There is a term in political and communication theory known as “democratic reason.” Generally, democratic reason is the collective intelligence of a group of people. It is the notion that democratic communicative processes – that is, things like inclusion, balance, equality, resources, speaking rights, participation – result in higher quality decisions. Or, we could express it in the everyday phrase “two heads are better than one.”
Netanyahu and Trump both fail to meet some basic communication quality standards. Both face electoral problems and controversies because they refuse to recognize attitude trends in the citizenry that call for inclusive and democratic input. Polls in Israel show that about 60% of the population wants peace and is willing to make some sacrifices. It is the leadership that is stubborn and not serious about real progress. Real progress, without being naïve, can be made if a representative group of people spent their time in serious deliberation with the goal of using the communication process to create new ideas solutions.
This notion that two heads are better than one is actually pretty powerful. Even in simple aggregation such as voting more participants improves the likelihood of decisions being improved or not random. In the well-known “jar of beans” example, we could ask individuals with no previous exposure to the jar about how many beans are in the jar. We then get a group average on the basis of the entire group (the group produces a simple average) and the group average will be better than the average of the individuals. Finally, we can organize a group and give them time to talk to each other, deliberate, and share ideas. In other words we could make the communication system available to them. This third group, which allows for as rich and controlled democratic communication process as possible, will most consistently produce better answers.
The reason for this is the epistemic nature of communication but we will talk about that some other time. For now, I want to make the observation that the full Republican control of the senate and congress along with Trump is a dangerous situation. Key decision-making issues will escape the scrutiny of diverse voices and fail to let each side fully participate in the intelligence of the other side. This is why the Congress is polarized rather than democratized.
Trump already has authoritative tendencies. He has no patience for other people and little history having to answer to anybody. Much of leadership in his business world is based on clear lines of command with few or no constituencies to please other than investors. Moreover, Trump holds to the belief that the best and the brightest are going to beat and know more than the average citizen. Whether or not Trump has actually identified the best and the brightest we will leave for others just to say, but his aristocracy theory that the elite will always know more and therefore make better decisions than the average citizen does not always hold sway.
The reason that elites do not always make better decision is because they lack diversity; they may hold expertise even deep expertise in a particular subject but they lack diverse points of view and variety. In an interesting book by Scott Page (The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Society: Princeton University Press), he demonstrates the power of inclusiveness and diverse voices in decisions.
True enough that collective reason can go awry but that is usually managed by the communication process and the conditions of contact. Communication is only smart when it is allowed to work properly. When communication is restrained or distorted or the victim of a host of other maladies it then becomes a mechanism for collective unreason preventing itself from finding real solutions.
Good dialogical discourse conflates the distinctions between enemies and adversaries; that is, as a combination or fusion of the distinctions such that the two are not so different from one another. Certainly, our polarized culture makes a sharp distinction between an “enemy” and an “adversary.” Part of the discourse of dialogue and deliberation involves maintaining the distinction between the two and treating the other as the “worthy opponent.” Again, this is an important principle of deliberative democracy and deliberative communication. In other words, the two sides of a conflict must work to treat the other as adversaries and a “worthy” one such that your adversary holds a defensible position that is deserving of consideration.
Michael Ignatieff made this point cogently when he explained the distinctions between adversaries and enemies in the New York Times and called for respect between the two. Ignatieff explained that an adversary was someone you want to defeat but an enemy is someone you want to destroy. The current environment which has Republicans wanting to “destroy” Democrats is a good example. Once you define your enemy as the opposition between your own social category and the category of the other, then “enemy” takes on a variety of obstructions and distortions. Trust, for example, is possible for adversaries and does not need to lead to issues related to capitulation, appeasement, or giving in. But trust is not possible between enemies. When you define the other as an enemy trust is an early casualty that can never rise again.
The table below displays some distinctions between treating the other as an enemy or an adversary. An enemy is unwavering in his defensible position where an adversary might be amenable to adjustments. Treating the other as an adversary necessitates a respect for the other position and its grounded nature. Without such respect the two sides talk to each other out of rank disrespect. The use of the language of war and violence exacerbates problems, and makes cooperation impossible.
