Reconciling divergent values

03/11/2022 0 By indiafreenotes

Reconciling divergent accounts is a metacognitive task of a high order. It entails deep thinking about the thought processes of other people, as represented in multiple accounts that may be at odds with one another and with one’s own ideas.

Making sense of and reconciling divergent views is a challenge of our time. Consider the following scenario: You were asked to investigate why people living in your city are getting cancer more often than people who live outside the city. You discovered that air pollution was worse inside the city than outside. You wrote a report to the Health Department director stating that air pollution was a likely cause of the high cancer rate. The director also received a report from another person that said a likely cause was not enough stores in the city for people to buy healthy fruits and vegetables. The director is not sure what to conclude and has asked you for advice.

The roots of epistemological understanding are found early in life in the conception of knowledge as reflecting an objective reality. This conception evolves toward a more correct one of knowledge as constructed by human minds but initially only as a multiplicity of subjective opinions a way of making sense of the inevitable discovery of multiple, often seemingly reasonable diverging claims. Only eventually, and only by some people, do subjective and objective dimensions become coordinated in an understanding of knowledge as judgment (rather than immutable fact or unconstrained opinion) based on evaluation in a framework of alternatives and evidence and, accordingly, subject to change. The absolutist believer in a single objective reality can simply dismiss one of two divergent claims as a false belief requiring correction. The multiplist, who acknowledges multiple realities, faces no reconciliation task at all because claims are regarded simply as the freely chosen personal possessions of their holders, like pieces of clothing. The evaluativist, in contrast, who seeks to evaluate and weigh contrasting accounts, supports the right to one’s opinion without succumbing to the view that all opinions are equally right and hence not subject to scrutiny.

Only at an evaluativist level, then, do diverging claims become a problem needing solving. Empirical support for this association exists. Individuals better at evaluating and reconciling diverging claims also show higher levels of epistemological understanding. Intervention studies have shown strengthening awareness of the existence of multiple perspectives to be effective in supporting progression from an absolutist to multiplist epistemology, either by explicitly pointing them out or by asking participants to envision them. Inducing progression beyond this, however, to the evaluativist level that would support comparison and potential reconciliation of divergent claims has proven more challenging. Despite their scaffolding efforts, participants “found it difficult to construct fully justified dual-position arguments and to explain and reconcile differences between accounts, instead seeing the task as identifying which account was correct. Furthermore, recognizing the existence of conflicting accounts does not necessarily reduce individuals’ certainty regarding a decision to be reached on the topic. They may simply feel they now know more about it.

Recognizing the existence of divergent views is an essential first step toward reconciling them, but it does not appear to be enough. Comparative analysis requires evaluating sources and hence accuracy of each account and then constructing relations among their components, as well as between each account and one’s own prior beliefs. These are all preparatory steps to reconciliation.

Multivariable Causality

The critical importance of evaluation and reconciliation of diverging claims, both within and beyond academic contexts, and the hypothesized mediating role of epistemological understanding led me to wonder whether there could be a weak link hampering progress beyond awareness of diverging views and toward efforts to evaluate, compare, and potentially reconcile them. This possibility takes us back to the earlier vignette. Adolescents typically failed to recognize that the two accounts were not in conflict because the two potential causes may jointly contribute to the outcome. This was not entirely surprising.

Reasoning about cause and effect is the most common form of reasoning humans engage in and the form most extensively studied by cognitive psychologists. Criteria for inferring causes change during the first decades of life in ways that are predictable but may seem paradoxical. Young children commonly regard an event as causal simply because it co-occurs with an outcome. They later adhere to more rigorous criteria and begin to distinguish causality from covariation and eventually may become able to eliminate potential causes via controlled comparison.

Surprisingly, however, children, teens, and even adults who have mastered this skill are likely to attribute a particular outcome to only a single factor. This is so even when they have themselves just demonstrated that other factors also affect the outcome. Moreover, the single factor to which causal power is attributed is likely to shift, with prior beliefs sometimes affecting these attributions: With factors A and B present in both instances, an outcome in one instance is attributed to factor A and in the next instance to factor B.

A similar tendency appears in open-ended explanations, unconstrained by requests to examine specific evidence. Adults show a preference for explaining a phenomenon in terms of a single favored factor. Failure of will power explains obesity. Discounting of an original cause follows discovery of a second cause. In addition, single-cause views are held more firmly and with higher reported affect than multiple-cause ones.