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Practically everyone thinks that democracy is in danger these days. If asked why they think so, most people will cite the sins of their least favorite politicians. Trump tried to violently overthrow the federal government; the Democrats rigged the 2020 presidential election; Biden is just a dictator with a pen and a phone; the Supreme Court is stacked with conservative activists. And so on, and so forth.

I think abuses of power by politicians really are threats to democracy. But in this post, I want to focus on a different kind of threat, one that strikes me as much more pernicious. I claim that the real threats to democracy are epistemically hostile environments.

“Noah, what’s an epistemically hostile environment? That sounds made up.”

Good question (except for that last part). An epistemically hostile environment is an environment that makes it difficult for people to acquire knowledge. Environments can be epistemically hostile for all sorts of reasons – for instance, because they make it hard to find evidence, or because they make it difficult to assess the quality of evidence, or because they make it difficult to distinguish trustworthy from untrustworthy sources, or because they make it easy to rely on one-sided evidence.

Basically, an epistemically hostile environment is an environment in which even smart, educated, rational, honest people sincerely interested in the truth are likely to wind up with false or unjustified beliefs, because their evidence is in some way misleading.

There are lots of different kinds of epistemically hostile environments. But I want to focus on one of the worst kinds: echo chambers. An echo chamber is an epistemically hostile environment in which the evidence available to reasoners becomes progressively more one-sided, because of a positive feedback loop.

Here’s an example. You and your friends all think atheists are dumb, and you start sharing all the evidence you have for this hypothesis. Over time, you become collectively more confident in your belief that atheists are dumb, and you start to discount evidence that atheists aren’t dumb, on the grounds that practically all of your (one-sided) evidence points in the opposite direction. Moreover, since you all think atheists are dumb, atheists don’t like hanging out with you. So, you very rarely get any direct evidence that atheists aren’t dumb. This cycle continues until you and your friends are wildly overconfident in your belief about atheists. Or your belief about Republicans, or Democrats, or… well, you get the picture.

We’re all familiar with epistemically hostile environments like this one. (Indeed, we’re probably all in environments like this one on a daily basis.) They’re hard enough to avoid in our local communities. But broaden the epistemic environment to the whole internet, and avoiding echo chambers becomes almost impossible.

The internet has made echo chambers more prevalent for at least two reasons. First, the internet allows you to choose your conversation partners. For most of human history, this wasn’t possible: if Joe and Linda were your only neighbors, and if you wanted to talk to someone about politics, religion, or philosophy, Joe and Linda were your only options, no matter much their opinions differed from yours. But social media sites allow us to blissfully ignore the Joes and Lindas of the world, in favor of people who think like us (and who are, naturally, much smarter, more interesting, and less annoying than the Joes and Lindas). The internet has made it easier than ever for us to build our own echo chambers.

To make matters worse, the internet now builds echo chambers for us. Social media sites don’t just suggest content to you randomly. They curate your content using learning algorithms. These algorithms figure out what kinds of content you like by watching what you click on. And once they know what kinds of content you like, they feed you more of it. Since we all suffer from confirmation bias, we tend to seek out evidence that confirms the things we already believe. And that causes the algorithms to start feeding us evidence that confirms the things we already believe.

The combination of these two factors – our new ability to choose our conversation partners and social media platforms’ new ability to exploit our confirmation bias – leads to a proliferation of echo chambers.

It’s worth noting that echo chambers are epistemically hostile in more than one way. There’s the obvious fact that the evidence available to people in echo chambers is one-sided. But there’s also the less obvious fact that being in echo chambers literally makes us worse at reasoning. Social psychologists have found that people are much better at completing reasoning tasks in groups, and that groups of people who disagree with each other are much better at reasoning tasks than groups of people who agree with each other. In other words, when we surround ourselves with people who disagree with us and force ourselves to talk to them, we actually get better – not just over time, but instantaneously – at coming up with good arguments and spotting bad arguments.

“Cool, Noah. What does this have to do with democracy? Come to think of it, what does this have to do with debate? You do know this is a debate blog, right?”

Here’s what it has to do with democracy: some people doubt that democracy is a viable model for national governance in today’s world, because the citizens of democratic nations are too ignorant, stupid, and polarized to make good decisions.

I think this is wrong. People aren’t generally ignorant, stupid, and polarized. Epistemically hostile environments – like echo chambers – make us ignorant, stupid, and polarized. It’s epistemically hostile environments that threaten democracy, not the innate intellectual incompetence of average humans.

Here’s what this has to do with competitive debate: long-form debate is the antidote to epistemically hostile environments. A debate round is what we might call an epistemically congenial environment – that is, an environment in which it’s easy to acquire knowledge. That’s because a debate round is the opposite of an echo chamber. In a debate round, you are absolutely guaranteed to encounter evidence against your position. There’s thus little risk that the evidence presented will be one-sided. What’s more, you have to contend with an opponent whose job it is to critically evaluate your arguments. This is the kind of disagreement that enhances collective reasoning ability in group settings. In summary, long-form debates generally present participants and audiences with balanced samples of evidence and put them in a position to evaluate that evidence well.

Practicing the art of long-form debate is thus the best way — perhaps the only way — to foster the kind of productive civil discourse that leads to good democratic decision-making. So, when you engage in competitive debate, or encourage your children to do so, or encourage your friends to do so, you are literally – and I mean literally – saving democracy.

Noah McKay is an NCFCA alumnus and a PhD student in philosophy at Purdue University. He has been coaching Lincoln Douglas debate for six years.

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