Obama was seen by the Republican Congress as an enemy rather than an adversary to be confronted. For that reason Obama employed more presidential decrees in order to circumvent a Congress that viewed him as the enemy and was interested only in his failure. Heated rhetoric, such as claims that Obamacare was “an assault on freedom,” were all contributions to the increasing perception of the other as the “enemy.” And although he was reflecting differences in society Obama was also exaggerating these differences.
There is any number of reasons for a gravitational pull toward defining the other as an enemy. But this is just one more example of the corrosive nature of our public discourse that does not even recognize the damage. The ultimate goal is to turn enemies into friends but that is an entirely different interactional category
Enemies versus Adversaries
|To be destroyed.||To be defeated.|
|Strong negative emotions such as hate and disgust.||The possibility for positive emotions such as respect.|
|No trust.||Trust is possible.|
|Zero-sum game.||Non-zero-sum game.|
|Warfare metaphors.||Possibilities for cooperation.|
|Differences between the two sides are maximized.||Differences can be constructive and are to be integrated.|
|Unwavering commitment to a perspective.||Opportunity for change and altering perspectives|
|The goal it is to refute the other position. Destroy it.||Goal is to understand the other position and argue it.|
|Statements are predictable and offer little new information.||New information surfaces and can be addressed.|
|Success requires simple impassioned statements.||Success requires exploration of the complexities of the issue being discussed.|
The noted cognitive scientist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman introduced the concepts of System 1 and System 2 or fast and slow thinking. System 1 is fast, instinctive, and emotional. System 2 is slower, logical, and deliberative. System 2 came later in our evolutionary development. System 1 thinking is intuitive and uses quick judgments that we rely on for most decisions. It is also the process that leads to far greater biases in judgment. System 2, our more deliberative thought processes, can be used to dampen the negative effects of our intuitive judgments. System 1 or fast thinking is reptilian and automatic. It has evolved from deep in our evolutionary history. So we respond quickly and easily to sexual associations and danger. System 2 is thoughtful and cognitive. It requires slower thinking and patience.
The experience of hate is I think a System 1 cognitive process but we often try to treat it with System 2 solutions. In other words, the bigot, anti-Semite, and the racist are typically confronted with System 2 rational thinking as if the person is simply experiencing unjustifiable beliefs and misinformation. We try to change the person or educate him by presenting facts, correcting errors, and revealing logical inconsistencies. Curiously, we are dumbfounded and dismayed when this doesn’t work. When our attempt to reason the other person into correct thinking is useless we are chagrined.
The truth is that bigots and racists and anti-Semite’s don’t want to hear it. They are immune to the closed fist of logic that characterizes reasoning. Also, even though it’s a little bit counterintuitive, these people enjoy the experience of hating. It’s a powerful biologically-based experience of information that doesn’t require much from them and is sensually pleasing psychologically. The System 1 experience of emotional engagement for the racist and anti-Semite is fun! The quick and automatic conclusions of System 1 thinking are enjoyable and require little of the hater.
The person’s beliefs are firmly established and foundational to the experience of hating. There’s no questioning or insecurity. Anti-Semites stand sure in their beliefs and the power and pleasures of self-righteousness, condemnation of others, and sense of intense kinship with those who think like them is climactic in its joy.
Just look at the joys of hating:
- That anti-Semite gets to compare Jews to Nazis. What an orgiastic pleasure it is to take the group you hate most (Jews) and compare them to the great symbol of evil Nazis. Hatred is a purifying experience and perhaps the height of its titillating pleasure is the sense of superiority it confers on one. The bully (think Trump), the self-righteous, the judgmental, and the ignorant are all soldiers in this army of those who feel superior. The expressions of their beliefs are immediate and instinctual. And since they have little cognitive analytic sensibility and are incapable of genuine information processing, they don’t even see themselves as anti-Semitic.
