Can the Fact Walkers Save Us? | Opinion

We live in turbulent times: mass protests, sometime violent; widespread commercial boycotts; attacking, demonizing and defunding police; pulling down historic monuments; accelerating divisiveness, with public conversations hijacked by hatred and rage. Research on social dynamics actually predicts just such increasing conflict. And it hints at how we might move toward a more productive dialogue.

In his classic 2009 book, Going to Extremes, Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein reports research by himself and others that explains some key dynamics in shaping social and political views. Under the dynamic of "group polarization," "[m]embers of a deliberating group usually end up at a more extreme position in the same general direction as their inclinations before deliberation began." As a result, "much of the time, groups of people end up thinking and doing things that group members would never think or do on their own."

This effect also reduces the internal diversity of views within the group, which tends to exaggerate for members the extent of support for their own views. Too often, this lack of diversity reinforces their confidence in their positions, no matter how extreme: "Everyone I know agrees with me on this."

Sunstein's work is consistent with the earlier work of Irving Janis, a psychology professor at Yale, who gave us "groupthink," a process by which "certain groups stifle dissent, value consensus over correctness, fail to examine alternatives and consequences and, as a result, end up producing fiascoes."

Another powerful dynamic at work is what Sunstein calls "social cascades." "As cascades occur, beliefs and perspectives spread from some people to others, to the point where many people are relying not on what they actually know, but on what (they think) other people think. This belief may well be erroneous, because people are relying not on their private information, but on the judgments of trusted others."

These distorting dynamics are not a new phenomenon. Sunstein gives examples of the rise of fascism in the 1930s, the growth of Islamic terrorism in the 1990s and the Rwanda genocide in 1994. McCarthyism may be the best modern American example.

This natural polarization effect has only been accelerated in the age of the Internet. People are able to construct their lives so that they are constantly exposed only to views consistent with those they already hold—a world that "excludes troublesome issues and disfavored voices."

Georgetown University campus
Georgetown University campus Win McNamee/Getty Images

The bottom line is that it is easy and, indeed, quite natural for people to create "silos" in which their group may increasingly convince itself of the rightness of its views without supporting facts—or perhaps even despite inconvenient contrary facts that have leaked into the silo. Because the group has disconnected itself from life's normal reality checks, it is easy for the dynamics of group polarization and cascades to produce increasingly extreme, even fanatical, views.

And of course, the safe spaces movement on American university campuses—marking off areas in in which students are protected from exposure to dissenting voices—seriously exacerbates the problem. The primary effect of the safe spaces practice is, in essence, to hermetically seal off the silos.

There is nothing inherently evil or conspiratorial about such groupthink-cascade dynamics—or the people caught up in them. On the contrary, it is simply part of being human. On the other hand, just because this powerful distortion dynamic is predictable and natural, it does not follow that we must be helpless prisoners of it. If we care about making a better society—setting policies based on a full set of facts, even the inconvenient ones—then we need simply acknowledge this ever-present distorting dynamic and try to compensate for it.

How can we counter a human dynamic pushing toward divisiveness, extremism and bad decision-making, especially in the Internet age?

Most of us probably have at least one person in our lives who we respect, but who we know we can't depend on to politely agree with us, even when we feel strongly about something. They too often stray from the silo and get contaminated by inconvenient facts. Given the importance of the causes at stake, sometimes their factual recitations seem almost treasonous.

But once we understand the distorting effects of group polarization and cascades, it becomes apparent that these uncooperative folks may actually be our salvation. When they leave the silo to go on their fact-finding walkabouts, the facts they bring back may limit the worst excesses of our groupthink.

These Fact Walkers may be the only thing that will save us from the accelerating ignorance and divisiveness created by our very human nature. Praise be to the Fact Walkers!

Paul H. Robinson is the Colin S. Diver Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania and the co-author of Pirates, Prisoners, and Lepers: Lessons from Life Outside the Law.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.