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Pundits Reach Similar Ideas Without Communication

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Guest New York Times columnist Matt Miller offers some thoughts in a column last Saturday which strike me as thoroughly persuasive:

Speaking just between us – between one who writes columns and those who read them – I’ve had this nagging question about the whole enterprise we’re engaged in.

Is persuasion dead? Is it possible in America today to convince anyone of anything he doesn’t already believe? If so, are there enough places where this mingling of minds occurs to sustain a democracy?

Marshaling a case to persuade those who start from a different position is a lost art. Politicos huddle with like-minded souls in opinion cocoons that seem impervious to facts. [Edited excerpt from Is Persuasion Dead?, New York Times, June 4, 2005. (Also available at urielw.com/refs/050604.htm.)]

I wrote in a quite similar vein last November (though I proferred “blocs” rather than “cocoons”):

Our reality is bleaker even than the one portrayed in the movie, The Matrix. It’s something that renders polemics pointless, something that should shut us all up.

The characters in Matrix, after all, enjoy an unhampered ability to communicate with each other. There is a single and unique simulated world for everybody.

That’s why the Matrix allegory is really too cheerful. There are no “separate realities”! Even Bush and Kerry supporters hear the same thing.

In our real world, by contrast, we are divided into innumerable reality blocs. We might call them opinion blocs. And the information boundaries between these blocs are impregnable.

Allow me to expose myself here, for the public interest. Taking myself as an example, it’s practically inconceivable that anything would lead me to change my mind about an opinion I’ve already developed.

And I assure you I’m exceptionally open-minded.

You, dear reader, are the same way. If you got an opinion, it ain’t gonna change.

So. This certainly raises uncomfortable questions about what we’re doing here. And about communication in general. [Edited excerpt from Irreconcilable Differences.]

The only point on which I’m obliged to regretfully part ways from Mr. Miller is when he supplements his observation that there is no communication with the suggestion that it makes no difference anyways. Just as I did (in making a different point), he offers himself as an example:

The embarrassing truth is that we earnest chin-strokers often get it wrong anyway. Take me. I hadn’t thought much about Iraq before I read Ken Pollack’s book, “The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq,” a platonic ideal of careful analysis meant to persuade. It worked. I was persuaded! So what should we conclude when a talent like Pollack can convince us – and then the whole thing turns out to be based on a premise (W.M.D.) that is false?

If serious efforts to get it right can lead to tragic errors, why care about a culture of persuasion at all? On one level, everyone needs a good rationalization at the core of his professional life; mine holds that the struggle to think things through, even when we fail, is redeeming.

Miller poses the questions — “what should we conclude,” “why care about a culture of persuasion at all?” — but, strangely, offers no better reason for working towards communication than this meagre, “even when we fail, [it’s] redeeming.”

Miller then conjures the conclusion: “if you believe that meeting our collective challenges requires greater collective understanding, we’ve got to persuade [politicians and mass media outlets] to try.”

Let me fill in the answers Miller seems to have in mind, though he leaves them implicit: Of course communication and public debate are beneficial. Not just because the struggle is “redeeming” (whatever that means). And notwithstanding the fact that they sometimes lead to wrong conclusions. Generally speaking, rational public debate — could we only achieve such a thing — would improve our level of insight, the quality of our decisions, and thus our ability to achieve shared goals. Can any of this be doubted? The alternative would be to abandon the idea of self-government and consign ourselves to whatever fate brings us.

Miller offers no prescriptions for improving communication and insight. I offer two:

  • University programs should be instituted with sufficient government financing to attract bright students in large numbers to public policy analysis as a viable professional career. It would be desirable to have 1% of the workforce engaged full-time. A rational electorate is an investment that would pay for itself. (Elaboration at my Easy Answers to World Priorities.)
  • Recognize that improving communication requires not only incentives for insight, but deterrents against the widespread practice of distorting public debate through lies. (Mistaken War also discusses the Iraqi WMD issue and proposes that some people should be charged with treason for using false premises to promote war.)

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