- The racist who feels his group is superior transcends the pleasures of superiority and can think of himself as “morally” purified. Everywhere he looks he sees evidence – the confirmation hypothesis at work a System 1 heuristic – of his group’s moral clarity. The history and traditions of the outgroup are the subject of propaganda and deceit as any “good” in the outgroup is automatically attributed to the environment rather than the group thus maintaining the racist’s own sense of purity.
- The instinctual and exaggerated language of the hater quickly categorizes the other and relieves him of the burden of real moral scrupulousness. So one can accuse Israel of violation of human rights or colonialism without doing the hard analytical work of defining and understanding these ideas. These pleasures extend to the Westerner who hates Islam as well. His sense of political supremacy and rectitude produces the same gut feeling that Islam is backward and tribal, thus reproducing his own moral superiority.
Deliberative and thoughtful exchange about others is slow and plodding. It requires correction and revisiting of attitudes and beliefs that must be modified or discarded. The scrupulous attention to cognitive errors and misinformation is evolutionarily new and we are not yet so good at it, especially when deliberation has to compete with the reptilian joys of hate.
First posted 2/24/2014
One of the biggest tensions in both politics and culture is the balance between membership in an ethnic community and the sense of belonging it provides versus a more capacious mentality with respect to respecting democratic ideals of inclusiveness and fairness. Many current cultural and political problems trace their roots to multicultural situations and settings where social cohesion is lost as settings become more diverse. Consequently, politics is essentially about the management of differences. And one of the most difficult differences to manage is ethnic identity which offers a strong sense of belonging but is quite dumbfounded when it comes to developing intergroup cooperation and an identity sufficiently broad enough to include both sides of a conflict.
The “received” deliberative democracy literature is mostly broad and normative focusing on abstractions about how to reconcile differences in a democratic manner. But one of the underappreciated difficulties of the more theoretical approach to deliberation is that it fails to sufficiently embrace the matter of power asymmetries. These are when values and interests are deeply entrenched and inequality is part of the natural state of affairs between two groups such that one side is economically and militarily superior.
The first and most important question is how one imagines deeply divided societies or groups coming together. Ethnopolitically divided societies might live near each other and tolerate a side-by-side existence, but they can’t share trust and a sense of community. The two sides must ultimately work to transform the context, the individuals, and their cultural differences in order to create a relationship rooted more in mutuality than rank group identification. On one level, this involves transforming identities – which is theoretically possible because identities are described as social constructions which means they can be constructed, deconstructed, and reorganized. This is the transformative and epistemic sense of deliberation which believes in the gradual process of creating new relationships and shared communities. Again, the question remains as to how this transformation happens. Or, what is the mechanism or interaction pattern responsible for achieving this new state of affairs.
Rigorous and serious deliberation is an antidote to communication based on bargaining, trading off interests, and manipulations designed to achieve private goals. Deliberation is about interest and preference formation. But in the case of deliberation for divided societies power asymmetries must be accounted for. In fact, it makes little sense to ignore just the defining issue that is the root of the conflict. Differences between divided societies are usually moral and cultural in nature but it is close to impossible to arrive at moral consensus between ethnopolitically separated groups. This is where what I call “Reasonable Disagreement” (Chapter 3 in my most recent book Fierce Entanglements: Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict) can be helpful. Reasonable disagreement – the details of which are beyond the concerns of this posting – begins by treating the other not as an enemy but as an adversary as Iris Young argues. Reasonable disagreement is simply the assumption that there is more than one defensible way to make an argument or hold a belief. It recognizes that one group’s worldview is not necessarily or clearly superior or correct. There is simply no way to manage differences and develop cultural sensitivity between groups without their remaining gaps of meaning and understanding that simply must be tolerated.
Viewing the other side of a divided society as an “enemy” requires vanquishing him or her because the other side is typically considered wrong and worthy of annihilation (either literally or symbolically). “Adversaries”, on the other hand, are respected worthy opponents that cannot be thoroughly vanquished. Reasonable disagreement has two senses: the first is as a political value to be nurtured and developed in a democratic society. It is a foundational plank of the requirements for tolerance and diversity in liberal democratic societies. The second sense is as an epistemic value responsible for new and creative decision-making.
