Saturday, April 26, 2014

Why Societies Need Dissent by Cass Sunstein

Source of book: I own this.

I recently read an article pointing out a number of ideas that either were supported by the Republican party or probably would have been but for one thing: President Obama publicly supported them, thus making them anathema. (The most obvious of these was the payroll tax cut, which was fine under G.W. Bush, but then opposed after Obama supported it. There are plenty of others.) This is one of the reasons I just can’t take politics these days. 

Another victim of this tribalism is, in my opinion, Cass Sunstein. I really wasn’t aware of his books until President Obama nominated him for the delightfully named Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. (It is hard to imagine a better bureaucratic name. I mean, it could be the name for just about anything.) At that time, a certain group of conservatives, largely centered around the talk radio circuit, went ballistic, accusing him of all kinds of crazy political and legal positions. One would have thought he was the reincarnation of Marx.

But, it turns out, he really wasn’t and isn’t any of those things, but rather, a thoughtful law professor with plenty of ideas that should appeal to conservatives. But, the friend of my enemy is my enemy, I guess.

I reviewed Nudge last year, and found it intriguing, not the least because it seemed to present an interesting alternative to heavy handed government regulation and control to protect average people from a variety of ills, from difficulty in saving for retirement to vulnerability to scammers. Sunstein called his idea “libertarian paternalism,” and it left individual choice in place while making the “default settings” of society more likely to lead to good results. To me, this seemed a natural idea for a conservative (like myself) to embrace, as it didn’t limit choices. Rather, it allowed the natural human inertia and difficulty in making intimidating decisions to work toward safer, better results. It lowered the difficulty level for the average person, particularly those with less education, familiarity with financial systems, and less free time on their hands.

The conservative response to this idea baffled me. The two possible explanations seemed to be either that they really, truly and deeply, wanted most people to fail (and some I suspect do hold this view) or that they rejected it out of hand because Obama supported it.

Sunstein also skews conservative on a few other issues, including support for the death penalty, advocacy for judicial restraint (and the related support for Chief Justice John Roberts), and support for military tribunals. Even libertarians might like his belief that the government should stop regulating marriage, replacing them with civil unions. He also has some more traditionally liberal views, such as support for limited affirmative action, and a view of taxation as a necessary good rather than evil. His unwavering support for free speech rights, which are central to this particular book doesn’t favor either side, as I will note.

So I don’t get it. His views seem pretty moderate on average, hardly ideologically driven. If anything, he works hard to consider a variety of arguments and even discuss the potential weaknesses of his point of view. Really, the ideal of how a lawyer - or judge - should approach things.

I also want to mention a concept that Sunstein pioneered which gets a quick mention in this book, but should be a required concept for all students, in my opinion. Sunstein calls it an “availability cascade,” but what it really describes is the tendencies that lead to things such as a fear of flying despite the low relative risks. It is the desire to find a single explanation for complex issues, and to overvalue certain unlikely risks over other, much more serious and widespread risks. More on this later. 

The central theme of Why Societies Need Dissent is that if dissent is suppressed, either by governmental or societal forces, necessary information that prevents errors is never considered. As a result, societies that fail to value and listen to dissent are more prone to fatal errors than those who encourage a variety of voices.

Now, dissenting ideas themselves are neutral. Some ideas are objectively ludicrous, such as the opinion that the sun revolves around the earth. But many more are in gray areas. There is no one objectively right answer, and it is important that multiple perspectives be considered so that errors do not compound by being unopposed. Sunstein proceeds to flesh out these ideas, and tease out, using a number of studies, the ways that groups act with and without a healthy dissent.

There are two particular reasons that I connected with this research. First, there is a whole chapter on the dynamics of three judge appellate panels. As a lawyer, this was fascinating on so many levels. (For example, did you know that a Democratic appointee on a panel with two Republican appointees tends to vote slightly more conservative than a Republican appointee on a panel with two Democrats? Sunstein has a ton of research demonstrating this.)

The other hits even more close to home. Why do cults tend to go from normal to crazy so fast? How do groups of seemingly normal people start espousing positions far more extreme than any of them would by themselves? (In my own life, how do normal decent people decide to silence women, keep their kids out of college, and make their kids dress like Victorians?)

To start at the beginning, Sunstein looks at two countervailing forces. “Ideological amplification” versus “ideological dampening.” If a group of people generally share the same ideas, they will tend to get more extreme, while those groups who have differing ideas will tend to moderate the more extreme ideas.

The most amazing facet of ideological amplification is that if a group of “likeminded” persons talk only among themselves, they tend to come to conclusions that are far more extreme than any of the individuals espoused before they deliberated as a group.

