Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

How to Limit Groupthink in the Skeptical Community

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Skeptics are human beings. As such, they are vulnerable to a broad variety of biases, logical fallacies, inappropriate heuristics and various other cognitive malfunctions that tend to undermine human rationality. To a certain extent, it is possible to put effort into learning about the limitations of the human brain when it comes to evaluating the world around us and thus become less likely to fall prey to these problems. However, it seems reasonable to suppose that complete immunity usually cannot be reached.

In this article, I am using the phrase “skeptical community” in a very broadest sense, referring to communities of loosely aggregated individuals who have the ideal that humans should prefer science and reason to dogma, baseless ideology and superstition. On occasion, however, some of the things I say may be more applicable to specific online communities than to the movement overall. In other sections, suggestions are more directed towards accomplishing the overall goals of skepticism than to the behavior of any particular part. This entry should not be interpreted as if I am postulating that groupthink is somehow a huge problem in the skeptical community, but that it is important to keep the part of the skeptical baloney detector that deals with these issues fully operational.

What is Groupthink?

Merriam-Webster defines groupthink as “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics”. It was originally proposed by Irving Janis in the early 1970s and regarded decision-making in groups, but rapidly became a multidisciplinary model of human behavior. Janis argued that groupthink often occurred when groups where e. g. highly cohesive, where under stress, insulated from external experts, too shallow search and appraisal of information etc. This could, according to Turner and Pratkanis (1998):

[...] foster the extreme consensus-seeking characteristic of groupthink. This in turn is predicted to lead to two categories of undesirable decision-making processes. The first, traditionally labeled symptoms of groupthink, include illusions of invulnerability, collective rationalization, stereotypes of outgroups, self-censorship, mindguards. and belief in the inherent morality of the group. The second, typically identical as symptoms of defective decision-making, involve the incomplete survey of alternatives and objectives, poor information search, failure to appraise the risks of the preferred solution, and selective information processing. Not surprisingly, these combined forces are predicted to result in extremely defective decision making performance by the group.

Why is Groupthink Especially Bad for the Skeptical Community?

Groupthink is usually a bad idea for all groups and communities, but there are a few factors that makes it especially troublesome for the global skeptical community.

Groupthink makes the skeptical community seem intolerant of dissent: being disdainful of criticism or suppressing dissent (even with psychological, rather than violent methods) is typically a feature of dogmatism and pseudoscience and it would be unfortunate if these features became associated with certain areas of the skeptical community. It seems reasonable that the skeptical community should foster an honest and open conversation about most issues, even if those issues deeply held. However, there will always be exception and there is a trade-off between free speech and “giving a platform for X”.

Groupthink encourages close-mindedness: rationalizing things that could alter the assumptions of the group and stereotyping opponents as biased or stupid can lead to ineffective appraisal of arguments and situations. This is similar to the earlier point: the last thing that skeptics want to appear as is close-minded.

Groupthink makes it harder to eliminate selective skepticism: symptoms such as an unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, collective rationalization and stereotypes of outgroups may make it more difficult to spot individuals who are rational in many areas, but subscribe to pseudoscience in others. It is important to not become blind to selective skepticism, where someone applies a much stronger skepticism to arguments and evidence against his or her position, while applying a much weaker skepticism to those arguments and evidence that count in favor. That would mean overvaluing the rationality of the group (illusions of invulnerability).

Some Suggestions for Groupthink Prevention for the 21th Century Blogosphere

Conventional solutions to groupthink proposed by Janis is very focused on the decision-making process in the offline workplace. They include inviting outside experts, assigning the role of Devil’s advocate, discussing ideas with outsiders, limiting the influence of the opinions of bosses etc. These are not really applicable for online communities, such as the skeptical blogosphere. What may be needed may be ways to increased individual resistance to falling prey to groupthink, rather than altering established roles and processes as Janis thought. Here are some provisional suggestions on methods and techniques that may reduce groupthink.