I think the challenges of ethnopolitically divided societies are going to be the subject of increasing research and theoretical attention in the future – and rightfully so.
Is it really too much to ask that the political parties (but essentially the Republicans this year) work harder to turn even the primary debates into something a little more deliberative? These debates are structurally flawed and result in confusion and a cacophony of voices that are incoherent and fail to provide a line of reasoning for citizens to observe and learn from. Any debate structure put in place will have its strengths and weaknesses, but any structure will also be better than what we’ve been witnessing.
Running for president is not for sissies. You have to be able to stand up and respond to criticism and make your case to the public. And when attacked the candidate should, ideally anyway, respond with argumentative detail that demonstrates a full command of the issues. The Republican candidates who complained about “gotcha” questions and thought questions about one’s personal behavior and finances were out of line were more interested in manipulating the debate format into kid-glove treatment rather than vigorous engagement. If it seems like a candidate is going to bend under the pressure of a journalist asking him or her a “mean” question, then the candidate might have problems shouldering the burdens of the world.
The structure of the debates is consistent with the structure of the television medium. These 30 second time limits and response times are responsive to the commercial nature of television and the belief in the audience member’s limited processing capabilities. The debate format is not conducive to the engagement of complex issues such as Iraq, healthcare, gun control, race relations, and the like. Consequently, we get sound bite debates with simplistic images of “good guys” and “bad guys” who stand on the stage waiting for the right moment to insert a pre-prepared statement that is semi-related to the issue at hand and typically doesn’t advance an issue.
The 14 Republican candidates have the nerve to pose problematic and sometimes wild ideas such as deporting 10 million people, building walls to seal off immigrants, cutting a 70,000 page tax code to three pages, and then whimpering when they were challenged on these ideas. If these fringe Republican candidates get their way it will only be Fox News who gets to ask them softball questions.
Outline of a Deliberative Format
The following issues must be addressed in order to increase the communicative value of these debates and come closer to the commission’s goals for informing the public and fostering a truly deliberative environment. Read more about related issues in an article by Collier.
- The model of dialogue and reasoned deliberation has always expected the participants to be mutually joined and engaged in the same issue. In other words, they need to be talking about the same thing at the same time. Inserting canned and pre-prepared comments that are designed for nothing but manipulation and desperate attempts to make mini campaign speeches are an anathema to the dialogic and deliberative process.
- The Commission on Presidential Debates should first direct its attention away from what it believes to be its role in structuring debate formats and concentrate more on the constitutional right to receive information. This means structure the questions and the format of the debate so that specific controversial issues (gun-control, healthcare, the war in Iraq, fighting ISIS, taxes) receive required attention and time. The current debate structure deprives listeners of this information.
- There must be meaningful opportunities for response. As of now, no bad argument goes unpunished. There should be fact checkers working during the actual debate and candidates would be required to respond to discrepancies at a selected period of time at the end of the debate. These fact checkers could also provide additional context for misleading and manipulative quotes taken out of context.
- The opportunity to correct mistakes and challenge misleading comments is not trivial because unchallenged and uncorrected comments find a life of their own circulating in media discussion and among citizens. Lies, exaggerations, and out of context information becomes reified and assumes a truth value.
- A common strategy for aggressive campaign operatives is to make a false statement or accusation, uphold it for a couple of new cycles, and then disappear. Even if the statement is later shown to be a complete falsehood the damage has already been done to the opposing candidate. This “name-calling” tactic degrades the process and increases the magnitude of falsehoods circulating in the discourse.
I will have more to say on debates and their deliberative structure in future posts. But it would behoove us to keep in mind that citizens prefer to receive information from like-minded others. This causes distorted processing and polarization of the type we see today. It’s imperative that political candidates be exposed to a diversity of opinions in order to improve their own.
Even though cynics and those who throw their hands up in the air in desperation at the difficulties and frustrations of conversation think that conversation is naïve, they are wrong. If you are going to avoid force or violence or ethically challenged manipulations, then the only way to morally and fully engage in knowledge acquisition and quality decision-making is through the interaction process. The democratic process does not rely on pre-established ideological positions (e.g., “socialism” “communism” “capitalism”) that requires the carrier of these ideologies to simply rigidly and blindly defend such a position. No, the democratic process relies more on the epistemic value of communication and the conversation that produces it.
