Friday, January 15, 2010

"The government wants to make us THINK!"

As someone who works in behavioral econ and mathematical psychology I was pumped to see one of my intellectual heroes Cass Sunstein appointed to a post in the Obama Administration. His bibliography spans politics, economics, and psychology, and his work in the academic literature is required reading in most courses in behavioral studies. A true polymath of the social sciences, and a pretty nice guy to boot.

And 9/11 deniers have just started comparing him to Hitler.

Got Fascism? : Obama Advisor Promotes 'Cognitive Infiltration'
Cass Sunstein is President Obama's Harvard Law School friend, and recently appointed Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

In a recent scholarly article, he and coauthor Adrian Vermeule take up the question of "Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures." (J. Political Philosophy, 7 (2009), 202-227). This is a man with the president's ear. This is a man who would process information and regulate things. What does he here propose?

[W]e suggest a distinctive tactic for breaking up the hard core of extremists who supply conspiracy theories: cognitive infiltration of extremist groups, whereby government agents or their allies (acting either virtually or in real space, and either openly or anonymously) will undermine the crippled epistemology of believers by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups, thereby introducing beneficial cognitive diversity. (Page 219.)

Read this paragraph again. Unpack it. Work your way through the language and the intent. Imagine the application. What do we learn?

Rarely does the failure to get the joke resound so epically.

People who oppose the government have legitimate concerns. During the Bush Administration, police and military organizations engaged in illegal or at least immoral infiltration of peaceful protest organizations. And it was wrong.

Cass Sunstein is advocating showing up to a group of people and asking them to explain why they believe what they believe. This is what every group should voluntarily be seeking, anyway. To their cries of "got fascism?" I ask, "got group-think?" If your beliefs are true, Sunstein's argument that the government should seek open debate with you should be a blessing. You should be looking forward to having hordes of converts.

Instead, what do they fear?

Put into English, what Sunstein is proposing is government infiltration of groups opposing prevailing policy. Palestinian Liberation? 9/11 Truth? Anti-nuclear power? Stop the wars? End the Fed? Support Nader? Eat the Rich?

It's easy to destroy groups with "cognitive diversity." You just take up meeting time with arguments to the point where people don't come back. You make protest signs which alienate 90% of colleagues. You demand revolutionary violence from pacifist groups.

Only one of those things Sunstein lists is a conspiracy theory, making this blogger's paranoia look more than a little silly - and to that second paragraph, its not like 9/11 deniers, you know, already do all of that themselves.

Never has a group ever so resolutely opposed such a banal policy that would be beneficial in the long run to any group that wasn't fundamentally afraid of having its beliefs challenged.

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