Does The Internet Increase Extreme Political Views?

from the interesting-discussion dept

This past weekend I found myself stuck in a random debate with two people who were at one extreme end of the classic political spectrum. It’s not worth naming which end, because I find people distantly at either end somewhat tiresome, not because I’m a “centrist” or a “moderate” (as I was accused), but because I’ve found that people at either end do two things that I find distasteful: (1) they assume that the political spectrum really is a straight line from left to right, and you have to fall somewhere along those lines and (2) they always take their standard arguments and distort them to prove their point (often using sample size 1 anecdotes as proof). It annoys me, even when I agree with the point being made, if someone needs to resort to deliberately misleading or intellectually sloppy means to prove their point. However, in focusing in on the intellectual sloppiness of an argument, it’s usually possible to keep the debate from delving into typical left vs. right arguments (though, it sometimes confuses people who expect more typical left vs. right responses). One of the issues we discussed was health care, and these two (both lawyers) talked about stories of how they had seen cases where doctors for the patient would look at an MRI and say there were serious problems and a risk of death, while doctors for an insurance company would look at the same MRI and say that the person looked perfectly healthy. We eventually agreed that the analogy fit the political climate today as well. Because it’s much easier to try to describe politics with soundbites that fit along the left-to-right spectrum, you always want to exaggerate your case to the extreme to at least drag people somewhat in your direction. Years ago (before the web) I thought a great idea for a magazine would be to have every issue present a pro/con set of articles on a controversial issue, hoping that showing both sides of a coin would force people to make up their own mind. Eventually, I began to realize that you needed more than two sides, because no story really just has two sides. Now, we have the web with its blogs that really do represent something like that magazine I had imagined, and the result isn’t that people are being forced to make up their own mind, but that (like the situation with the doctors) they resort to further and further extremes to prove their point. It’s not quite the “echo chamber” that everyone worries about – because people have no problem seeking out those with the opposite opinions, but only to trash them. Considering the intellectual sloppiness all over, it’s usually pretty easy to trash either side if you want to pick through their arguments. The thing that almost no one seems to be doing, unfortunately, is admitting that most of these controversial issues are complex and need neither an extreme solution nor a “compromise” solution – but a more well thought-out approach that actually tries to deal with the real underlying issues – and not just the sound-bite elements. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen, because actually dealing with problems is both hard and somewhat boring.

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Comments on “Does The Internet Increase Extreme Political Views?”

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Mark Murphy says:

Einstein and Feynman Were Wrong?

they always take their standard arguments and distort them to prove their point (often using sample size 1 anecdotes as proof). It annoys me, even when I agree with the point being made, if someone needs to resort to deliberately misleading or intellectually sloppy means to prove their point.

Looking at extreme cases is not necessarily “intellectually sloppy”. Newtonian physics works great for everyday objects, but falls down when you look at very small objects (quantum mechanics) or very fast objects (relativity). Feynman and Einstein successfully argued that Newton’s laws of physics were therefore inherently flawed. But, according to your logic, such arguments “distort” the discussion, as if physics only applies to everyday objects.

I actually agree with most of your posting, just not this part. If an argument can be “distorted” by examining edge cases, then the argument is flawed, though finding a non-flawed argument may be difficult or impossible.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Einstein and Feynman Were Wrong?

That’s a valid point. I guess “extreme” was the wrong word. I think it’s just the cases where it appears that someone is taking a party line without actually thinking about the issues that bugs me. In some ways, that’s “extreme,” but I can see how that would be confusing.

I definitely don’t mean to imply that “extreme” beliefs are always wrong – just that I’m getting sick of those who accept extreme beliefs without examing the real issues behind them.

aNonMooseCowherd says:

blame TV?

I wonder how much of this is due to the influence of television news, which likes to boil every story down to a few seconds. Even the analysis shows have to compress most of the details out of a story to get it to fit into one segment.

Regarding your reference to “left” and “right”, it’s useful to remember that these are just abstractions, and there is not always any underlying consistency among the various issues to which these terms are used.

Tony Lawrence (user link) says:

Re: blame TV?

Just as the networks have to compress stories as producers, we as the consumers have to seek out compressed versions – we just have too much going on, too many subjects we “need” to keep up with.. who has time for the leisurely, considered view?

For the very few things that are on our A list, we go after the in-depth view ourselves, but for the vast majority of “things”, the sound-bite is really all we have time for.

Yeah, I know, “x” is too important for that. Right – and so is “y”, and “z”, and a through w too – it’s all “important” nowadays.

dorpus says:

Extreme Moderation

Some practices viewed as “extreme” or “inappropriate” in one culture may be considered normal in another though.

For example, last week when I was driving across the country, I stopped at a large truck stop in Indiana. My cat jumped out of the car, I spent an hour chasing her, but the cat kept hiding from car to car. I tried the reverse psychology, where I left to go get lunch, and sure enough, after lunch, the cat came out.

Suppose this happened with a toddler, who decided to go play hide-and-seek in a large parking lot. In some cultures such as Scandinavia, it’s normal for parents to leave their children outside the restaurant while they eat. In the USA, parents are supposed to keep chasing their children until the end of time. Whose culture is extreme — ours or theirs?

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