Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Persuasive Communication

In response to my recent posting about the impact of the Internet so far, and its likely future, a commenter directed us to Cas Sunstein's essay on the subject. Sunstein is concerned that the Internet allows people to completely control the information and ideas they are exposed to, and that the day may come when there is no longer a marketplace of ideas, but an archipelago of ideological and informational islands, scarcely in communication with each other.

Of course, it's really only a matter of degree. Even in the realm of dead trees information, people tend to favor books and magazines that reinforce, rather than challenge, their current beliefs, while the corporate media filter and spin information into a generic pudding of empty intellectual calories, guaranteed not to give anyone the get up and go to get off of their island and see what the folks are thinking across the channel.

It's a real problem. How can we talk with people who we might want to persuade, and how can we make sure we listen to people who might want to persuade us of something? I can go on all I want here about evolution and single payer national health care, but it's unlikely there will be many creationists or free market fundamentalists among my readers.

Dr. Darshak Sanghavi, in the Boston Globe Magazine a couple of weeks ago, showed that he is aware of this problem. The cover teased his story as "Vaccines and Autism? Weighing the benefits of shots against the risks." His story is titled "The Secret Truth," and it starts off by sympathetically profiling people who are convinced that vaccinations made their children autistic. "Uh oh," I'm thinking, as I start to read, but Sanghavi ends up firmly grounded in the reality based community. He reviews the overwhelming evidence that vaccination, and thimerosal, are unrelated to autism, gives RFK Junior the thorough thwacking he richly deserves, and makes it clear that vaccination has been an immense, and indisputable benefit to humanity. His secret truth is that since most kids in the U.S. get their shots, children whose parents refuse are unlikely to be exposed to measles, mumps, rubella, etc. and so they will probably get away with it. Under the circumstances, accepting immunization for your kids is socially responsible, but offers little individual benefit.

So he's set a little honey trap for people looking for reinforcement of their prejudices against vaccination. (And he's been completely honest, even when it might hurt his cause of having every child get the full course of immunizations.) In the marketplace of ideas, it appears that truth is prevailing in this particular case. (Although RFK Jr. still appears to be welcome in respectable society, is still publishing in large circulation magazines and appearing on television.)

But in many other important instances, the marketplace is not functioning. How is it that a majority of Americans still do not believe in evolution? It is because they get their information from their preachers, and liars on television, and delusional writers. They don't read Stephen J. Gould or Richard Dawkins. Many people believed that the Internet would expand and enhance the marketplace of ideas, but I now share Sunstein's fears. Once those folks begin to use the Internet as their portal to information, the chances that they will encounter challenges to their beliefs go down. The newspaper and television at least pretend to a bogus "balance" -- they treat creationists respectfully, report on their activities and quote them, but not without giving equal time to people who actually know something and are capable of rational thought.

I feel that it is very important that we think hard about how to use the Internet to promote dialogue and debate, to reach across ideological divides, and to create ground on which ideas have to fight for their lives and honor. I've tried a couple of experiments in that direction, without much success. Does anyone have any ideas?

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