Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Devil's Advocate

In the last chapter of Cass Sunstein's wonderful book Infotopia which considers the places where epistemology touches social psychology, he devotes a section to the effectiveness of Devil's Advocates in helping to avoid groupthink in its various forms.

When there is genuine confrontation in a group, what tends to happen is polarization, where participants not only cling to their pre-existing viewpoints, but become more extreme and more confident. We dig in and tend to ridicule, rather than engage our interlocutor out of a sense of being threatened on some level. I've even seen that happen here from time to time, as good as we tend to be as a community about avoiding ad hominem attacks.

But interestingly, when the person we are arguing against is someone we know to be playing Devil's Advocate, the threat diminishes and the discussion actually proceeds at a higher level than when there is a legitimate advocate (as long as the Devil's Advocate puts his/her heart into it, of course). I used a similar method in teaching Contemporary Moral Issues where the papers were to take dialogue form and competing positions had to be worked out in great detail forcing the student to be his/her own Devil's Advocate.

I was talking with Confused, Maybe Not a while back about this idea and I think it is time to implement it. We need a Devil's Advocate here. But not just a given person, rather a given name that anyone can assume who will be universally recognized as the Devil's Advocate. Anytime you see what may be groupthink or poorly defended consensus, feel free to post a comment as the Devil's Advocate. The only rule is that the name cannot be misused -- you must set out the strongest, most thoughtful case against the reigning opinion. You have to really throw yourself into the role in good faith.

Now, what we need is a name. "Devil's Advocate" would be clear to newcomers, but seems far too bland for a playground where nicknames are the norm. "DA" seems not clever enough. The Navajo trickster's name, "Kokopeli," appeals to me, but I'm not sold on it. Other thoughts? We need a good one here, folks.