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Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Smart and Smarter

Two very smart people, Clay Shirky and Arnold Kling analyze the not-so-smart mistakes of the Dean campaign. If you only have time for one - read Kling.

Mr. Kling makes the case that Dean made a typical mistake of assuming he was so right and that he didn't have to go through the process of trying to change peoples minds. This was most typified by his sound-bite claim that capturing Saddam Hussein had not made America any safer.

I actually believe that the opinion that we are no safer with Saddam captured is a defensible position, even though I do not agree with it. However, it is a statement that can only be made in the context of an acknowledgment that many people would disagree.

Suppose that Howard Dean had written an op-ed column, or an essay for TCS, called "Ten Reasons Why We're Not Safer Having Captured Saddam Hussein." He could have made his case, listing all of the terrorist dangers and problems in Iraq that still exist.

I do not believe that many Bush supporters would have been convinced by an op-ed piece of that type. However, a thoughtful essay that attempted to change minds would have been an asset, while the same opinion expressed as a sound bite proved to be a liability.

The sound-bite version of "we are no safer" made Dean sound like a crank who was bitter over the success of President Bush in attaining an achievement in Iraq. It created or reinforced doubts about his electability, even among people who were inclined to agree with Dean's sentiment. A thoughtful, op-ed version would have created a much different impression. He could have come across as logical rather than as temperamental.

My Kling also makes the case for changing people's minds:

Changing people's minds requires empathy with other people. Just as an entrepreneur must have empathy with customers in order to produce a marketable product, someone who tries to change someone's mind must have empathy with how the other person is thinking in order to take that person on the journey from one point of view to another.

Changing people's minds is very hard work. In 1997, as I was starting to write essays, I heard Robert Metcalfe give a talk, in which he said that he was giving up his regular column for a technology magazine. "One thing I've learned," Metcalfe said, "is that no one ever changes their mind." This is an overstatement. Still, I never expect that the number of minds I will change with any essay that I write is going to go beyond single digits. Nonetheless, the very act of writing to change someone's mind helps to improve one's own thought process and increase one's own rigor.

Most important, attempting to change someone's mind demonstrates respect for that person. It is dehumanizing to people to suggest that there is no need to appeal to their reason. It is insulting to suggest instead that one's hold on truth is so powerful that any disagreement is wicked.

I suspect that in Iowa, many caucus-goers had open minds during the last two weeks. Dean's supporters, acting out the part of the anointed so aptly described by Sowell, were not up to the task of speaking to people with open minds. Neither was Dean. That is why his campaign failed.

Read the entire article, you will gain much from it regardless of your political position.