Sunday, December 16, 2007

What About Those Universities, Cass?

Clive Crook links to this Cass Sunstein article discussing the phenomenon of "enclave extremism." According to Sunstein, there is strong evidence that hanging around with like-minded people causes people to become more extreme:

About 60 Americans were brought together and assembled into a number of groups, each consisting of five or six people. Members of each group were asked to deliberate on three of the most controversial issues of the day: Should states allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions? Should employers engage in affirmative action by giving a preference to members of traditionally disadvantaged groups? Should the United States sign an international treaty to combat global warming?

As the experiment was designed, the groups consisted of "liberal" and "conservative" enclaves — the former from Boulder, the latter from Colorado Springs. It is widely known that Boulder tends to be liberal, and Colorado Springs tends to be conservative. Participants were screened to ensure that they generally conformed to those stereotypes. People were asked to state their opinions anonymously both before and after 15 minutes of group discussion. What was the effect of that discussion?

In almost every case, people held more-extreme positions after they spoke with like-minded others. Discussion made civil unions more popular among liberals and less popular among conservatives. Liberals favored an international treaty to control global warming before discussion; they favored it far more strongly after discussion. Conservatives were neutral on that treaty before discussion, but they strongly opposed it after discussion. Liberals, mildly favorable toward affirmative action before discussion, became strongly favorable toward affirmative action after discussion. Firmly negative about affirmative action before discussion, conservatives became fiercely negative about affirmative action after discussion.

Sunstein's particular concern in this article is the internet: according to him, it makes it a lot easier for people to form homogenous enclaves where opinions get radicalized. Arguably you see such enclaves in the form of Free Republic on the right and Daily Kos on the left. It seems clear that mutual affirmation by like-minded is a big part of what's going on at sites like this.

Professor Sunstein does ignore one salient point, though. While it's easy for people to seek out opinions that confirm what you already believe, people of a more (ahem) iconoclastic mindset can certainly find independent and thoughtful voices across the spectrum. And blogging encourages you to read people you disagree with, if only to hammer them.

But I wonder why it is that Professor Sunstein ignores one of the most obvious places where the like-minded can form enclaves: university faculties. University faculties lean well to the left, particularly elite universities. You can hardly expect university professors to be immune to this sort of effect. And you don't need a study to know that "disciplines" like "women's studies," "African-American studies," and -- my favorite -- "peace studies" have to be among the worst

From a practical standpoint, if you believe in freedom of speech, there's not a lot you can do about the whole problem of like-minded enclaves on the internet. I realize that, in Professor Sunstein's case, this is an open question, but for most of us the idea of a regulatory solution is anathema. But in the case of universities, it's easy to imagine policies that would increase ideological diversity. But Professor Sunstein doesn't mention that. I wonder why not.


MikeT said...

Lo and behold, FreeRepublic and DemocraticUnderground are cesspools of trolling, and show no tolerance for even mild dissent...

I can't even count the number of times I got in trouble on FreeRepublic for having mild disagreements. The best part is, the moderators are extremely biased and will allow wildly uncivil behavior from some, and not tolerate anything worse than "I respectfully disagree" from others.

cheerful iconoclast said...

Well, mike, if nothing else, CI tolerates vigorous dissent. So feel free to comment here.

society girl said...

LMAO...Great point!! I wish we could hear Cass's reply -- perhaps we should suggest a Federalist Society sponsored debate on this issue between Cass and Richard Epstein?

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