And democratic cultures have long histories of dictating the importance of education in order to participate in a citizen-based democracy as well as the availability and quality of information. That’s why the press in the United States has as much freedom as it does. The press is afforded special attention. But the kind of conflict I mostly think about and work on (intractable conflicts) don’t usually have people participating on the basis of democratic ideals and deliberation. In fact, the participants are usually entrenched in their beliefs and are as rigid as any true believer.
In an interesting study, published in the Journal of Public Deliberation, the author explains how literacy is not even necessary for deliberation. Being literate and informed is always assumed to be fundamental to a complex democracy. This has led throughout history to institutions and programs devoted to citizen education, school wide programs, and a host of activities concerning the development of citizenship and democratic habits. The relationship between an informed citizenry and the general public has been written about by Plato, Rosseau, John Stuart Mill, Dewey, and any other number of heavyweights. But it turns out that high levels of literacy are not the only requirement for good public deliberation.
I won’t fully engage the concept of “defining literacy” except that I’m thinking about it as the basic inability to read and write. The term “literacy” has flexed its semantic muscles and is now used to refer to “media literacy,” “numeric literacy,” and simple knowledge of issues. But Bhatia, in the article cited above, explains how television can contribute to information acquisition and exposure and brings a person with no or limited knowledge up a rung or two.
A recent essay in Tablet magazine offered up an interesting case of a difficult conversation where the entrenched ideologies are religion and secular politics. Most of my examples in my recent book “Fierce Entanglements” have to do with Jihadis or religious settlers or people with extreme political beliefs. The author of this article, Liel Leibovitz, talks about the uselessness of having a conversation with someone like Noam Chomsky. The article explains what was supposed to be a reasonable attempt to have a conversation between Chomsky and Sam Harris. Chomsky’s beliefs are so fixed and so wrapped up in theories of American conspiracy and violence that the author concludes all conversation between people who disagree should be eliminated.
Chomsky believes that the United States is clearly the most violent and vicious terrorist unit in the world and 9/11 was insignificant by comparison. 9/11 was just America getting a taste of its own. Of course, Chomsky cannot have a discussion without invoking Israel and heaping blame on the Jewish state. What happens during these conversations is that the meanings of words such as “terrorism” begin to drain and become reassigned usually broadened to be more inclusive of things it did not originally include. So there’s a particular definition of terrorism which refers to acts of violence against innocents for the purpose of sowing fear and confusion. Then the meaning gets changed to include anybody who engages in violence whom you don’t like. All context and nuance is lost.
Good vigorous conversation and argument seems to be a fading art. I guess we will have to return to literacy instruction to restore the art of conversation.
Hearing criticisms of your own convictions and learning the beliefs of others are training for life in the multi-faith society. Preventing open debate means that all believers, including atheists, remain in the prison of unconsidered opinion. The right to be offended, which is the other side of free speech, is therefore a genuine right. True belief and honest doubt are both impossible without it. John O’Sullivan
I have been a pretty standard liberal Democrat all my life, but recently I have been more critical of the left’s retreat from First Amendment protections. I’m talking about the left’s willingness to restrict symbolic expression that is critical of an ethnopolitical group or identity group of any kind. A recent article by John O’Sullivan in the Wall Street Journal takes up the issue of the new limits on free expression in the name of protecting religious and ethnopolitical group sensitivities. The article is an excellent treatment of these issues and I highly recommend it.
The harsh and anti-democratic strand of jihadist Islam has successfully scared enough people into restraining free expression in the form of restricting criticism of religion and political culture. Earlier in the history of free expression, O’Sullivan explains, the predominant restrictions on speech were with respect to obscenity, pornography, and language that was sexually explicit. The purveyors of these restrictions were moralistic and believed themselves to be defending proper standards of society. Political speech was strongly protected. But now, the calls for restrictions are designed to limit the political speech of others and consider off-limits the entire array of topics surrounding religion and politics. Obscene and pornographic speech was limited on the basis of protecting the broad moral foundation of the culture, limiting speech that is critical of religion is justified on the basis of particular groups with each making their own demands.
