Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Look at Those Around You, Find Your Better Way

Greg Lukianoff:

Infotopia, however, also emphasizes something that might seem to be bad news for free speech advocates: much research shows that group deliberation (that is, discussion of topics among groups) often does not do a very good job of making opinions better or more accurate. Group deliberation sometimes amplifies a particularly vocal member's incorrect opinions, and it often results in group polarization. Several famous studies have shown that when you bring together like-minded people and have them discuss a topic, they tend to become even more extreme in their opinions. It has been demonstrated that when a group of mixed viewpoints is broken into liberal and conservative groups that are then left to talk among themselves, the liberals emerge decidedly more liberal, and the same happens to conservatives, even when the individuals in the larger group had initially been much closer to agreement on the issues discussed.

...When groups start to grow cohesive, they often discourage and even silence dissenting voices or ones with contrary, but potentially important, information. The result is what another social scientist, Irving Janis, famously dubbed "groupthink", which is lethal to good decision making since it blinds us to holes in our logic, or to potential bad consequences of our decisions...Groupthink can result from forces as subtle as social pressure, an emphasis on group cohesion, the perception of someone's status, or even who speaks first. The techniques that Sunstein recommends to reduce or eliminate these effects are precisely the remedies to uncritical certainty. They include appointing a devil's advocate with the explicit role of taking the other side of any position, breaking up a group into opposing teams, and stressing critical thinking as a goal of greater importance than group cohesion.

My staunchly conservative father told me last month that he would vote for Elizabeth Warren if she were to run for President. I thought I must have misheard him, but no, he was serious. I'm not sure what the tipping point may have been, but apparently even he feels that some serious reform is necessary, partisan sympathies be damned.

There's been plenty of studies in recent years bemoaning the fact that the web, contrary to those rosy early prognostications, has turned out to make it easier than ever for people to seclude themselves in echo chambers where they never have to suffer a discouraging word against any of their cherished beliefs, and they never have to encounter a dangerous outsider except in the safe form of caricature. I don't remember where it was, but just the other day, in fact, I read about another such study claiming that higher levels of education correlated strongly with ideological conformity in one's social circle. Perhaps that's a phenomenon related to what Noam Chomsky has long said about the self-indoctrination abilities of intellectuals — basically, that education and smarts often only make people more skilled at tortured rationalization, whereas the vulgar, unwashed masses are too unsophisticated to know that it's gauche to loudly address bullshit by its proper name.

Formerly, I would have considered opinions like my dad's (or like those of that friend of mine) less interesting because of their apparent inconsistency. That is, in my more overtly rationalistic days, I thought it was self-evident that certain sociopolitical premises led inexorably toward certain conclusions. People who didn't seem to make enough effort to round off the illogical edges of their ideologies, well, what could you do with them? A single, irregular data point was useless for broader analysis. I wanted to think about median characteristics, not outliers. And so I found myself reading blogs that were more or less interchangeable in their opinions and choices of topics, where anyone who bothered to chime in to the conversation already agreed with the dominant point of view, thus reinforcing the subliminal perception that "everybody" thought this way.

I know how to paint in broad strokes if I want to. Now, I'm more interested in going back over things with an eye for seemingly insignificant details, wondering what I might have missed in my desire for intellectual cohesion and symmetry.