How to debate a wing nut

How would you debate a wing nut? Cass Sunstein has a very encouraging and interesting answer.

For a positive answer, consider an intriguing study by Philip Fernbach, a University of Colorado business school professor, and his colleagues. Their central finding is that if you ask people to explain exactly why they think as they do, they discover how much they don’t know — and they become more humble and therefore more moderate. […]

Interestingly, Fernbach and his co-authors found no increase in moderation when they asked people not to “describe all the details you know” about the likely effects of the various proposals, but simply to say why they believe what they do. If you ask people to give reasons for their beliefs, they tend to act as their own lawyers or public relations managers, and they don’t move toward greater moderation. The lesson is subtle: What produces an increase in humility, and hence moderation, is a request for an explanation of the causal mechanisms that underlie people’s beliefs.

Interestingly, what we do on this blog — provide evidence — is not what the investigators suggest works. I don’t know if they tested this approach, but it is well-known that evidence is confirming but not convincing. If the Fernbach study is right, what one should be doing is a lot more listening and asking than telling.

Sunstein’s column is worth a full read. Before commenting, at least do that  much. If you disagree, I ask that you explain exactly why and how much you know about this subject. The published study is gated, but what appears to be an ungated working paper version is here (PDF). It’s in my pile.


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