Democracy and Disagreement

Couple engaged in a heated discussion. (momentimages/Getty Images)
After a divisive presidential race, UConn philosopher Michael Lynch discusses what it might take for people to find common ground. (momentimages/Getty Images)

“The best lack all conviction,” William Butler Yeats noted, “while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Rarely has the Irish poet’s famous warning against the perils of dogmatism seemed more apt. As a nation, we are so deeply divided that our disagreements extend past values, past even the facts, to the very meaning of what a fact is. As a result, many in the United States believe there is no point in talking to the other side. Why bother, when you already know you are right and they are wrong?

Democracies need passionate citizens. Without conviction, nothing gets done – either personally or politically. But we also need to listen to one another. That means more than just being civil or polite. Really listening means being open to the possibility that we could learn something from those with differing views; that our views can always improve; that we don’t know it all. That’s a kind of humility – what researchers call “intellectual” or “cognitive” humility.

Striking the right balance between this sort of humility and strong conviction is not easy. That’s partly because of certain facts about human psychology. Each of us are prone to both confirmation bias – we tend to agree with that which fits what we already believe – and the “Dunning-Kruger effect” – a tendency to think we are experts on subject we in fact know little about. That is what makes teenagers so frustrating; they think they know it all; and in that sense we all struggle with our inner teenager all the time. We are certain we are right and that other folks don’t get it.

The challenge of acknowledging our limits extends well beyond the political.

In 2007, for example, much of the financial industry knew that the strategy of bundling mortgages was only ever going to reward investors, just as the “smartest guys in the room” knew a few years before that Enron was a safe bet of a company. In both cases, the mistake was in confusing a heady mix of success and self-interest for expertise. That encouraged the thought that things were locked down; that nothing would go south; that the future would be as they were convinced it would be.

The same problem has occurred in the military realm, from the historic blunders of Napoleon and Hitler in Russia, to the more recent assurances before the Iraq War that we knew that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction and had contributed to 9/11. Even more dramatically, epistemic arrogance defines many people’s religious lives, as they interpret their beliefs as the one true faith, granting them certain knowledge about not only the after-life but life here and now.

Democracies need passionate citizens. Without conviction, nothing gets done … But we also need to listen to one another.

Perhaps the most complex and intriguing example is science. The scientific method embodies epistemic humility, the idea that we need to be open-minded toward the evidence. But across a variety of issues – from vaccines, to evolution, to climate change – many people ignore the evidence, preferring to stick with what they feel certain is true – even while claiming that the scientific establishment is doing the same thing.

The challenge of overcoming our natural tendency toward unwavering conviction has only deepened with the increasing dominance of social media.

Our online life allows us access to a universe of information. Yet it also rewards, tweet-by-tweet, arrogance and hyper-defensiveness. The sheer amount of information available weirdly encourages informational overconfidence (“Just Google it!”), making us think we know more than we do. One reason for that is “evidence” for any belief you have – I mean, any belief – can be found on the Internet.

Another reason is that the wonderful freedom the internet brings allows us to curate our own politically tinged information bubbles and echo chambers. Our technology is facilitating, rather than compensating for, humans’ natural disposition to bias, overconfidence, and blind trust in authority. Marry that with a tendency to think your political viewpoint is perfect, and you get a dangerous, reinforcing mix. We are always right – just ask us.

This is why we need to investigate how to recapture a sense of intellectual humility. Such an investigation can’t be one-dimensional. It needs to draw not only on social science but on the deepest lessons of the humanities.

A striking example of the promise of this research comes from an initial study our project ran this summer with Ben Meagher of Franklin Marshall and Hanna Gunn, Nate Sheff, Casey Johnson, and myself at UConn. While results at this very early stage are of course preliminary, our question was whether exposure to research on implicit bias, intellectual humility, open-mindedness, and similar ideas, together with group work meant to help them model these ideas, would have any effect on students taking a philosophy class that explicitly dealt with divisive issues over ethics.

We tested a target group and a control group (students taking the same course but without the extra training) both before and after using a measure designed to track behavior associated with open-mindedness and intellectual humility. The results at first seemed discouraging: the “humility” target group ended up having stronger convictions than when they started; they were more willing to defend their opinions, while the control group’s convictions lessened. But the data also suggest something deeply interesting: members of the target “humility” group rated each other much higher on the humility scale than members of the control group. In short run – they had strong convictions but they regarded each other as more humble and willing to listen.

While this research is still in the early stage – more testing is needed – it points to the promise of this project. It points to the possibility that we might be able to balance democracy’s two competing values – humility and conviction – after all. That’s something all of us recuperating from the stress of this past election should be able to appreciate, no matter where we stand.

Michael Patrick Lynch is a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, where he directs the University’s Humanities Institute and is the principal investigator of Humility & Conviction in Public Life. Lynch is the author or editor of seven books, including In Praise of Reason: Why Rationality Matters for Democracy.