When I think about the places I go for information, the people I seek out for conversation, the blogs I frequent, I realize that most of them are places where I find myself saying “yes, how true” much more often than “no, you got it wrong”. Hopefully now and then I find myself saying “interesting! I never thought of it that way!” “Good point, I’ll have to think about that some more.” I have been made to feel guilty, though, because I do not frequent places (whether physical or virtual) that conflict with my thoughts, positions and values more often than not. Pundits worry that I and others like me use the Internet only to seek support for my own narrow point of view and thus am closed to new thoughts. I am one of the thoughtless masses who get pushed further and further into isolated group think to the detriment of civil discourse and the advancement of knowledge and truth.
I never liked that argument but it still stung and made me worried, both about the advancement of my own knowledge and positions and about the hope for the future of the country. On February 27, 2012 Russ Roberts talked to David Weinberger on EconTalk about knowledge. EconTalk is one of the safe zones I frequent to hear thoughts that generally cause me to nod my head in agreement and frequently cause me to feel like I got new information. Thirty minutes into the talk Roberts and Weinberger turned to groupthink, also known as the echo chamber effect. Their short conversation on this topic so impressed me that I will quote from it at length below. The key point is that while it does seem appropriate to worry about the negative effects of conversations that only seem to happen in an echo chamber, we should not overstate that fear for conversations are more likely to be productive and lead to advancement in positions and knowledge when they happen between individuals who fundamentally agree on most issues but disagree about a fine point. If two debaters do not share fundamental agreement on many issues it seems unlikely that either will come away from the conversation having learned something valuable and having advanced toward a productive middle ground.
Russ: Let’s turn now back to some of your arguments in the book. One of the things you talk about, I think very provocatively and insightfully is this sort of tension on the internet between hanging out with people who think just like you, which is comforting and feels good often, but dangerous, because it’s prone to groupthink or echo chamber effects, versus exposing yourself to other viewpoints and learning about things you don’t agree with, and maybe getting smarter. But less comfortable. Talk about how that’s going on on the internet.
Guest: Okay. This is actually one of my least favorite topics, because I’m so uncertain.
Russ: Well, we’ll make it short, then. I have plenty of other questions.
Guest: I think it’s a really important topic to bring up in any discussion of knowledge on the internet. Because the echo chamber argument is a powerful argument. It says that if you give people many different sources to listen to, they will naturally tend to listen to ones that they agree with. And there are bad consequences to that–namely you get further convinced of your own beliefs and in fact you get more extreme in your beliefs. There’s some evidence that’s what happens. And the internet is just that situation. And so there’s a great deal of agitation about the echo chamber. On the one hand, part of me doesn’t care about how severe the echo chamber effect is, whether it’s a lot or a little, because even if it’s a little, we still need to be doing everything we can to avoid closing ourselves off to alternative views. I’m a good liberal, not just politically but in terms of certain traditional liberal enlightenment sort of guy, so I think that openness to contrary ideas improves thought. Sorry, that’s what I think; and I’m old; and that thought itself isn’t very open to contrary opinion.
Russ: You’re pretty close-minded about openness.
Guest: I am, absolutely. So on the one hand, it doesn’t matter how severe it is; we still need to be doing everything we can as parents and as individuals and institutionally to avoid it. On the other hand, it seems to me there’s some wrong conclusions, or maybe there are assumptions within that model that we also need to be careful about. The echo chamber model seems to assume that the only good conversation is one with somebody with whom you disagree, and otherwise you are just in your comfort zone. I mean, the language around it is all negative. You are in your comfort zone, you are reconfirming, you are closing yourself down. So, a real conversation is you arguing with somebody with whom you disagree; and not just arguing, but being open to change. Because if you are not open to change then you incapable of learning and there is no point. And so the model should be: The Jew–I say this as a Jew, as my example–talking with a neo-Nazi, and the Jew says: Welcome my friend, let’s have some coffee–because we are in a coffee shop, that’s the setting for these conversations, these ideal conversations.
Russ: Or a salon. It’s the salon/coffee shop/faculty lounge–it’s where we romanticize intellectual discourse.
Guest: Yeah. In the Jurgen Habermas thing it’s the coffee shop. So, I’m going to put it in a coffee shop, if you don’t mind. So, would you like–it’s on me, we’ll get your Nazi latte; and lets talk and work down to our differences, and I am open to becoming a Nazi, my good friend, just as you are open to becoming a Jew. And that’s a real conversation. But that conversation not only never happens. It can’t happen. Because conversation needs a great deal of agreement. And so I worry that the echo chamber argument leads us to undervalue the extent to which we need similarity in order to have a simple conversation, or to have a culture at all. So, for you and me to talk, we have to share a language, we have to have a topic that we both think is interesting, a basic set of assumptions and values or else we can’t get anywhere. We have to have a set of conversational norms that are very particular and precise even if we don’t generally articulate them, that guide the conversation. We have to have so much in common simply to have a conversation. And furthermore the conversations that advance thought generally are not between the Jew and the Nazi, or between the creationist and the evolutionist, or whatever you want to pick. They are conversations among people who know a great deal about a topic, share huge amounts. I mean, they are 99.999% in agreement; but they are two economists who disagree about this particular issue. And the conversation that advances both of their thinking is the one that iterates on some tiny difference, something that they are getting all heated in their discussion but to an outsider who doesn’t know economics, it would look like they are arguing–you’d ridicule them, because they are arguing over something trivial. Echo chambers are an issue, but we should not undervalue the extent to which knowledge is based out of conversations with people with whom we fundamentally agree.
Russ: It’s a very deep insight. The reason I think it’s hard to think about is that word “echo chamber” or “groupthink.” Those are so horrifyingly negative as a way to describe it. But when we describe it as you describe it, we have to have these shared values, norms, it makes sense. And when you look at your own life–when I came here to George Mason U., I’m a pretty hard core free market, libertarian, classical liberal guy, I was worried we’d sit around all day when I got here and we’d talk about how bad the minimum wage is. That’s not what we talk about. It’s not very interesting and fortunately, it’s not what we do. And I’ve learned an enormous amount of economics from my colleagues here, even though we pretty much agree on most things. As you say, because of that agreement, we can go very deeply into aspects of things you don’t fully understand in a way you can’t with somebody who doesn’t share norms, basic values, etc. So, if you look at your own life and you ask yourself, who did you learn the most from, it is romantic–we do say often: I’ve got this great friend, we don’t agree on anything but we respect each other. And often you argue with those people. And if you are lucky they are polite and civilized. But I think the people you learn the most from are maybe the people you already pretty much agree with. That may be more an indictment of our dogmatic selves; but I think it’s a deep aspect of human nature.
Guest: Yes. And I don’t think it’s a dogmatic aspect. It’s how culture advances. It’s how knowledge advances. So, if you are trying to come up with–if you are in a lab and you are working on a vaccine, or whatever, and you are having your weekly meeting to have your people advance, it’s not helpful to have somebody there who says: Vaccines cause autism. You don’t want–that discussion may be important to have someone.
Russ: But not here. You need the groupthink; you need the echo chamber working. You do.
Guest: You do.