• 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.


    • The study makes a lot of intuitive sense and I have no dispute with the conclusion. However, there is a problem in applying this to real life that Sunstein hasn’t addressed. What if the wingnuts have a body of evidence which has been vetted by intellectuals on their side? What if the wingnuts have their own media which reinforces their own opinions and disseminates evidence friendly to their conclusions?

      In this case, let’s say my grandparents are firmly against the ACA, believing that the death panels will kill them dead. I might ask them why they think there are death panels. They point to Michele Bachmann, an established political figure. They might point to others in right-leaning think tanks who say that under the ACA, rationing is inevitable. Etc. Grandpa has a set of facts from figures he trusts he can point to.

      Or take the anti-vaccine and anti-flouridation crowd. They have their own intellectual figures who have established a body of evidence.

      • The article suggests not asking people to justify their positions, but asking them to explain the causal chain of how the policy leads to its outcomes. The former polarizes. The latter moderates.

        • There are plenty of real-world examples of policies being derided not because of a mistaken causal chain of events but simply because person X supports them. Senator Pat Toomey outright admitted that many Republicans did just that with regards to his expanded background checks amendment that failed to clear cloture in the Senate. Or if you want a more salient health-related issue, look at how the GOP completely abandoned the individual shared responsibility payment after it was included in ObamaCare. Hatred cannot be moderated.

        • And perhaps I should have phrased this better, but many individuals are able to rely on wingnut institutions to generate plausible-sounding causal chains that they can then use to reply. The non-wingnuts may attempt to refute the logic behind the causal chain, but then we have already lost the battle.

    • My take away is that when you understand how someone thinks you are better able to understand why they believe what they do, and then you have an opportunity to change their opinion. Reading the article I can say right off that while I wouldn’t call George W. Bush a facist or Barack Obama a socialist, I’m not sure that I totally disagree with the idea that the Treasury Dept. is under the control of big banks or that the oil in Libya didn’t set the chain of events there into motion at some point in history.

      Setting out to “humble” someone may work sometimes, but if the person has resources, say a vote you’d like cast for your position, you’re better off establishing a relationship based on an authentic understanding of one another’s position. So it’s less about discrediting what they think they know and more about sharing what you know, in hopes together you can reach an understanding of what’s true and right..

    • The ungated journal article is here:

    • I like Cass’s solution and I will try, which is Ironic because I think that many would call me a wing nut.

    • If the study’s participants were not wing nuts, then its conclusions are applicable only to people who are somewhat rational in the first place. Presumably, this would exclude wing nuts, so the study is not very helpful. Wing nuts tend to sacralize an issue (e.g., liberals and big government), and as Jonathan Haidt pointed out when discussing the sanctity foundation of morality in his book “The Righteous Mind,” once anything is “declared sacred, then devotees can no longer question it or think clearly about it.” The wing nuts are simply acting on their faith.