This is the video of a lecture that I gave at the Institute H21 symposium in Prague last September. The symposium was entitled Democracy in the 21st Century: Challenges for an Open Society, and my talk was: “People Are Not Points in Space: Opinions and Discussions as Networks of Ideas.” I’m grateful for the opportunity to present and for the ideas of other participants and organizers.
My main point was that academic research currently disparages the reasoning potential of ordinary people, and this skepticism discourages efforts to protect and enhance democratic institutions. I think the low estimate of people’s capacity is a bias that is reinforced by prevalent statistical methods, and I endorse an alternative methodology.
Gandhi, Notes, May 22, 1924 – August 15, 1924, in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, New Delhi, Publications Division Government of India, 1999, 98 volumes, 28, pp. 307-310
In class we will will discuss such questions as these: How (if at all) can one organize voluntary collective action at a sufficient scale to bring about change in Gandhi’s preferred ways? Is Gandhi right to demand sacrifice and to see sacrifice as intrinsically meritorious? How can Gandhi know whether his stance is correct when he finds himself in conflict with other idealists, such as B.R. Ambedkar? And is it fair for Gandhi to claim that he only knows the means, not the result, of the struggle, if the end is actually predicable?
This is a talk that I have prepared for the Universidad Carlo III in Madrid tomorrow. It is a summary of recent work that I have been conducting with colleagues at Northeastern, Wisconsin, and Oxford and that I’m beginning to develop into a book manuscript.
In the model that I present, an individual holds potentially connected beliefs about political or moral issues, which we can represent with nodes and links (an “idiodictuon”). Whether and how the various ideas are linked in the person’s network influences that individual’s actions and opinions. When people discuss political or ethical issues, they share portions of their respective networks of which they are conscious at the time and may bring ideas from their interlocutors into their own idiodictuons.
Some network structures are better than others for discussion: overly centralized or scattered networks are problematic. Individuals tend to demonstrate similar network structures on different issues, so that having a proclivity for a certain form of network is a character trait.
People, with their respective networks of ideas, are also embedded in social networks. An idea is more likely to spread depending on features of both the social network and the idea networks of the people who interact. Specifically, the odds that an idea will spread from a given person depend on how many people receive communications from that person and how much they trust the communicator. It is reasonable to take into account the trustworthiness of a source when assessing an idea.
As a whole, a population may develop a shared network structure. An idea that is widely shared and frequently central in individuals’ networks becomes a norm. Such norms play important roles in institutions. A community or a culture is a single network or phylodictuon that encompasses disagreement. Ultimately, all such networks interconnect to form a network of human ideas.
This Democracy Works podcast from Penn State’s McCourtney Institute for Democracy is a conversation between me and Chris Beem about my 2022 book What Should Do? A Theory of Civic Life. I enjoyed our discussion!