Polarization20320 20 Solutions
Mar 28, 2023

Polarization with Dr. Andrew Serazin, Dr. Eric Marshall, and Virginia Cooper (podcast)

Exploring solutions to polarization through a global perspective, open science, and interdisciplinary research.

By Templeton Staff

Polarization is a roadblock to human flourishing, and hinders society's ability to tackle the existential problems we face today, such as global climate change, war and peace, and famine. With its Listening and Learning in a Polarized World (LLPW) priority, Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF) is making a $20 million investment into polarization research. Through scientific inquiry, with an emphasis on global perspectives, open science, and interdisciplinary research, the hope is that LLPW will lead to an understanding of the underlying mechanics of polarization.

In this conversation, Dr. Andrew Serazin, President of TWCF; Virginia Cooper, Principal Advisor for LLPW; and Dr. Eric Marshall, Director, Programs in Discovery Science at TWCF discuss the issue of polarization, its impact on human flourishing, and the urgency to find solutions.

Listen in with the above player.

Key takeaways:

Defining polarization 
The subject of polarization is one of the defining challenges of our time. With the abundance of digital sources and interactions, the process of how we obtain, interpret, and utilize information has been fundamentally altered in recent years. However, says TWCF President Andrew Serazin, "issues of disinformation and misinformation and propaganda are as old as written or oral communication. The real problem is the intractable differences in viewpoints and opinions that become pathologic. That’s really what polarization is: intractable differences, where there is incompatible information held by either party and the processes of reconciliation and tolerance and resolving disagreements don’t work in a way that becomes pathologic." The pathology of polarization creates conditions that are antithetical to cultivating character virtues associated with human flourishing.

Questions related to polarization
"Some of the biggest questions here are: what drives groups of people to divide into tribes, and to begin to hate one another, and not collaborate? And what drives people to listen to each other, to learn together, not only in spite of the differences, but also fueled by those differences? What does the world look like, where the divisions between us actually help us thrive and flourish as opposed to break us apart?" shares Eric Marshall, Director, Programs in Discovery Science at TWCF. "From the macro level, we’re looking at biases, and we’re looking at how neurons fire and we’re looking at heuristics, and what makes us susceptible to polarizing information. Then on a large scale, how do democracies handle information? What are threats to the democracies, and how is it in terms of misinformation, disinformation. Information is a common thread across all of these spaces," says LLPW Priority Lead Virginia Cooper.

Discovery of tools and innovations
Cooper shares how TWCF’s approach to problem-solving sets it apart from others investigating this crisis. "Our focus is on discovery, and really looking at finding new mechanisms, new innovations and new tools." She points to tools like apps that can help us discern information or  interventions and trainings to become better listeners. "Another thing that I think separates us is that we’re focusing on polarization as a topic, and not one particular polarizing topic. We’re looking at character virtue building, instead of trying to be restrictive."

A focus on virtues 
Cooper emphasizes that focusing on virtues, especially those of listening and of empathy, is key to promoting flourishing even as increasing polarization becomes more common. "Character virtues can help us be more diligent. Diligence is a character virtue — we can look out for misinformation or disinformation, we can learn where to put our trust and how." She also shares that Sir John Templeton's founding vision inspired addressing polarization. She explains that his life and leadership exemplified the virtues of curiosity, open-mindedness, and willingness to consider a diversity of viewpoints without distrust or fear — all of which may be part of the solution to polarization.

Global impact
"What we don’t know is how polarization affects people in different cultures around the world. And that’s one of the things that we really hope to support and research to help us better understand, so that we can combat polarization that becomes an obstacle around the globe, not just here in the US or in Europe," says Marshall. "The information architecture — the kinds of ways in which people get information — has changed rapidly in recent years. But the responses to those changes are diverse across the world. And so we look forward to finding examples of societies who are managing this transition effectively, and what we can learn about that to create more universal solutions," explains Serazin.

Open research and interdisciplinary collaboration
"We realize that open science and collaboration will be the best ways we can really help to landscape this space, to tackle challenges around researchers not talking to each other or outdated funding mechanisms. Open science helps lead us into this space because if we can make sure everybody’s collaborating, then the data is shared and it becomes more efficient," says Cooper. Marshall remind us, "the issues of our time are multidisciplinary." He says polarization "affects people from a biological basis, it affects them from a humanistic perspective, and a religious perspective. Humans don’t distinguish between those, so TWCF looks at all of these aspects. We encourage conversations between philosophers and neuroscientists, and social psychologists and political scientists."

What could success look like
Serazin hopes "Twenty years from now, we really have this robust evidence base, about how human groups fall apart, and how polarization is an example of this pathological state of group behavior, and we're suggesting real strategies to knit that back together." Says Marshall, "Success in this project, first on a five-year basis, is that the research base has now incorporated an understanding of the basic mechanisms of polarization in a global context, that we know how to measure it and predict what’s happening where, and the trajectory it’s taking. And that it has affected our ability to create innovations, interventions, to solve polarization problems. Success in the long run, is that we have more peace, we have more collaboration, and competition of ideas, driving  progress of humanity to flourish globally, so no matter where you are, you can be happier, healthier, and at peace."

Read the transcript from the interview conducted by journalist Richard Sergay, presented by podcast producer, host, and writer, Tavia Gilbert.

Built upon the award-winning video series of the same name, Templeton World Charity Foundation’s “Stories of Impact” podcast features stories of new scientific research on human flourishing that translate discoveries into practical tools. Bringing a mix of curiosity, compassion, and creativity, journalist Richard Sergay and producer Tavia Gilbert shine a spotlight on the human impact at the heart of cutting-edge social and scientific research projects supported by TWCF.