Yesterday, Cass R. Sunstein wrote an interesting article, How to Humble a Wing Nut. He reported on some research by Philip Fernbach at the University of Colorado. He found that by asking test subjects to write down everything they know about a controversial policy, he got them to moderate their views and lower their belief in how much they know about the subject. This isn’t a terribly surprising result, but it is nice to see it made concrete.
The problem is that I doubt that it is of much usefulness. Debates are all about not losing face. In the study, there is no face to lose. My experience writing about politics is that a lot of subjects turn into an inconclusive muddle the more you look at them. As a result, I tend to not write about them. That’s not because they aren’t important. It is just that I don’t have much to add to the debate. Similarly, that’s why I write a lot about economics: it is very clear. America has been off the rails, economically speaking, for so long that the major debates are nowhere near the margins where there is actual disagreement in the science.
The problem I have with Sunstein’s article is his position that the crazies are “out there” and the truth is the moderate position in the center. So his list of wingnut views is as follows:
I don’t agree with any of these position as stated. However, there is a great deal of fascist thought in the modern Republican Party, even if I have never claimed that the party itself is fascistic. Obama, like every other person in the world, has some socialistic leanings. The big banks don’t run the Department of the Treasury, but they have enormous power, both directly and indirectly. And the United States (like all countries) considers its own interest in all foreign affairs.
The fundamental issue is that the “center” or “moderate position” is not absolute. Bill O’Reilly would undoubtedly call me a “far left wing” writer. But in the context of most European countries, I would be center left, or even just center. The problem I have with the United States is that our politics have been so distorted. It no longer reflects what the people believe; it reflects the interests of the power elite. Sunstein is a reasonable man, but he is part of that elite and so it is natural for him to think that the middle of American politics is just right.
Regardless, I don’t think this study is going to be all that helpful. I’m going to give it a try, though. I like the idea of quizzing my debate partners. Even if it does them no good, it should help me to understand them. And despite my at time flaming rhetoric, I have a great deal of respect for those who will talk politics with me. My problem is with the propagandists and with people who can’t seem to get past that propaganda. But communication is always helpful.