Burning an American flag is considered political speech and symbolic expression that is protected. I can legally burn the American flag in the center of the town square as a symbolic statement of opposition to some aspect of American foreign policy. But if I burn the Koran, which would still be legal in the United States as politically protected expression, it will cause a different reaction. There is a suggestion that the US endorse an international blasphemy law that would define the Koran as so special that burning it constitutes a particular offense, rather than simply protected symbolic expression.
The traditional approach to protected speech is to ignore the content of speech but simply disallow symbolic expression that will cause imminent danger (yelling “fire” in a crowded theater).Yet feeling free to limit speech because words are supposedly so powerful and dangerous is a slippery slope that will slowly erode freedom.
The Answer: Education
One does not come into the world with established political ideology and sensitivities to managing group differences. Democracy and freedom of speech is advanced citizenship in a democracy and must be taught. Free and open societies, where citizen participation is rich and required, necessitate learning the habits of pluralism and democratic processes. The legal environment surrounding freedom of expression has drifted toward an oversensitivity to categorize speech is injurious and in constant need of management. We should not be in the business of restricting all sorts of pure symbolic behavior. Living amongst one’s fellows in a pluralistic, multi-faith, diverse environment requires living in a world that is not of one’s own making and is constituted by differences. These differences must be managed through the deliberative communication process which is by definition “contestatory.”
The lines and distinctions implied here are difficult. For example, do we allow street gangs to deface public buildings with racist slogans and call it “freedom of expression”? I presume it would be possible to define such activities as sufficiently harmful and capable of producing imminent danger, but it will depend on many factors. Slow and long term as it is democratic cultures must continue civic education that includes democratic values.
I’ve got an idea that is not really so bold as much as it is ignored. My idea responds to what I consider to be a weakness in the political considerations that characterize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And that weakness is the failure of sufficient input from the general populace. I mean meaningful input taken seriously. Polls in both Israel and Palestine indicate that upwards of 60% of the population wants peace and find the two state solution to be sensible. It is true, according to a new poll of Palestinians, that the two state solution is falling away in popularity. But it can be reinvigorated and it does represent something the Palestinians support. A few people (e.g. Hamas, settlers, elites) cause a lot of problems and their messages are sometimes confused with consensus. Moreover, political elites cannot always be trusted and are subject to their own strategic manipulations. We’ve seen nothing but failure in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even though it has been characterized by diplomatic influences.
In spite of all the political contact between the two sides the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is mired in complexity partially because the approach to peace building is not sufficiently multifaceted or inclusive of popular consciousness. Any sort of “people-to-people communication” can improve grassroots contact between the two sides, build coalitions, and engage ordinary citizens. But these forms of contact must also bubble up to influence political leaders.
I’m calling for groups of Palestinians and Israeli Jews to organize themselves into participatory groups characterized by democratic mechanisms that parallel the spread of recent nondemocratic dynamics. There are five other qualities that should be descriptive of these groups: first, these groups should be deeply integrated into the various communities; participants should be representative of the population, not elites. Two, these groups must be interdependent such that what happens in one group influences another group. Borders, population characteristics, and security matters are examples. Three, these groups have to be repeated often enough to discover consistent patterns that represent defensible conclusions. Four, they must be governed by principles of deliberation – some of which are discussed below – and democratic and public sphere criteria are expected. Finally, these groups must produce some sort of product and make it available to the public, which should be following the discussions anyway.
I do not intend for these groups to be revolutionary. They are grassroots movements designed to achieve a sustained message that typifies as much as possible population sentiments. The gap between public opinion and the perspective of the elected elites should be closed or constrained. The goal is to drive a reform agenda that improves the relationship between the populace and the government. These discussions should be as open and public as possible with the media performing their best function as a megaphone that reaches broad populations. The meetings should perform a legitimizing function and help find a path leading to some productive solutions.
