In the comments on my post the other day about the importance of evidence in skepticism and science outreach, RBH leaves an interesting comment that’s worth digging into a bit. I replied in the thread, RBH’s invocation of the Overton Window struck me.
We hear about the Dunning-Kruger effect; let’s not forget about the Overton Window. In a lovely irony, it might be PZ’s (alleged) ineffectiveness that enables Josh’s (purported) effectiveness.
It would be ironic indeed, but there’s no reason to think it’s true. RBH is a smart guy, and may well have a more sophisticated model of that effect in mind, but as offered, it’s more than a bit hand-wavy. And if I hadn’t seen it offered in that same handwavy way uncountable times over the last few years, I wouldn’t bother writing a post about the issue. This is not a reply specifically to RBH, but an attempt to nail down what the Overton window can and can’t tell us, and what it would look like if someone were trying to use it effectively.
To begin with, the Overton window is an atheoretical, poorly substantiated notion dreamed up by an anti-public education activist and popularized by Glenn Beck. It is often invoked as a magical salve that justifies any form of extreme rhetoric. But when people try to really dig into the underlying dynamic that Overton was trying to describe, that simplistic approach doesn’t work.
The broad idea of the Overton window is that extreme voices at the fringe of a debate can pull the center of that debate in their preferred direction, thereby helping more moderate voices in the center win their fights. That’s what RBH was getting at. Overton himself did that by working towards eliminating public schools through a series of more modest measures. First he made it legal to homeschool, then lowered limitations on private education, then pushed for charter schools, then vouchers, and so forth, with the aim of shifting away from public school entirely in the end. The success of this strategy can be seen in education policies like Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Obama’s Race To The Top, in which charter schools are promoted as a cure-all even when more charter schools underperform public schools than outperform. We haven’t eradicated public schools, but public education is weaker today than it was when Overton started, and I suppose that’s a measure of his success.
I haven’t seen much work in the political science literature actually trying to formalize the Overton window, and to see what really moves it (thought that work may not explicitly use the term, in which case my searches wouldn’t turn that research up). Indeed, the best approach to the Overton window I’ve heard was actually at TAM this year, shortly after PZ’s panel which inspired the last post. I linked to Daniel Loxton’s writeup of her talk before, but I’ll do it again because it was that good. As she pointed out, extreme groups don’t shift the Overton window just by existing, they do so under certain specific circumstances, dependent on their relationship with more moderate forces. Here’s the relevant bit:
While radical splinters can sometimes help to make moderate reformers look more mainstream and palatable, this “Overton Window” metaphor has many limits. As Schell noted (she and I have talked about this many times) the audience must be able to clearly see the difference between the radicals and moderates—and more important, they must be motivated to care that there is a difference. If it’s easier to write off both groups based on the loudest voices rather than discriminate between them, that’s what will happen. To this, I [Loxton] would add that the Overton concept (an idea raised often over in the atheist movement) is a post hoc description of how events have played out in some cases, rather than a predictive strategy. The opposite outcome can also emerge, with radicals (“legalize heroin!”) making otherwise mainstream positions (“decriminalize marijuana”) appear more fringe, rather than less. In any event, as Schell explained, the role of radicals tends to be self-limiting. While radicals helped more moderate civil rights campaigners gain traction for their messages, Schell asks, “When was the last time we heard from the Black Panthers?” Over the long term, in many movements, it is left to centrists to do the unsexy heavy lifting.
Over twitter and in her talk, Schell emphasized that she was invoking the Overton window as a heuristic, not as a predictive tool, and that it shouldn’t be invoked as a magical salve that justifies extremism per se.
I’ve been at too many public events where all pro-evolution speakers were dismissed as atheists to think that the dynamic she describes, in which fringe groups taint more moderate voices, isn’t happening. Indeed, it seems to be the overt goal of some New Atheists (Dawkins, for instance, seems to take a certain glee in noting that he’d be a bad expert witness in a court case). NAs resist being painted as a fringe group, which (Schell argues compellingly) is exactly what they’d have to do in order to make effective use of the Overton window.
The other think they’d have to do is articulate some sort of clear policy goals, list of target audiences, etc. And so far they haven’t done so, not in a consistent way, and certainly not in a way borne out by their actions. Overton was successful because he laid out a clear set of policy preferences, and stages between the current situation and his preferred situation. Then he could stake out an extreme position and let other people compromise between that extreme position and the status quo, in ways that ratcheted public policy away from public schools and towards government funding of private schools, with the end goal always being the eradication of public education. He didn’t attack compromise, and declare anyone with less extreme goals as Quislings or Chamberlainish appeasers (e.g., Dawkins, again, in The God Delusion), he found ways to work their goals into his broader vision.
I don’t see any similar strategy from NAs, and absent that, I think they invoke Overton’s window too blithely. There might be a case to be made, but I’ve yet to see it articulated beyond handwaving.