I spend a lot of time these days (arguably more than is useful) following the world of politics, in large part through Twitter and podcasts like Vox’s The Weeds, FiveThirtyEight’s Politics Podcast, and Crooked Media’s Pod Save America.
Recently, I’ve been trying to expand that circle, to include cogent thinkers and writers with whom I wildly disagree. As John Stuart Mill put it, “he who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” Indeed, based on conversation with family and friends across a wide array of issues, it’s rare enough to find people who can articulately justify their own positions, much less make the strongest possible case for the opposing perspective.
Most political arguments – online and off – tend to be adversarial. Which, research, shows, is a terrible way to actually change opinions. Once people engage emotionally, opinion becomes tied to identity, and people quickly discard facts that don’t align with their already-held beliefs.
Instead, the science backs a more nuanced approach: start from a place of agreement (to avoid thet emotional roadblock), then reframe the problem and introduce a new solution. Given a different point of view, and then reasonable evidence that supports it, the other person doesn’t have to be ‘wrong,’ just simply accept that, given the problem’s new definition, a different decision might be right.
To make that style of argument work, however, you need Mill’s deep understanding of both sides. And, to that end, I’m especially impressed with economist Bryan Caplan’s proposed gold-standard objective: being able to pass an ideological Turing test.
A traditional Turing test is meant to demonstrate a computer’s human-level intelligent behavior: a judge engages in a typed conversation with both a human and a machine; if the judge can’t reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test.
In turn, that leads to (libertarian) Caplan’s ideological Turing: put him and some liberal Ph.D.s in a chat room, let liberal readers ask them questions for an hour, then vote on who isn’t really a liberal.
That level of ‘passing’ is a high standard indeed, and one for which, on the issues I care about most, I still doubtless fall short. But it remains a useful goal, especially if you’re following politics not just as entertainment (cf., Eitan Hersh’s great recent paper on ‘political hobbyism’) but rather to change minds, and thereby make change in the world.