If it seems to you like opinions are getting more extreme with less room for nuance, you aren’t alone.
As I listened to a recent Joe Rogan podcast featuring Alex Berenson and Michael Hart they brought up a related subject. Alex is an author, and had recently written a book called Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence. Michael is a Canadian doctor at a medical cannabis clinic.
The podcast itself was pretty good, Joe does an above-average job of moderating and being nonpartisan, Alex does a decent job of pushing back and making good points, and Michael was just okay, clearly taking a clinician’s point of view, but occasionally being wrong on facts.
Toward the end, Michael accusing Alex of only portraying one side of the facts in his book, to which Alex says he makes it clear up front that’s what he’s doing, and that he thinks marijuana gets nothing but the good aspects discussed, so he’s giving airtime to the downsides and counterarguments. It reminded me a lot of this recent post on SSC.
This is a pattern I see again and again.
Popular consensus believes 100% X, and absolutely 0% Y.
A few iconoclasts say that X is definitely right and important, but maybe we should also think about Y sometimes.
The popular consensus reacts “How can you think that it’s 100% Y, and that X is completely irrelevant? That’s so extremist!”
But I can see why this happens. Imagine the US currently devotes 100% of its defense budget to countering Russia. Some analyst determines that although Russia deserves 90% of resources, the Pentagon should also use 10% to counter China. Since no one person can shift very much of the defense budget, this analyst might spend all her time arguing we need to counter China more, trying to convince everyone that China is really very dangerous; if she succeeds, maybe the budget will shift to 99-to-1 and she’ll have done the best she can. But if she really spends all her time talking about China, this might look to other people like she’s an extremist – that crazy single-issue China person – “Why are you spending all your time talking about China? Don’t you realize Russia is important too?” Still, she’s taking the right strategy, and it’s hard to figure out what she could do better.
I thought pretty favorably of Alex throughout, and saw him as the China analyst in the latter example, although I think he was clearly trapped in the exact same circular logic as Michael (though a separate iteration) from the first quote, above.
They both see the popular consensus as being wrong and harmful and mention “Y”, but then they each join the consensus in turn and think that the other is wrong for highlighting nuance when the story might be more complicated.
I recall from my undergraduate days a study about an experiment where they asked participants to take turns poking each other with exactly the same force. Instead of going back and forth like pillsbury doughboys, this poking quickly escalating to shoving, because we perceive force used against us as stronger than force we are using.
In this same way, people very often think they are justified in showing just their side of an argument, but are very dismayed when somebody who disagrees with them fails to meet an outrageous (in comparison) standard of impartiality.
Smart people love to nitpick, they just do, but the smartest people know when to allow for generalities and when to point out an exception. A problem that seems to be getting worse is the Big Bang Theoryization of discourse, named of course after the show that is a portrayal of what dumb people think smart people are like. The normal mode of discussion has transformed into a bunch of ridiculous nitpicking of exceptions, but that’s not the shame of it, the shame of it is that people think this is a good thing.
People see an article or a headline and the first thing they are trained to think is, what’s my hot take? Can I possibly start my response with “actually”?
They act like that nitpick proves the original point wrong, but when pressed, retreat to claiming that they were just pointing out an exception. The best comments come when someone points out an exception and says they think it is undervalued or not considered, or in fact takes the opposite position and does not intend to retreat back to the safety of just pointing out nits.