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Philosophy Researchers Learn to Diagnose Disagreements

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What makes some disagreements so intractable, and what strategies can be implemented to make them more productive?

Intrigued by these two questions, a team of Cal State Fullerton philosophers set out to better understand disagreement culture in the United States, with the goal of developing training materials to help people improve the way they conduct disagreements.

“For me, the ‘Dissensus’ project grew out of feeling so frustrated with our public conversation, feeling hopeless and like there wasn’t anything to be done about it,” said Patrick Ryan, lecturer in philosophy. “I started researching this as a way to restore some of this hope.”

Over the summer, Ryan and five student research assistants collected examples of disagreements, ranging from opposing views on the death penalty to debates over a popular internet meme about whether ketchup is a juice or a smoothie. Bringing the examples back to the team, the researchers would then try to “diagnose” the arguments.

“Disagreement diagnosticians step back from defending their positions and attacking their rivals, and instead focus on understanding all the implicit background that structures each person’s stated reasoning,” said Ryan. “Doing so enables us to trace a disagreement to its sources and get a better sense of what we should do to productively move our disagreement forward.”

The researchers identified three major challenges in disagreements: cognitive bias, which can lead people to interpret ambiguities in a way that are favorable to their own preferred conclusions; social influence, which limit people’s access to complete information; and deep disagreement, in which no one makes mistakes about the facts but the disagreement persists.

The goal of “Dissensus,” which continues through the fall semester, is to turn these case studies into open-access teaching materials that will be published online and made available to educators and civic leaders.

“We imagine the website as a place for people who are frustrated with disagreement and want to do something differently,” said Ryan. “We will have a self-guided curriculum for individuals, as well as materials for teachers and schools to teach reasoning skills to kids.”

Philosophy majors Rene Ramirez, Andrew Garcia and Mariana Gomez were drawn to the project because of its practical applications.

Ramirez’s line of research involves how disagreements between couples and people in close relationships differ from disagreements between strangers. “When we think about people disagreeing, often what comes to mind are people who know very little about each other, fighting for their political beliefs,” he said. “If your partner is the one you’re disagreeing with, it’s usually a little more productive because you better understand where they’re coming from.”

“If deep disagreement is affecting our politics and everyday actions, I think it’s important to dive into that,” said Garcia, who aspires to become a professor. “If we’re terrified of the rise of fascism, for example, the important thing is to study it and to figure out what’s going on with it.”

“In America, we’re so averse to disagreeing,” explained Gomez, who plans to apply to law school. “We live in a polarized culture, and I think it’s important to learn how we can find ways to better understand each other.”