There are more models and procedures for citizen participation then we can respond to here (click here for a description six models of citizen participation), but a standard model of participatory democracy is best. This is a general term that refers to democratic procedures and representative decision-making. That is, nonelected citizens have decision-making power and the communication within these groups empowers individuals and promotes their cooperation. Participatory democracy is a model for social justice and the relationship between civil society and the macro political system.
It is true that participatory democratic discussions are historically idealistic and can be abstract but there are a number of success stories and advantages under certain circumstances. Organizing such groups is not easy and requires political will but it remains a relatively unexplored avenue. Finding a pathway to peace is a social construction that must include public debate and discussion. If these proposed participatory groups can establish themselves and maintain consistency they will be less vulnerable to the destructive influences of extremists on both sides. And managing these extremists – these few people who cause a lot of trouble – is particularly important in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because these extremists will do anything to prevent productive solutions. Deep and widespread citizen engagement is probably necessary to build a foundation for a new political order that will be necessary if this conflict is going to be at least managed if not resolved.
There will be more on how to develop, organize, and structure these proposed public discussion in future posts.
I have a sinking sense that schools don’t teach much “evidence-based thinking” anymore. They do teach critical thinking which is related but students are remarkably poor at defending propositions and recognizing thoughts and beliefs worth having. Although here is a blog site devoted to evidence-based thinking by two energetic young fellows. This spills over into the deliberative process because many citizens and political activists suffer from some of the same deficiencies. For some time now we have seen the diminution of the effects of Enlightenment thinking and science. From religious extremists to Tea Party members there’s plenty of anti-rationalist thinking and pseudo-intellectual discourse.
But things get worse. There is a clear disdain for logic and reasoning in some circles with many holding a toxic dependency on popular culture. This is not a particularly new phenomenon because Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life published in 1963 began to note the decline of the principled and evidentiary intellectual society and its replacement – the persuasion of single-minded people tenaciously holding onto a belief, opinion, or feeling and doing nothing but looking for support for that belief rather than its improvements, or accuracy, or truth value. I term this, the backside of evidence based thinking, confirmatory thinking in honor of the confirmation bias which is that people favor information that confirms what they already believe. But it gets worse. I count four ways that thinking is deficient because it is not evidence-based.
The difference between coincidence and causality is sometimes not completely clear but important to understand. Those who oppose vaccinations believe that all drugs have negative effects and any new vaccination would be the same thereby confirming their depreciated knowledge about medicine. They hold a mistrust of government and consequently any government program – even a highly evidence-based program that saves children’s lives – is rejected. A consistency of their own belief is more important than the evidence that supports the value of vaccinations.
A second sign of diminished capacity for evidence is simply how science and methods for making decisions work. The past and knowledge is strewn with failures and disappointments. Even when studies are unsuccessful and wrongheaded they make for a certain amount of information that is still of scientific value. It is comparable to the quip attributed to Edison that after he failed 200 times to make a light bulb he was not frustrated because he learned 200 ways not to make a light bulb. Evidence-based thinking requires developmental and evolutionary attitudes towards the unfolding of better and more precise information. Even though information can be wrong and lead you down wasteful paths, these paths are part of the process.
Basic misunderstanding of the logic of research is also a third issue. I’m not talking about standard logic or sophisticated mathematics but about basic principles of research and conclusions based on quantitative data. What it means for something to have a mean (average) and variation around the mean. Or, to have a sense of why and how numbers are influenced and change over time. This would include the logic of the experiment and the quality of conclusions when conditions are controlled and only a single experimental factor could have caused variation.
Lastly, one of the easiest ways to never get out of your own head and to hold fast to wrongheaded beliefs is to dispute, challenge, and dismiss those who are credible; in other words, to care more about maintaining your own consistency by rejecting experts and those more knowledgeable. We cannot all be experts on scientific and political matters so we must often rely on the expertise of others. And even though challenging and checking on the credentials of others to ensure source reliability is an important critical stance, this is not the same as knee-jerk rejection of experts. It seems as if those on the conservative end of the spectrum are quick to label all sorts of science as biased against the environment, or the climate, or finance because they inherently mistrust the source of any information and easily gravitate toward rejecting inconsistency with their own ideas then truly exploring and integrating new information.
