Monday, January 22, 2018
Perspective

The echo chamber puts us all in danger

In 2002, New York University political scientist Russell Hardin wrote a brilliant essay called "The Crippled Epistemology of Extremism." Hardin contended that many extremists, including terrorists, are not stupid, insane or badly educated.

The real problem is that their information comes from a sharply limited set of sources, all of which are supportive of their extremist beliefs. Many extremists listen only to one another. They live in self-reinforcing information cocoons. Their "crippled epistemology" can lead to utterly baseless, but firmly held, convictions (and sometimes even violence).

Most Democrats and most Republicans are not extremists. But Hardin's argument offers lessons about 21st-century political campaigns in the United States — and about some of the most serious difficulties in contemporary governance.

How do you know what you know? You undoubtedly have firsthand knowledge about many things, including your job, your family and your possessions. But how do you know whether George Washington or James Madison really lived, whether matter consists of atoms, whether Bob Dylan wrote Like a Rolling Stone, whether Mars and Venus exist, or whether Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon?

With respect to innumerable issues, including political ones, most of what we know is what we learn from other people. By itself, that is inevitable and nothing to lament. But here is the problem. When we listen mostly to people who already agree with us, our pre-existing convictions get fortified, and we start to think that those who disagree with us are evil, dumb or duped.

A few years ago, I participated in some experiments designed to shed light on how people's political beliefs are formed. My co-authors and I assembled a number of people in Colorado into all-liberal groups and all-conservative groups. We asked the groups to discuss three issues: climate change, affirmative action and civil unions for same-sex couples.

We requested group members to state their opinions at three stages. The first occurred before they started to talk, when we recorded their views privately and anonymously. In the second stage, we asked them to discuss the issues with one another and then to reach a kind of group "verdict." In the final stage, we asked people to record their views, after discussion, privately and anonymously.

Our findings were simple. On all three issues, both liberal and conservative groups became more unified and more extreme after talking to one another. What is more striking, and more revealing about our current problems, is that after liberals spoke only with liberals, and conservatives only with conservatives, the divisions between the two groups grew dramatically. Group members learn from what they hear. Having heard the set of arguments in their group, people become more confident, more unified and more extreme.

Can anything be done to address this problem? The most obvious answer is to break out of information cocoons. That is a central goal of the American constitutional system, which was devised to ensure that diverse people would speak with one another. And in politics and government, a healthy respect for the technical expertise of scientists, lawyers and economists usually helps to anchor discussion — and to avoid a crippled epistemology. An appreciation of how we know what we know should help to engender a healthy dose of humility, making political campaigns far more productive and sensible governance far more likely.

Cass R. Sunstein, the Felix Frankfurter professor of law at Harvard University, is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and the author, most recently, of "On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread."

© 2012 Bloomberg News

Comments
Princess Pigtails' diary: the first 97 days of a foster mom and the little girl in her care

Princess Pigtails' diary: the first 97 days of a foster mom and the little girl in her care

Editor’s note: Shannon Colavecchio, a former Tampa Bay Times reporter now living in Tallahassee, decided in the summer of 2016 to begin the process of becoming a foster parent. Having been raised by her grandparents after her biological mother ...
Published: 01/19/18

Five interesting things

97%of federal criminal convictions never even went to trial; they were the result of guilty pleas."PACOM (CDW)-STATE ONLY"is the confusing shorthand phrase in a computer program drop-down menu that an emergency worker in Hawaii accidentally selected,...
Published: 01/17/18
Updated: 01/18/18
By the numbers, a story of the federal worker and the size of government

By the numbers, a story of the federal worker and the size of government

Politicians have often painted the federal workforce as a drag on the budget and burden for the taxpayer. Look no further than President Ronald Reagan, who famously said, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the gove...
Published: 01/17/18
Updated: 01/18/18
A Little Perspective: Finding your art double and hops on Mars

A Little Perspective: Finding your art double and hops on Mars

The Google Arts and Culture app became the most downloaded mobile app last weekend, enabling users to compare a selfie to a database of art and find the closest match. Art aficionados, dabblers, narcissists and soul searchers pondering a cosmic conne...
Published: 01/12/18
Updated: 01/18/18
PolitiFact: How trustworthy are the polls, more than a year after the 2016 election?

PolitiFact: How trustworthy are the polls, more than a year after the 2016 election?

Over the past year, political professionals have been picking over the pre-election polling data to figure out whether the polls failed to predict Donald Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton.In many people’s minds, the polls were flat wrong in ...
Published: 01/09/18
Updated: 01/11/18

Five interesting facts

2 hoursis how long the power was out last week for the CES, the consumer electronics show, in the Central Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center. The biggest electronics show of the year couldn’t do much without a key ingredient: electricity. The ca...
Published: 01/08/18
Updated: 01/12/18
Perspective: Two dying memoirists wrote best-sellers about their final days. Then their spouses fell in love.

Perspective: Two dying memoirists wrote best-sellers about their final days. Then their spouses fell in love.

By Nora KrugSAN MATEO, Calif. — The literary pairing was inevitable.When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi’s memoir of his final years as he faced lung cancer at age 37, was published posthumously, in 2016, to critical acclaim and commercial success...
Published: 01/08/18
Updated: 01/12/18

Perspective: Why do we get so itchy when we can’t use our smartphones?

Americans spend a lot of time on their smartphones. But what can we learn about the connected state of mind by observing what happens when we can’t use our devices?While much has been written about the effects of using our phones, from worries about ...
Published: 01/08/18
Updated: 01/11/18
Perspective: Oprah, don’t do it

Perspective: Oprah, don’t do it

PARIS — I miss a lot of must-see TV on this side of the Atlantic. But by the time I’d dropped off my daughter at school Monday morning, it was impossible not to notice how many people in my social media feeds felt something politically significant ha...
Published: 01/08/18
Updated: 01/11/18
Perspective: The systematic crushing of a #MeToo pioneer

Perspective: The systematic crushing of a #MeToo pioneer

Eight decades ago, Patricia Douglas made nationwide headlines, upstaging even the wedding of the former king of England and the American double-divorcée Wallis Simpson. Then, just as suddenly, she vanished, hounded into exile by Hollywood’s most omni...
Published: 01/05/18
Updated: 01/11/18