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Echo Chambers vs Epistemic Bubbles

C Thi Nguyen wrote an interesting article about the difficulty of escaping from Echo Chambers and also mentions Epistemic Bubbles [1].

An Echo Chamber is a group of people who reinforce the same ideas and who often preemptively strike against opposing ideas (for example the right wing denigrating “mainstream media” to prevent their followers from straying from their approved message). An Epistemic Bubble is a group of people who just happen to not have contact with certain different ideas.

When reading that article I wondered about what bubbles I and the people I associate with may be in. One obvious issue is that I have little communication with people who don’t write in English and also little communication with people who are poor. So people who are poor and who can’t write in English (which means significant portions of the population of India and Africa) are out of communication range for me. There are many situations that are claimed to be bubbles such as white people who are claimed to be innocent of racial issues because they only associate with other white people and men in the IT industry who are claimed to be innocent of sexism because they don’t associate with women in the IT industry. But I think they are more of an echo chamber issue, if a white American doesn’t access any of the variety of English language media produced by Afro Americans and realise that there’s a racial problem it’s because they don’t want to see it and deliberately avoid looking at evidence. If a man in the IT industry doesn’t access any of the media produced by women in tech and realise there are problems with sexism then it’s because they don’t want to see it.

When is it OK to Reject a Group?

The Ad Hominem Wikipedia page has a good analysis of different types of Ad Hominem arguments [2]. But the criteria for refuting a point in a debate are very different to the criteria used to determine which sources you should trust when learning about a topic.

For example it’s theoretically possible for someone to be good at computer science while also thinking the world is flat. In a debate about some aspect of computer programming it would be a fallacious Ad Hominem argument to say “you think the Earth is flat therefore you can’t program a computer”. But if you do a Google search for information on computer programming and one of the results is from earthisflat.com then it would probably save time to skip reading that one. If only one person supports an idea then it’s quite likely to be wrong. Good ideas tend to be supported by multiple people and for any good idea you will find a supporter who doesn’t appear to have any ideas that are obviously wrong.

One of the problems we have as a society now is determining the quality of data (ideas, claims about facts, opinions, communication/spam, etc). When humans have to do that it takes time and energy. Shortcuts can make things easier. Some shortcuts I use are that mainstream media articles are usually more reliable than social media posts (even posts by my friends) and that certain media outlets are untrustworthy (like Breitbart). The next step is that anyone who cites a bad site like Breitbart as factual (rather than just an indication of what some extremists believe) is unreliable. For most questions that you might search for on the Internet there is a virtually endless supply of answers, the challenge is not finding an answer but finding a correct answer. So eliminating answers that are unlikely to be correct is an important part of the search.

If someone is citing references to support their argument and they can only cite fringe or extremist sites then I won’t be convinced. Now someone could turn that argument around and claim that a site I reference such as the New York Times is wrong. If I find that my ideas were based on a claim that can only be found on the NYT then I will reconsider the issue. While I think that the NYT is generally accurate they are capable of making mistakes and if they are the sole source for claims that go against other claims then I will be hesitant to accept such claims. Newspapers often have exclusive articles based on their own research, but such articles always inspire investigation from other newspapers so other articles appear either supporting or questioning the claims in the exclusive.

Saving Time When Interacting With Members of Echo Chambers

Convincing a member of a cult or echo chamber of anything is not likely. When in discussions with them the focus should be on the audience and on avoiding wasting much time while also not giving them the impression that you agree with them.

A common thing that members of echo chambers say is “I don’t have time to read about that” when you ask if they have read a research paper or a news article. I don’t have time to listen to people who can’t or won’t learn before speaking, there just isn’t any value in that. Also if someone has a list of memes that takes more than 15 minutes to recite then they have obviously got time for reading things, just not reading outside their echo chamber.

Conversations with members of echo chambers seem to be state free. They make a claim and you reject it, but regardless of the logical flaws you point out or the counter evidence you cite they make the same claim again the next time you speak to them. This seems to be evidence supporting the claim that evangelism is not about converting other people but alienating cult members from the wider society [3] (the original Quora text seems unavailable so I’ve linked to a Reddit copy). Pointing out that they had made a claim previously and didn’t address the issues you had with it seems effective, such discussions seem to be more about performance so you want to perform your part quickly and efficiently.

Be aware of false claims about etiquette. It’s generally regarded as polite not to disagree much with someone who invites you to your home or who has done some favour for you, but that is no reason for tolerating an unwanted lecture about their echo chamber. Anyone who tries to create a situation where it seems rude of you not to listen to them saying things that they know will offend you is being rude, much ruder than telling them you are sick of it.

Look for specific claims that can be disproven easily. The claim that the “Roman Salute” is different from the “Hitler Salute” is one example that is easy to disprove. Then they have to deal with the issue of their echo chamber being wrong about something.

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