There are all sorts of ways to distort information or disengage from it. And even the most conscientious thinker allows biases to creep in. But the attitude and willingness to engage, integrate new information on the basis of sound evidentiary principles, and change as a result of this evidence is what makes for more rigorous thinking.
Ever since Kahneman and Tversky’s groundbreaking work we have accepted the fact that humans just aren’t very good at choices and keeping the best interest of everyone in mind. We believe our thinking and decision-making processes are clear and logical when in fact we are inconsistent in many ways. I presume most readers of this blog are familiar with this general pattern and I will not elaborate on it except to say that we make many types of mistakes: we exaggerate what we know; we overvalue some objects for illogical psychological reasons; quality information sometimes does not matter; we shift choices for ideological reasons; we unconsciously seek out confirming information; on the average, humans are more unreflective, impulsive, and subject to illogical influences than we are “rational.” A recent article in The Nation captures these issues.
But those of us interested in deliberation, political communication, group decision-making, and group processes cannot easily abandon the issue of choice or making decisions. We cannot simply throw up our hands and say “people are irrational.” We must continue to explore these matters and find ways to improve.
For starters, we should confront our historical ideology about the value of choice. As a liberal democracy and market economy we naturally believe that choice is better, and the more choices you have the freer the market and the richer the environment. But some who have written about this issue demonstrate how we are constantly anxious and unsure of ourselves because of so many choices. We are constantly in the state of insecurity and questioning whether or not we have done the right thing whether it is a choice of a school, a food item in the market, a financial plan, or any number of other choices.
Still, one of the most interesting and creative ways to think about choice is the role it plays in a democratic society. In other words, choice can be related to political ideology such as those choices explained in Gladwell’s The Art of Choosing or Ben-Porath in Tough Choices. One political argument for the role of government is that it levels the playing field; when the distribution of money and resources becomes unequal government steps in and constrains choice markets. Clearly we do not make choices in a perfectly rational market – some members of that market have fewer choices than others and of less quality – so a middle force such as a government steps in and levels the playing field choices.
Again, part of this intervention is “behavioral economics” where the state or a business manipulates the environment so you will make certain choices. For example, automatically transfer a portion of payroll to a savings account and require the individual to “opt out” rather than “opt in” which increases the statistical likelihood of saving.
No, those of us interested in the communication process, the deliberation process is epistemic; that is, communication can produce new knowledge and new possibilities. Difficult problem solving is not simply a matter of choosing a correct choice that is more rational than another, or selecting an option that has maximized value. Much of this work in “choice” and the processes that influence choices is less relevant to deliberative theorists. Deliberative communication emerges from the literature on deliberative democracy and is rooted in the advantages that accrue from reciprocity. “The basic premise of reciprocity is that participants owe one another justifications for their institutions, laws, and public policies that collectively bind them.” This means that justice and the legitimate acceptance of social and political constraints on a group must emerge from a process where all parties have had ample opportunity to engage in mutual reason-giving. From reciprocity flows respect for the other. Scholars also refer to publicity and accountability as essential conditions of deliberative democracy. That is, discussion and decision making must be public to ensure justifiability, and that those who make decisions on behalf of others must be accountable. Binding decisions lose moral legitimacy to the extent that they have been made in a manner unavailable to the public, or by individuals who are not accountable to their constituencies.
What is particularly important about deliberation from a communication perspective is its ability to transform the perspective of the individual. Election-centered and direct democratic processes value the individual, but focus primarily on the opportunity to participate. Deliberative processes draw on communication in the form of discussion and argument with the aim to change the motivations and opinions of individuals. The deliberative process contributes to a changing sense of self and identity because participants are immersed in a social system that manufactures new ways to think about problems and orient toward others. This deliberative social system moves people out of their parochial interests and contributes to a broader sense of community mindedness, as well as providing new information that clarifies and informs opinions. The issues pertinent to categorical choices are relatively inconsequential to deliberation.