study that suggest orcas are highly intelligent creatures are these:

  • Areas associated in the human brain with high-level cognitive and social functions including attention, prediction, social awareness, and empathy are all highly developed in orcas.
  • Orcas have a well-integrated mammalian limbic system that supports having emotions, memory, motivation, reasoning, learning, and abstraction.

Supporting behaviors

Image source: Willyam Bradberry /Shutterstock

Observations of orca behavior richly supports the implications of their neurobiological structures. Marino says, "Free-ranging orcas live in tightly-knit social groups that are necessary during their long juvenile periods and afterwards. They support each other, help each other when in trouble, and grieve each other. Mothers and calves are very tightly bonded. In some groups, male orcas stay with their mom their whole life and if mom dies [the male offpsring] may go into a deep depression and die as well. Family and social group are everything."

Orcas also demonstrate culture, with vocalizations and even hunting methods unique within groups and passed from generation to generation.

"Orcas at Punta Norte, Argentina, hunt sea lion and elephant seal pups by beaching themselves and capturing the pups, typically in the surf zone," according to the study.

Captivity morbidities

Image source: Peter Etchells/Shutterstock

In the wild, free-ranging female orcas live an average of 46 years — some live as long as 90 years — and males 31 years, or as long as 50-60 years. Captive orcas rarely live more than 30 years, with many dying in their teens or 20s. Their medical histories can be difficult to access due to facilities' desire for confidentiality. Nonetheless, some morbidities, or causes of death, have become clear over time.

One review from 1979 identified infectious disease as the culprit behind the death of 17 captive North American orcas who'd died since 1965 prior to the report's writing. The new study cites publicly available documentation revealing that between 1971 and 2017, SeaWorld parks alone have experienced 35 documented orca deaths, and that, "When causes of death were available, the most commonly implicated conditions were viral, bacterial and fungal infections, gastrointestinal disease, and trauma."

Infections such as these may not in and of themselves have necessarily been lethal, but when combined with orcas' "weakened immune system, chronic exposure to chemical irritants or trauma to the skin, excessive or improper use of antimicrobials, and an imbalance in the microbiota of the body or environment (which may exist in tanks)," they become deadly. Common fungal infections may also especially dangerous in this context "as a result of long-term and aggressive antibiotic treatment, overtreatment of water for purity, or both." The same is true for untreated dental infections.

Another frequent cause of orca death: gastrointestinal ulceration — ulcers — caused by prolonged exposure to stress.

The destructive power of stress

Image source: eldeiv/Shutterstock

"Importantly, the poor health and short lifespans of captive orcas are most clearly understood as connected elements in a cycle of maladaptiveness to the conditions of captivity that involves behavioral abnormalities, physical harm and vulnerability to disease."

The paper shows, says Marino, that "when you examine the totality of the welfare findings for captive orcas the whole picture fits best within a larger common framework of evidence on how stress effects captive animals. We know that, when confined, other animals show the same kinds of behavioral and physiological abnormalities that captive orcas do. This is not mysterious or even controversial. It is basic science."

Marino cites as especially damaging the manner in which captivity prevents orcas from making social connections. Tanks also deprive them of places to retreat, making conflicts inescapable even temporarily. Finally, captive orcas are likely to become bored and chronically demotivated by the frustration over their loss of autonomy.

The study also notes physical effects brought on by long-term stress, including:

  • the release of too much cortisol by the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal, or HPA, axis, causing elevated blood sugar, suppression of the immune system, as well as metabolism and blood pressure issues.
  • alterations of the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex due to prolonged stress, potentially leading to Increased anxiety, post-traumatic stress, cognitive impairment, depression, and mood dysregulation.
  • organ degradation in response to unrelenting stress.
  • a loss of natural sensory information, about which, says the study, "a growing body of research has found that exposure to excessive or unnatural levels or types of acoustic input can cause a number of impacts to cetaceans, including but not limited to … accelerated aging, suppression of the immune response, as well as premature hearing loss."

A valuable conversation

Marino explains why it was important to conduct this study, saying, "My co-authors and I wrote this review to bring all of the available information on captive orca well-being together in one place and to suggest that we might all best be able to understand the effects of captivity within a very familiar and well-researched model of how chronic stress effects all organisms. We want this paper to be a catalyst for dialogue and further scientific exploration based on data as to how we can better understand who orcas are and how we can identify the important elements needed in a captive environment for them to thrive."

The Whale Sanctuary Project is hosting a free public webinar to discuss the study and the effects of stress on captive orcas with three of the study's authors Tuesday, July 14, 2020.

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