Don’t write blog posts in the heat of the moment: once posted, it is very difficult to change the influence a blog post has on the readers. It is possible to apologize of course, but once it is on the Internet, it will stay there for a long time. Wait until the emotions subside.

Accept that you probably did not understand the argument: people are much worse at listening, understanding and comprehending what other people mean than they think. Data supporting this conclusion come from studies verbal communication between managers and subordinates (Brownell, 1990), but the conclusion may potentially be generalized to written communication (where it is sometimes even harder). Make sure that you have grasped the points the other person is trying to make. It is better to ask for clarification than to start something that will spiral out of control.

Don’t just quote, make a summary: this reduces the likelihood of quoting out of context, and summarizing hopefully will increase the understanding of the points being made, thereby avoiding combat against straw men and windmills.

Try argument maps: make an effort at teasing out the arguments from the blog post, understand how they relate, make up counter-arguments and their limitations. This will give a good overview of the issue.

Attempt to establish a minimum foundation of agreement: this will make the situation more collaborative than adversarial. Invite others to add, remove and modify it until a consensus is reached. Then all of you will know what the differences in opinion actually lie.

The principle of charity on steroids: Steven at Black Belt Bayesian suggested that it is not very impressive to refute the weakest formulation of the arguments that your opponent puts forward. Instead, you should improve the arguments by making the best possible formulation of their arguments and then refute it. It is about the difference between wanting to be right and wanting to know what is right. As Steven puts it “To win, you must fight not only the creature you encounter; you must fight the most horrible thing that can be constructed from its corpse”.

References and Further Reading

Brownell, J. (1990). Perceptions of Effective Listeners: A Management Study. Journal of Business Communication, 27(4), 401-415.

Turner, M. E., and Pratkanis, A. R. (1998). Twenty-Five Years of Groupthink Theory and Research: Lessons from the Evaluation of a Theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 73(2-3), pp. 105-115,

10 responses to “How to Limit Groupthink in the Skeptical Community

  1. Emil Karlsson July 3, 2012 at 12:15

    Just before posting this, I removed the section discussing possible examples of groupthink in the skeptical community because (1) I was not well-read enough on what has been going on to make the best possible discussion and (2) I wanted to keep it on a non-confrontational meta level.

  2. Greg Lowe July 4, 2012 at 13:56

    Great post and aligns closely to what I talk about inside of companies here: http://greg2dot0.com/2012/02/27/groupthink/

  3. Thaumas Themelios July 5, 2012 at 18:56

    Minor suggestion: If you include a representative image in your post, preferably the first image in the post, then when people share your post on sites like Facebook, the image shows up to catch the attention of readers who are interested in the topic of the post. I shared this article to FB, but had to choose one of the three images in the sidebar on the right, which do not really represent the topic of the post very well.

  4. Thaumas Themelios July 5, 2012 at 19:30

    Oooh, I like that last bit about the principle of charity on steroids!

    By the way, can you perhaps go into more detail about what an ‘argument map’ is, maybe with a worked-out example? If you need help with an example, I could go back and forth with you on a controversial topic and you could try mapping it out. Some topics I hold non-typical stances on: the best definition of the word ‘life’, (some) animals qualifying as ‘people’, the viability of colonization of space (our solar system; interstellar colonization), the existence of ‘memes’ (I’m pro, but use different arguments than most pro people), etc.

  5. Emil Karlsson July 5, 2012 at 19:52

    Yeah, maybe I will try to use images more (just a hassle with copyright issues and I’m fairly bad at using image editing software, so would have to be some free stock photos) and yeah I could make another post explaining argument maps.

  6. Thaumas Themelios July 5, 2012 at 22:38

    If you only link to an image, I think you’re safe with copyright. Or if you’re determined to host the images, there are free clip art libraries like http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Clip_Art_Library

  7. Emil Karlsson July 6, 2012 at 08:12

    There we go, a clip art image in this post. Pretty bland and uninteresting, but reasonable first attempt I think. I don’t have CSS access, so I had to do it with deprecated HTML.

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