One of the dangers of polarisation is that it erodes the idea of a common fact base - or even reality - that’s shared across society. When we think about issues where opposing groups have different beliefs about facts (“epistemic polarisation”), we usually trace that to disagreement about values. For example, on topics like climate change, abortion or Brexit, we tend to assume that groups with different values and goals are led to seek out fact bases that support their views.
But this paper
suggests it’s more complicated: epistemic polarisation can emerge even when people share the same goals and even when their primary goal is seeking the truth. The authors, Cailin O’Connor
and James Owen Weatherall
, build a model in which this phenomenon emerges and also points to real-world examples (Did you know, for example, that there is profound polarisation in the study and treatment of Lyme disease?)
The model starts with agents who share the same goals and values and are motivated to discover the truth. The agents update their beliefs as evidence emerges. All that’s required for epistemic polarisation to emerge is for agents to treat evidence from those who don’t share their current beliefs as less reliable. That’s arguably a not unreasonable heuristic at the individual level, but societally it leads to bad outcomes. It’s obviously a highly stylised model, but it does suggest that, if we care about the truth, we need to be willing to take seriously those with whom we disagree.