By Auguste Rodin - Photography at the Soumaya Museum, taken by ProtoplasmaKid, Public Domain,
philosophy, Political Theory

On the “Backfire Effect”

tl;dr – how do you convince people of your worldview when “facts” based on yours only tend to reinforce their own? Are you open-minded enough to accept challenges to your own worldview?

I’ve been thinking more and more recently about something psychologists call the “Backfire Effect.” Both with respect to recent elections, and with respect to – mostly – online discussions. The Backfire Effect is the empirically noted tendency of a lot of people to hold on to their previously stated positions even firmer once these positions have been “factually” disproven by someone else.

Now, it’s important to say that people doing this – most people, apparently, potentially, if only at times, I would hope, including myself – probably aren’t opposing the principle that reason, or facts, should prevail.

They are, however, likely asserting that reason, or fact, is not always an absolute term, but relational one. One that fundamentally depends on axioms – the foundational assumptions about the nature of the world, about logic, and anthropology, that are assumed to be true and thus need no further explanation.

Unfortunately, outside of the realm of the likes of gravity, particularly with respect to all questions regarding human organisation, or “human nature”, there’s not many axioms that are universally shared. Which means that there aren’t as many facts as there are people trying to convince others that their thought process is wrong.

And that’s what makes the idea of “factually disproving” someone so problematic, and ultimately, backfiring. It’s not simply factual errors that cause people to close up and rally behind their axioms, thus conveniently allowing them to disregard the information presented as a “fact” – based on a different axiomatic structure – as untrue.

It’s not facts that threaten deliberation, it’s disagreements about how we can derive facts. And given the increasing heterogeneity of social structures, axiomatic structures are more and more political – which, to a degree implies the forceful establishment of official axioms, thereby giving them a clear-cut advantage over others. Sadly, I doubt that it is commonly understood despite its fundamental importance for social organisation.

So, tl;dr, here’s my questions for you to ponder over the weekend: how do convince someone that their worldview is wrong. Do you think you are open-minded enough to accept challenges to yours?

image source: Photography at the Soumaya Museum, taken by ProtoplasmaKid, Public Domain,

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Political Theory, politics, US Politics

Is there a versioning effect in elections?

Over at Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell is wondering why Obama’s lead over McCain is bigger in polls where more left-wing Presidential candidates are included – A puzzle about the polls. Comment #1 by a certain Cryptic Ned is proposing an interesting theory: versioning also works in elections. Weiterlesen

Bürgerrechte, Datenschutz, Political Theory

This is winning.

Via, I find a commentary by Rop Conggris about the new fundamental right to “privacy and integrity of information processing systems” which was defined last Wednesday by the German Constitutional Court – Today, we’re all Germans.

“It would of course have been even nicer if the Germans had actually managed to elect a government that didn’t attempt to trample their most basic rights to begin with. But then constitutions are there as a safety-net for precisely this eventuality. They are written because the framers realized that when it comes to governments, shit (such as in the form of oppressive laws) sometimes happens.

So the people of Germany seem to be successfully defending themselves against their government. What’s wrong with the rest of the world? There have been plenty efforts in many other countries to defend the notion of privacy, but the Germans have simply been provided with better and sharper tools for defending themselves. Their sharpest tool by far is this federal constitutional court. Without it, I fear Germany would have long been in the same sorry state as my own country. I hope all Germans realize that the judges and support staff that make up this court are the one single thing that stands between today’s Germany and a police state.”

Political Theory

Politicaltheory daily.

By the way, the wonderful policitaltheory.daily “weblog” is now really published in blog format (and has a new home). I liked the old one (google cached version, might expire at some point, link hat tip better, but at least there’s a RSS feed now. The previous lack thereof and the consequential lack of the site in my feed reader was the most important reason I did not read politicaltheorydaily as often as I should have.

compulsory reading, Iraq, Political Theory

Patches of War.

I don’t know how many black sheep there are in the US army in Iraq today. But I suppose there are a lot who never imagined their fur would even feature a single black patch, because, probably, given normal circumstances, they’d likely have remained white all their lives.

Stress, anxiety, guys stewing in their own testosterone for extended periods of time. That’s one of the, sometimes intended, but always terrible consequences of war: it hardly ever creates heroes and almost always creates thugs.

