To Cultivate Open-Mindedness

Johann Koehler impressed me the other day (a common occurrence) by explaining why he no longer reads The Economist: “I came to the point where I could predict what they would say about everything”. This struck me as admirable because I think most people who had such a realization would promptly renew their subscription rather than end it.

Much of the audience of political/cultural media products is composed of people who adore having their expectations met (e.g., “Tonight on the show our investigative reporter shows that, once again, you were right about everything!”). Indeed, if their biases are not reinforced, for example if their favorite outlet presents some evidence that challenges their views, such consumers will react quite negatively. More than once I have started following an independent-minded, original, unpredictable blog and seen it be battered into predictability over time by hostile comments from readers in search of comfort food.

This reflection reminded me of wonderful quote passed along by Andy Sabl in an excellent post about life at Harvard:

an alumnus wrote me to say that he’d always thought there were two Harvards: one that was about intellectual inquiry and expanding one’s horizons, and one that was about exactly the opposite.

As a professional educator and more generally as someone who wants our democratic republic to function properly, I despair at the tendency of so many people to use the wonder of the Internet mainly to search out whatever narrow slice of the media world will never surprise them, never being them into contact with competing views/facts and never teach them anything that they don’t already know. I wish I knew how we could produce more people who saw value in consuming the unfamiliar, the challenging and the off-beat rather than living on the empty calories provided by predictable confirmation of their own prejudices.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.