Here is an interesting twist: the way that individuals identify themselves and others as part of the majority group or not influences this dynamic. If all the individuals strongly identify with each other, they tend to suppress their own dissent in order to further group solidarity. This also occurs where the dissenter is identified as an outsider - his view can be safely ignored. The ideal balance appears to be where all members are loosely part of the group, but not so close to the group that they would sacrifice their views for peace. The worst, therefore, is when there is an “us versus them” dynamic, either the group against every other view, or a polarization of the viewpoints within the group.

This tendency to follow one’s own group is chillingly seen in experiments in which volunteers “punish” other volunteers with electric shocks for wrong answers. Monolithic groups tended to cause far greater shocks, particularly when they believed planted “experts” on the benefit of administering these shocks. Sunstein noted that this tendency is seen where people are far more willing to cause pain and destruction to others if they believe (and their friends believe) that it is for the good of society, such as in imposing draconian jail terms for drug offenders.

I noted above the “availability cascades.” Cascades in general tend to occur when one person expresses an opinion, thus influencing the others to keep silent. One highly confident person can thus impose his will on others who lack the confidence of their opinions. This is particularly apparent in fear of risk, as noted above. If one person starts a fear, then the others join in, not because they have actually researched the risk, but because they believe the original person. Probably one of the greatest modern examples is that of food fears, whether fear of pesticides or GMOs, or whatever. Nearly nobody actually looks at the research on the risks, or considers actual evidence (such as a declining cancer incidence rate). Rather, fear feeds on fear, and facebook post feeds on facebook post.

And yet, despite a notable lack of evidence that there is significant risk of harm, the paranoia continues.

Now, what is amazing about this is that there are serious, known risks out there. In fact, there are two big things one can do that have far more effect on one’s health than any of these scares. What are they? Number one: quit smoking. Number two: exercise strenuously four times a week.

And yet, most - not all but most - of the people I know who are continuously posting food scare articles (or anti-vaccine articles for that matter) don’t exercise regularly. And many are overweight or obese. Ignoring the real risk for the fake one.

How does this occur? Sunstein points to “reputational pressure.” If a mom, for example, doesn’t agree with the fears of her peer group, she is considered a neglectful mother. It’s far easier to just go along with the fear de jour. This is one of the most serious problems within “likeminded” groups. Weird beliefs persist because to question them would mean a loss of reputation.

This is the major reason that Sunstein worries (as do I) about the current state of free speech. There seems to be an increasing tendency toward self segregation in the ideological sense (and in the racial sense, for that matter.) We tend to live in neighborhoods and shop at stores and worship in churches with people who largely share our demographics and our ideas. As Sunstein puts it, “many people show a desire to live in echo chambers of their own devising.”

I must mention in this connection that the entire chapter six, entitle “The Law of Group Polarization” is excellent. It explores the dynamics of terrorism, street gangs, cults, and even arguably more benign groups such as political parties and religious organizations. Just as terrorists do not even consider that competing views have merit, and thus devolve into extremism, groups of all sorts are prone to place competing views in the category of “them.” That is, our enemies. People whose opinions (and dissent) don’t matter. Thus, dissenters are either silenced or driven from the group, and their counterbalancing ideas are never considered.

Finally, Sunstein notes that it isn’t enough just for ideas to be out there in the ether. Ideas are most effective when they are associated with people. Thus, it is one thing for a group of middle class white people to discuss racial profiling, but it is another altogether to hear an African American friend describe his or her experiences.

But the value of diversity does not lie simply in learning facts. Much of it comes from seeing a range of perspectives, including the emotions attached to them - and from being in the actual presence of people who have those perspectives and cannot be easily dismissed.

Note on “likeminded”:

I use that term for two reasons. First, Sunstein uses it. Second, it is a significant buzzword in both homeschool and patriarchal circles. The idea is that one should only fellowship with people who think the same way. And certainly, one’s children should only be exposed to people who think the same way. As Sunstein shows, this is a recipe for disaster. It is also a hallmark of terrorist groups and cults.

This comes from the Presuppositionalism from the Van Til and Rushdoony underpinnings, which teach the idea that only those with the same narrow religious beliefs can even arrive at any truth. Opinions from outside of the orthodoxy thus cannot - by definition - be true, and can thus be discounted. With the insistence that women remain silent and out of leadership, this reduces the source of acceptable opinions to a small group of men who hold certain beliefs, and anyone outside of that small circle is automatically ignored or actively fought against. Hmm, what could possibly go wrong?

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