It’s not the war per se, but the violence it inevitably brings wit it – think of the Stanford Prison Experiment, remember Liran Ron Furer’s “Checkpoint Syndrome” for just two chilling accounts of the effects violence on “white sheep”. And if some sheep are already black in disguise, war certainly attracts them, as it, at least partly, legalizes behaviour that is considered criminal in peacetime.

But there are limits, and the above argument can only serve as a reminder to those in power, that it’s not just Patriot Games they play, never as an excuse for the murder of an Iraqi family and the gang-rape of their 14year old daughter – BBC NEWS | Americas | US soldier admits murdering girl.

A couple of years ago, someone left some sick spam comments about amateur pornography featuring raped Iraqi women ( “The most disgusting porn spam ever“). In light of this story I can’t help but wonder if the offer wasn’t just the result of someone’s unfortunate experiments in role playing with a video camera.

compulsory reading, German Politics, Political Theory

Das Ende vom Links.

Es war einmal eine Zeit, da war es “cool”, “links” zu sein, zumindest, wie Bertrand Russel uns lehrt, solange man jung noch war. Damals hatte “links” auch noch eine geringe inhaltliche Komponente, die über die a priori-Annahme hinausging, das alle wirtschaftlich und gesellschaftlich Schwachen allen wirtschaftlich und gesellschaftlich Starken moralisch überlegen sind.

Auch wenn schon die Absurdität einer solchen Annahme für jedes politische Engagement, das ja zumeist mit der relativen Veränderung wirtschaftlicher und sozialer Rangordnungen einhergeht, die empirische Bestätigung durch jahrzehntelange sozialistische Feldversuche eigentlich nicht benötigte.

Insofern hat es sicher auch sein Gutes, daß “links sein” für Gregor Gysi, einem der Fraktionsvorsitzenden der “LINKEN” im deutschen Bundestag, bedeutet, “gegen Armut zu sein”, wie er kürzlich in einer Talkrunde zum Thema “Mindestlohn” erwähnte. Wow. Das ist tiefgründig.

Angesichts der Inhaltsleere solcher Aussagen möglicher Vordenker sollte es nicht überraschen, daß sich Linkssein für Jugendliche heute vor allem in einer “Ich bin dagegen! Worum gehts?”-Haltung erschöpft, manchmal verbunden mit Aktionen, die ein diffuses Unwohlsein mit einem ebenso diffusen moralischen Bewußtsein verknüpfen. Zumeist argumentationslos und faktenleer.

Ein Beispiel ist die Aktion “I don’t like G8”, über die ich über ein Banner auf einem anderen Blog gestolpert bin – eine Revolution dürfte dabei allerdings nicht herauskommen.

Bürgerrechte, Political Theory, US Politics

Osama BinLaden wins.

We lose. America certainly no longer is the Land Of The Free. It may be telling that the German term “Rechtsstaat” doesn’t really have a useful translation in English, but, alas, at least in the US, there may no longer be the need for one. President Bush now ordered the special tribunals, or military commissions, to be created in which so-called “enemy combattants” will be tried. Most of the defendants are currently inmates in the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Last year, the US supreme court had stopped their creation based primarily on institutional concerns – after some political haggling, a bill was passed, and the tribunals will now be established.

Even Bush’s last friend among the German newspapers, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, seems appalled about the seemingly totalitarian legal practices applied by these “courts”. As the newspaper reports (in German), defendants may be punished with the death penalty based on indirect witness accounts and forced testimonies.

Let’s hope Ben Franklin did not hear about it.

German Politics, Political Theory, quicklink

What’s Left On the Left?

Joschka Fischer has suggests that ten years after the end of the Cold War, a renewed debate about the meaning of “left” policies, is “important, and overdue“.

He’s right. The victory of Ronald Coase over Karl Marx (in battle not very m any people ever identified as such) has only grudgingly accepted by many whom I would classify in the loony left and left them with nothing but structural conservatism defending redistributive systems mostly benefiting people who don’t actually need them. Fischer’s right – the classic continental left has become increasingly unsexy, in the economic as well as in any possible postmodern sense of the term.