The Danger of Living in an Echo Chamber, According to the Authors of ‘Minds Wide Shut’

Divided People

More and more people in the US are thinking in a fundamentalist way — learn why that’s an issue, and how to stop it

“New fundamentalist” thinking, at least as Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro and Professor Gary Saul Morson define it, is on the rise.

So what exactly is new fundamentalism anyway? According to Schapiro, “I think we can summarize our definition of fundamentalism with this question: are you open to being proven wrong? If you’re not, that’s a fundamentalist view.”

In their new book Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us, Schapiro and Morson explore why an increase in polarized, stubborn thinking is becoming a crisis, and how we can combat it. We spoke with the authors about what it means to be a fundamentalist thinker, how to break the cycle of fundamentalism and the real world consequences this type of thinking can have.

KCM: This book centers on the concept of fundamentalism. Can you explain what this means? 

Morton Schapiro: People think of fundamentalism as only defining one side of the ideological spectrum. Using our definition, fundamentalism thinking is actually prevalent not only on both sides, but also in the middle. Our definition of fundamentalism says that you cannot learn from anyone else. So if you believe the far left of the ideological spectrum is the absolute truth, you’re going to see anybody on the other side as evil. That means there’s no hope for a dialogue that innovates and invigorates democracy. 

Can you be a fundamentalist thinker on one subject, but not another?

Schapiro: Yes, I think so. It’s important to recognize that in certain issues we, ourselves are fundamental. There are certain things that I believe, where you could gather all the evidence in the world to the contrary, but if it’s part of who I am, then I don’t care. For example, I believe in markets as opposed to different ways to allocate resources. I’m also an observant Jew: I believe in a benevolent God, and nobody’s going to convince me there’s no God out there. These are things that define me — they are simply not open for discussion. You don’t want too many things like that, but if you don’t have anything, if everything about you is open to being disproved, then who are you? 

Saul Morson: I’m actually not sure. I would say most people who believe in a benevolent God don’t claim they can prove it scientifically. That’s where I think the difference would be. Right? It’s an act of faith. There have been ideas in my life that I felt nothing could ever shake, and now that 50 years have passed, I don’t think the same way. I can’t exactly pinpoint the timing when my thinking changed, but some competing ideas accumulated that I didn’t quite see. Maybe it’s a matter of degrees of openness, and things that seem absolutely unquestionable are actually just not very easily questionable.

 How do you break the cycle of fundamentalist thinking?

Schapiro: It’s really easy to live in an echo chamber. I can read my New York Times every day, and watch CNN for a couple of hours, and then read the columns and the op-eds of people who I agree with. That’s the echo chamber. I think it used to be harder to find “news” that only validated your point of view. When I was growing up, nobody would have ever said something like, “I watch NBC because they are more liberal.” We thought of news anchors as impartial arbiters of the truth.

Now you don’t need to do that. It’s comforting to be in a place where everybody is agreeing with you, and I think that’s the temptation. But those echo chambers are really, really dangerous, and to get out of them is hard. We have a series of things that we suggest, but it’s really about exposing yourself to opposing ideas. If you always watch CNN, watch Fox News sometimes. You might come to respect some of its coverage. Opening yourself up to new ideas may change your own views, or it may increase your understanding of people on the other side. Getting out of your comfort zone can be traumatic, but it’s important to do it. 

Morson: I think this an important goal of higher education. We need to encourage students to debate the strongest points on the side of an argument they disagree with. Something that worries me about higher education is if professors are living in echo chambers, and are in the habit of thinking only of one side of an issue, these beliefs may spread into their academic discipline as well. 

How can fundamentalist thinking be dangerous to the democratic process, like when considering jury selection?

Morson: The point of a jury is to weigh the evidence and come to a conclusion based on the facts presented to them. If you don’t have a jury pool available who can do that, you might as well make the prosecution charge equivalent to a conviction. 

If you’ve read anything about a case you shouldn’t be on the jury, but in a high profile scenario like Derek Chauvin’s trial everybody’s going to know something — it would be a strange person who didn’t. It’s hard to get an impartial jury in a case like this, but you try the best you can. That’s why you let both sides challenge potential witnesses. You also trust people to be honest enough with themselves to admit if nothing’s going to convince them one way or the other. One of the outcomes of having more fundamentalist thinkers is you’re going to be less likely to have impartial juries and fair trials, which is a scary thought when anybody can be accused of anything. 

Schapiro: This goes back to the idea that there are certain things that make you who you are, and you have certain views, and no evidence is going to dissuade you from them. So if you’ve already made up your mind, then you shouldn’t be on a jury. That’s the challenge that recognizes fundamentalism in each of us. People are not blank slates, but you want them to be objective, and open to facts and evidence. 

If you’re a lawyer interviewing prospective jurors, and somebody says they’ve already made up their mind that the person on trial is guilty or innocent, you need to toss that juror. But if a lawyer asks a potential juror whether they have any view on the case at all, and the person responds by saying, “I’ve never considered that question,” I would toss them too. We all have our feelings and biases that we bring to the table, but we want a population that is open to being dissuaded or persuaded by the evidence room. 

Written and reported by Emily Pinto.