Some years back, I knew a woman who had been part of the “Human Shield Project.” For those of you unfamiliar with this organization, it was comprised of people who, in the lead-up to the current Iraq war, believed that the administration wouldn’t dare to bomb locations where U.S. citizens were known to be. To this end, they organized to have U.S. citizens travel to Iraq and stay in places that were likely to be targets to avert the bombing.
This seemed, to me anyway, to be a rather poorly thought-out plan. The administration was unlikely to be deterred from bombing locations with the human shields unless it perceived a public outcry due to such casualties. As most people in the U.S. didn’t appear to know about the organization, and many of those who did know of them considered them traitors or fools or both, their presence appeared rather unlikely to deter any military action. Quite simply, the administration was unlikely to suffer any negative consequences for harming these folks.
I pointed this out to the woman who represented this group, and she stated that she fully believed that the Human Shield Project actually had widespread support among the U.S. populace – a position that was completely at-odds with reality. She was not a foolish person, in fact she was quite bright (and probably still is quite bright), nor was she someone who seemed inclined to accept preposterous notions uncritically. So, then, how could she have drawn a conclusion so contrary to the real world?
As I began to ask her more questions about her time with the Human Shield Project, more information came out. She had lived with other members of the project, her job centered around the project, and when she received communication critical of the project it was usually in the form of faceless emails and website comments.
In other words, most of her daily interactions were with people who supported her worldview, and she typically only heard dissent from sources that were probably correctly dismissed as being full of hyperbole and venom. She had gotten caught up in the echo chamber of support for the project, and all of her senses were painting an image that was rather different from the world outside of her social group.
Lest you think I am being overly critical of the leftys, I will be quick to point out that the American “conservative” movement has built one of the largest and most effective echo chambers around. Consider how many people get their political views and news analysis from Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O’Reilly. Not to mention the number of smaller internet “news” sites such as World Net Daily which spew nonsense that would be laughable if a surprisingly large number of people didn’t believe it (yes, it’s dumb, but there are many people who believe it). All of these venues are aimed not at informing people, but at convincing them that they are informed while feeding them a steady diet of unquestioned ideology.
And the left-wing reaction? To ape them. To create networks such as Air America which are essentially the mirror image of Fox.
Regardless of whether you are a right-winger or a left-winger, a reactionary or a radical, a Christian or an atheist, a Buddhist or a Muslim, a Disco queen or a slam dancer, the echo chamber is not a healthy place to be. It is a place that not only prevents you from hearing dissenting opinion, but also begins to warp reality by pulling slowly in one direction without anything to correct your course.
Consider, if you will, the folks, and these folks really do exist, who honestly believe that the Bush family is actually composed of shape-shifting reptilian aliens who seek world domination. How could someone draw a conclusion that seems so absurd? They must be crazy, right?
It starts simply – maybe they are curious about UFO reports, so they attend a few lectures on the subject and find themselves further intrigued. If they don’t get exposed to countering points of view but are showered with the stories of witnesses without any attempt at non-alien explanations, then it may not be long before they start listening to stories of abductions and thinking that “hey, if these beings are travelling to Earth, then it’s reasonable that they may be examining humans while they’re here.”
Now, it may stop there, but it may not. If they continue to surround themselves with fellow believers, and they have accepted that people are being abducted, then it’s not too far a stretch to think that aliens have a reason for doing this that isn’t just curiosity. Again, the fellow delves deeper and finds himself surrounded by people who encourage this line of thinking and don’t provide any criticism, so, after a time, this seems like a reasonable position. From here, he can find groups that will support and hold as reasonable his conclusion that maybe the aliens have sinister plans for humanity, maybe those plans involve slavery, maybe they have already begun, and finally, after many steps, maybe the aliens are already among us as ruling families. Meanwhile, all criticism is likely to come from people who either dismiss him out of hand without listening to him, thus triggering the psychological defenses against criticism that all of us have, or else are simply nullified by the positive feedback that he is being given by other believers.
The ultimate conclusion is absurd, but it wasn’t reached all at once. It started with a more-or-less reasonable thought “hey, maybe there’s something to these UFO sightings”, and at every step along the way, our hypothetical traveler found himself surrounded by people who assented to his conclusions and showed little criticism, making them seem more reasonable than they really were, and the conclusions that he drew became more and more bizarre as time went on. Had he been routinely subjected to critical points of view delivered in a reasonable way, would he have gone to the final and very strange conclusion? Perhaps, there is always someone who adds 2 and 2 to get 49, but he would certainly have been less likely to.
In more mundane subjects, the echo chamber is even more pervasive. How many people do you know who think that Bush’s tactics in Iraq were brilliant? How many people do you know who think that Obama is somehow single-handedly going to change the U.S.? How many people do you know who believe that NBC has a socialist agenda? That evil homosexuals have a plan for converting our youth? That Ronald Reagan had ties to the Nazis? That the moon landing was a hoax?
All of these beliefs are rather silly, and yet there are many people who believe each one. And the reason why they believe them is because they are surrounded by people and media who echo their views to the point where another step down the loony path seems not like delusion, but like clarity or freedom. We like to think that we are able to see through nonsense, that we have common sense, but what we view as being obvious and “common sensical” is based not only on our own ability to reason, but also on what we are accustomed to seeing and hearing. To someone who has been fed a steady diet of young-Earth creationism, the very tenets of evolution, no matter how well supported by science, will seem bizarre and foolish. Likewise, to someone who was raised in a secular household, the notion that someone could believe in a deity that answers prayers and watches over you seems like lunacy.
And there’s the rub. We all have a propensity to fall into a “crowd” of like-minded people, and we all have the tendency to listen to those who speak to what we believe. We all visit the echo chamber from time-to-time, and some people never leave it. And how do we know when we’re in the echo chamber? Well, some folks have both the necessary levels of self-criticism and curiosity to find the information trail that they need to lead themselves out most of the time. Many of us, however, either cannot or will not escape. It’s comfortable in the echo chamber – being told how right we are, how we’re among the few who see what’s really going on in the world, and how we are somehow above the muck that everyone else is mired in – it doesn’t matter if it’s true, it simply has to feel good. I have found myself in the echo chamber a few times and had to really fight with myself to get out – it’s an appealing place to be.
But it is also a potentially dangerous place to be. Sure, if all that you echo chamber tells you is that your hobby is the greatest thing ever, or that your sports team is amazing, then that’s harmless enough. But when you are in a social group that reinforces your tendency to ignore real solutions to problems, when you have come to believe that your prejudices are wisdom and that you should act on them, when you have become so divorced from reality that you are unable to see the faults in your reasoning, then the echo chamber can become a dangerous place not only for you, but for those who are impacted by your actions.
And if you claim that you have never been in the echo chamber yourself, well, you’re either lying to yourself or your lying to whomever you are speaking with. We have all been there, you, me, and everyone else, and we will all be there in the future. But it’s not hopeless. Simply being aware of it, and being aware that we are all drawn to it, is the best way to reduce the amount of time that you spend there. But we need to all be aware that when we find ourselves surrounded by people who constantly seem to be talking sense, but we feel tempted not to actually critique what they are saying – well, we’re probably on the wrong path. We’re all guilty of this, but we can and need to do better.