Sunday, 21 August 2011

why discussion gets nowhere

I often hear in the news and among some segments of the community that we need to have a debate in the community about this or that topic. This seldom happens and when it does all too often becomes nothing more than a yelling match, especially when one or the other side is not "winning" the arguments.

I see that there are some fundamental flaws in the way we go about this and the preparedness of the vast majority of community to actually engage in such a conversation.

I was impressed when I lived in Japan when discussing things with "ordinary workers" that people in that society had an assumption that "I'm an ordinary worker, so I don't know much about that", which was in total contrast to Australia where people are more willing to step up to the plate and say "I think that's wrong" soon to be followed by resistance and defensiveness when you start establishing they are wrong. Yet they often (the Aussies) started out not knowing a bloody thing about the topic.

So if we begin with a debate (rather than asking questions) people take sides and then defend their choice. This is perhaps because debate is a formalized argument which is intended to produce a winner - not explore an issue.

I don't think its helpful for the community to be taking sides and attempting to win the argument, this is simply a form of conflict, and I think we already have enough of that now.

If the community has polarized views on topics then arguing will just lead to entrenching that division. Further there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that "no matter what", people just are unwilling to accept any new facts if it conflicts with their existing viewpoint.

A Professor from Georgia State University, Jason Reifler conducted a series of experiments that looked at whether people changed their views when they were presented with the correct facts. He found that not only did they not, but it reinforced their will to keep a grip on their existing views.

Clearly this has a significant effect on the politics around any public dialog; a quote from an (ABC interview) with him:

JASON REIFLER: When we told people that the United States had not found weapons of mass destruction, conservatives, compared to conservatives that we didn't correct actually believed more strongly that the US had found weapons of mass destruction.

So that by telling them that in fact the US didn't and pointing to a CIA report known as the Duelfer report citizens actually, their response was, well actually now I believe it more strongly.

ELEANOR HALL: So not only did they not believe the facts that you were putting before them; they actually reinforced the incorrect views they originally had.


ELEANOR HALL: What hope is there then for truth in politics?

JASON REIFLER: The downside of the research that my co-author and I have done to date is that it's very depressing. We don't have a terribly good understanding yet of ways to try and improve public debate, to try and improve political dialogue.

So people seem to treat discussion like a footy match; with a winner and a looser at the end of the match and go home still rooting for their team.
as just mentioned people are unwilling to accept that discussion may lead to them being wrong or that they may learn something they didn't know before (which should lead to them changing their point of view).

moz-screenshot-9One of my favorite cartoons recently was a graph, it tries to sum up the ideas above in a nutshell.

Essentially when you have zero knowledge you still have some confidence in your viewpoint being right, the more you begin to learn the more you gain confidence in your views.

Its only after you learn enough that you start to question your views and wonder if they are right. At this point we see the graph starting to fall. Eventually when you know quite a lot you actually have very little confidence that your views are correct.

This is what we commonly call wisdom. The vast majority of the community do not have much wisdom. In fact if asked don't usually value it or do anything to obtain it. They'd rather have a beer and watch the footy.

Recently I was watching the program Catalyst and was left simply stunned at the incredible ignorance people have of the most basic physical facts. I was totally gobsmacked to see that people just didn't grasp that something feels cold because its a good conductor and feels warm because its a good insulator. If we were talking to the most primitive uneducated tribal native they would be no less unaware of these basic facts and perhaps even more aware of them.

I was particularly stunned by the guy in the green jacket, its hard to imagine someone making more wrong conclusions and yet he probably reaches conclusions on issues like global warming. My favorite comment from him was
"Alluminium would be bad for the environment because it was thawing out the ice a lot quicker"
So kiss bye bye to any meaningful climate change community debate when people can't even grasp these dead simple issues.

the comment "we're creatives not intellectuals" sums it up to me. Yet the blond girl was the only one who seemed to have have learned from the book and the hard drive that her assumptions may have been wrong. But she was in the minority there...

[note: in case that video doesn't work please try to download segment mp4 or wmv (average size 10 MB) or go to the ABC web page here.]

I was very encouraged how each of these people accepted the outcomes as described by the presenter. All of these people (despite thinking he was lying) eventually seemed to accept he was right. The guy in the green jacket also accepted that he "wasn't a scientist" and also seemed to accept the logic of the demonstration.

All these people would (if asked separately) quite likely identify themselves as being smart, as having meaningful input into discussions on (say) climate change, and quite likely all have gone to high school and on to University. That they don't know much about the ultra basics of the modern world speaks reams about the total failure of our educational system to actually bring people up to speed with the complexity of the modern world.

Yet all these people vote, and its likely all these people will go into a debate feeling their opinion is right and in the context of a debate, most likely be unwilling to listen to the other side.

It will be a win or lose event.

If enough of these people then behave as Jason Reifler observed in his research then I'd say we're fucked. But the above video also seems to show that if the arguments are presented appropriately that people do accept them.

The problem remains however how to deal with people using tools like straw man arguments, syllogism and many other logical tricks to prove their points and convince the less rigorous listener.

So as I say often, with the rights in society come obligations. If you want to be part of the political process then you have an obligation to participate to in that and not just get fooled by the shells game played by many politicians.


Anonymous said...


The paradox is that democracies where your average Joe can vote always outperform societies where only an elite get to decide. I put it down to Wisdom of Crowds.

obakesan said...

Strangely I often find the opposite, that crowds are stupid creatures and individuals can be smart.

I also wonder what the significance is in Australia of the mandatory voting VS percentage of voter turn out in other democracies. In the USA people can go wild about TV land debates but may or may not go and vote accordingly

obakesan said...

a link to the framework mentioned above by Anon

worth a read

Charles Maclauchlan said...

you might be on to something here, Chris regarding voter turn-out. The numbers of voter's who participate is usually quite low here in the USA. It's lower still for the "mid-term" elections which don't have a presidential race. Many including me believe these smaller, local, mid term elections are actually quite important...the devil in the details and all. That these are determined by a MUCH smaller percentage of citizens is possibly a good thing.

A thoughtful, educated, well informed population who all vote would be a great thing but how many people are all three? When elections are exciting enough to bring out large numbers of voters we almost always vote for the "Popular and Cool guy." Unfortunately good executives need so many more capabilities, popular and cool seldom result in performance...just look at us now.