Closemindedness is a trait all humans can fall prey to

What’s the Best Strategy for Dealing with Deniers?
[Via Climate Progress]

David Roberts, in a Grist cross-post.

The other day, I wrote about a study that attempted to explain why conservative white men (CWM) are so loathe to accept the threat of climate change. It has to do with system justification and identity-protective cognition. Go read it!

The question remains: What should we do about it? The denialism or indifference of CWM toward climate is a huge barrier to getting anything done. In this post, I’m going to argue that the typical strategies are doomed to failure. It may be that the simplest, least clever strategy — kick their [metaphorical] asses — is still the way to go.

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I don’t really agree with everything this article says – mainly because it is written too much from a one-sided view which may encompass the same sort of close-mindedness it purports to discuss– but I think it has some interesting content worth thinking about.

The main point of the article – that different sides can have important things to contribute to a discussion and that we are all harmed when one side gets too closed off from the larger discussion – is a major problem with humanity.

Because the problem it describes – climate change denial – actually describes a very human behavior that can be found in any group. I would not doubt that conservatives could write almost exactly the same article by just changing a few nouns and verbs.

The interesting content has to do with some very human ways groups coalesce around ideas and then those ideas – and the group identity they encompass – become more important than empirical facts. Those ideas define the group and any contradiction is ruthlessly flushed out.

There are two main points mentioned that are worth discussing more.

One is the theory of argumentative reasoning, a very intriguing idea regarding why  our arguments are so often built on irrational and non-empirical ideas and why confirmation bias can often cloud our decisions. We argue in order to reason.

The other is epistemic closure – the idea that a group only gets information from those within the same group, that their arguments become completely closed off from different attempts at argumentative reasoning. Thus the group can no longer respond to alternative arguments because those discussions are completely closed off from the group – it only listens to what it already knows.

And if what it knows is wrong or becomes obsolete, the group becomes very agitated, even further ignoring outside arguments.

Because epistemic closure results in a lack of arguments. Everyone agrees and thus the ‘reasoning’ of the group actually plummets.

Humans reason and reach decisions only by arguing – according to the argumentative theory. No arguments, no reasoning.

This is something that can happen to any group of people – only connecting to themselves, only talking with one another and shutting out the arguments made by any not of the group.

Whether we call it group think, epistemic closure or close-mindedness, it can occur anywhere. And it always results in poor decisions, simply because not all facts and arguments are considered.

This is why the best decisions often come from the groups that have the most diversity, the greatest variation in viewpoint.

So the question becomes, how does a group with conflicting arguments break into the epistemic closure of another group, and provide a way for real argumentative reasoning to reach useful decisions?

The article suggests that the only way for the first group to do this is to become as intense in its views as the close-minded group.

I disagree that this. While it might work in the short term, is not a great approach as it opens the possibility of both groups becoming closed off. Two groups suffering from epistemic closure will not get things done.

In fact, I think intensity is the wrong way to go. At least the direct intensity mentioned by the author in the last paragraph. I think it is much more likely we would end up with two very intense and close-minded groups screaming at each other and not accomplish much at all.

I think the long term way to go is to recognize that few groups are homogenous and that there will always be members who are more open to outside arguments than others. There simply is no way for compete epistemic closure to occur with any really powerful and large group – humans are too diverse.

(Yes. I recognize that existential threats can and do cause this sort of behavior but those threats do not usually last long in human history as they often become unable  to adapt to changing conditions.)

So, identify those who might be more open to discussion and work with them. These are the ones who best need respect and good functional arguments.

These are the ones where discussing other aspects of complex topics could actually lead to useful action. Those are the ‘reasonable’ ones. and their viewpoints may be important in providing useful solutions.

You do not ever get people to make long term changes in their identity by becoming more intense at them in the same way they are. Ghandi and King did not effect long term changes in people’s behavior by screaming political ideas at them. Their actions actually connected with people in the opposite camps who could be reached and whose behavior could be modified.

This takes time but is the best long term solution.

And if we don’t have enough time for that to happen? Well, we might then just have to admit that the peak of human development has already occurred and we, as a species, may begin our decline, as all animals do eventually.