Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Addressing Debate in Society

One repeating issue in our society is the question of how to address an incorrect, yet stubborn mindset. This issue has once again become relevant with the radicalization (based on recent past attitudes) of the Republican political party in the United States. Basically how should society address groups that continue to advance a viewpoint on a given situation that is not supported by logic or empirical evidence?

In the past when control of information was more manageable news organizations, both in print and broadcast form, would do a reasonable job at presenting truthful information. Of course there were certain less scrupulous organizations, which attempted to bolster their own viewpoint for their own ends regardless of truthfulness. Fortunately there were enough ‘neutral’ organizations with strong anchors that wanted to present the truth to neutralize most of the presented misinformation. Unfortunately that was then and this is now; the nature of news has changed from presenting the truth to presenting what the public is willing to watch in effort to acquire the most advertising dollars to make the most money.

This change in mindset has resulted in news organizations fracturing their information presentation. Instead of focusing on reporting the unbiased truth with a utilitarian slant, which is thought to be best for society as a whole, these organizations have elected to take a viewpoint that plays towards a certain demographic; thus artificially supporting their viewpoints while diminishing contradicting viewpoints regardless of which viewpoint is actually better supported by logic and empirical evidence. In this environment competition has become more prevalent because of the ‘us versus them’ mentality that is catalyzed by supporting a particular viewpoint.

The competition element spills over into what can be viewed in some context as attacks against the other ‘sides’. Some have argued that this mindset spurs more radicalized viewpoints. These viewpoints then demand reaction, which further facilitates a vicious cycle where accuracy and correct solutions to problems disappear in a sea of reaction-reaction conversation. This mindset is largely the domain of progressive thinkers in that they believe other progressives in the media are focusing too much on the personalities that are broadcasting radical options instead of focusing on the statements themselves.

There is also concern that progressives in the media are giving legitimacy to these radical individuals by including their foolish irrational ideas in the discussion and simply provoking them to make more. It is similar to taking someone who states that 2 + 2 = 9 seriously and actually entertaining that statement as a valid opinion. Instead if someone gives an opinion that is similarly foolish and illogical that person should just be ignored. By ignoring these individuals these foolish opinions remain only in an echo chamber of similar believers, which destroys the influence of these opinions. This mindset stems from the belief of ‘any publicity is good publicity’.

While a strategy involving ignoring foolish opinions makes theoretical sense, the problem in reality is that a number of individuals already share these beliefs and will drive the publicity of those opinions themselves. Also this strategy fails because those who give life to these opinions already have a publicity outlet for them (most often Fox News in the United States or its international equivalences), thus not engaging those opinions is not a significant detriment to limiting the publicity of those opinions. Finally due to the corruption of the previously legitimate news media it is thought that attracting controversy will help spur the publicity of these opinions in a pseudo debate in order to increase ratings. Basically where Edward R. Murrow would have said, “A fringe group of fools have started preaching that 2 + 2 = 9, but that belief has long been proven false and those who have it should be ignored.”, Don Lemon now says, “There is a growing sentiment that 2 + 2 may not actually be 4, but 9 join us on CNN later tonight for the controversy.”

Another problem with ignoring certain opinions is the issue of the unopposed certainty. For the myriad of problems in the world there are multiple ideas that people believe could be a valid solution; however, if a ‘solution’ is proposed and no one argues against it, numerous individuals would naturally come to believe that the proposed ‘solution’ is legitimate and appropriate, thus radical ideas must be challenged at some level to neutralize this aspect of human psychology. Overall based on the issues of unopposed certainty and lack of publicity denying influence, ignoring the radical and irrational opinions in the media marketplace is not an appropriate strategy.

So if ignoring and trying to isolate radical ideas is not a consistently viable strategy how does one address radical ideas? Addressing the issue is tricky because research has demonstrated that a simple denial has little effect on destroying the illusionary validity that supporters give to a radical illogical idea. Part of the reason why the simple explanation does not work is the issue of first impressions. Unfortunately human beings place too much focus on first impressions in both people and ideas. If a person agrees with an idea it is difficult to later convince that person that the idea is invalid. This mindset can be split into two parts: first, general laziness in that once people make up their minds they rarely feel the need to revisit those thoughts to see if the information is still valid. Second, most people are simply terrified to be wrong. Unfortunately a long evidence riddled debunking also has its problems largely in maintaining both the attention of the target audience and cohesion of thought.

With these concerns a direct attack against the idea and the individual(s) proposing the idea may not be the best strategy. Instead a better attack strategy would be to drive a natural expansion of the idea beyond a single cause and effect statement. Almost all radical ideas are similar to a house of cards: they are simple, only have depth when viewed from a specific angle and are only stable under ideal conditions. Force radical ideas to expand in their application and they either collapse under their own illogical nature or people realize how inapplicable they are in society.

For example one ‘popular’ radical idea is the libertarian notion of eliminating income taxes. On its face a number of people sympathize with such an idea because of belief in government waste and simple greed disguised as ‘fairness’; however, when expanding the application of the idea to demonstrate all of the services government provides and how those services from infrastructure maintenance to education to law and order will erode without taxes the idea of eliminating taxes falls apart. Basically advancing the idea from theory to practice and addressing the outcomes on individuals and society sheds appropriate light on the idea’s efficacy.

Another issue that should be avoided is focusing on the messenger regardless of how ‘crazy’ one can characterize the messenger. Attacking the messenger will typically lead to backlash and lack of focus. The way to isolate the messenger is to defeat the message, thus denying him/her the ability to propagate a valid message into society. Unfortunately defeating the message is more difficult than simply citing a couple pieces of evidence, which contradicts with certain elements of the message. In addition to the concerns above, human psychology is another troublemaker in this issue because of the backfire effect.

The backfire effect was coined by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler and describes the psychological reaction by individuals to actually strengthen their belief in a particular idea when confronted with valid contradictory evidence. One explanation of the backfire effect is that an individual first develops a belief without the contradictory evidence and when exposed to it rationalizes that because that evidence was previously unknown there must also be unknown evidence that further supports the original belief invalidating the contradictory evidence. This erroneous and laughable reasoning is similar to that perpetrated by supporters of the Iraq War relative to the lack of discovered ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in Iraq, a refrain of ‘just because we didn’t find any weapons of mass destruction doesn’t mean they weren’t there.’ Basically backfire activators are saying, ‘just because this evidence destroys the validity of my opinion on this issue doesn’t mean there isn’t some mysterious unknown evidence that destroys that evidence reaffirming my opinion.’

One strategy to avoid trigger the backfire effect is to attack the radical messages indirectly. Instead of referencing the message directly, attack it indirectly by introducing another contradicting idea with the backing of empirical evidence and logic. Details of the rational and effective idea can be expanded so they are in direct contrast with the radical idea, but do not directly compare the two. This methodology should convince individuals of the superiority of the new idea independently from interaction with the incorrect radical idea, thus when the comparison eventually comes the individual should be more willing to abandon the original erroneous belief.

Of course neither of the above two strategies are guaranteed to work, but they are superior to most of the discourse that occurs in our society with regards to debate and idea exchange. Attacking messengers who express radical expressed opinions rarely works to advance the conversation because rational people, ignorant or not, care about the message, not the messenger and supporters of either side of the argument will typically support that argument in the face of attack regardless of whether or not it is actually accurate. Overall the means to ‘disarm’ radical opinions is optimized through expansion of that idea from a simple talking point to theoretical application in society and how it fails when actually applied or indirect correction.

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