Thursday, October 27, 2016

Can there be Democracy without Facts?

Emma Roller:
The strongest bias in American politics is not a liberal bias or a conservative bias; it is a confirmation bias, or the urge to believe only things that confirm what you already believe to be true. Not only do we tend to seek out and remember information that reaffirms what we already believe, but there is also a “backfire effect,” which sees people doubling down on their beliefs after being presented with evidence that contradicts them.

So, where do we go from here? There’s no simple answer, but the only way people will start rejecting falsehoods being fed to them is by confronting uncomfortable truths. Fact-checking is like exposure therapy for partisans, and there is some reason to believe in what researchers call an “affective tipping point,” where “motivated reasoners” start to accept hard truths after seeing enough claims debunked over and over.
To me this is by far the greatest danger to democracy in the world, in fact the only one I take seriously: the division of whole nations into competing camps that do not acknowledge the same version of reality. I am not at all sure how one goes about fighting this problem. I have tried to do my part here by taking the most reasoned tone I can manage and searching for common ground, but my conservative friends still tell me that they often can't stand to read my political posts because they are so maddening.

Most successful countries in history have been governed by a political class that had a broadly shared background and outlook. When the leadership class falls into irreconcilable divisions about their fundamental vision of the world, bad things happen. In the US we seem to be heading in that direction. Our leadership class has lost all credibility with millions of ordinary people, leaving a vacuum filled by people like Trump and Sean Hannity who have nothing at all to say to their opponents. Conservatives and liberals who want to find common ground sometimes discover that they have nothing to talk about, no shared frame for even defining what our problems are, let alone what to  do about them. Sometimes this worries me.


G. Verloren said...

Is this really all that different from twenty or so years ago, though?

I don't believe the so called "Culture Wars" ever really went away. The media still prefers "sound bites" and "buzzwords" to facts, and still prefers scaremongering and sensationalizing to constructive, rational discourse. We still have Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly and others spouting hatred and twisted misinformation at every turn. We still have liberals and conservatives split on pretty much the exact same topics - abortion, guns, homosexuality, censorship (a.k.a "political correctness"), privacy, religion, et cetera. We still have war in the Middle East being conducted primarily through airstrikes and bombings.

How is any of this new and frightening? To use the vernacular of the 90s: same shit, different day.

karlG said...

Abortion, guns, homosexuality, censorship, privacy, religion, etc, are not (mostly) matters of verifiable and quantifiable fact. When "opinions" differ wildly on statistically monitored topics such as inflation rates, murder statistics, daily temperatures, etc, and -- perhaps more importantly -- historical events, recent and past, then we are in a different era. I grew up when the left and right argued about the interpretations and accuracy of agreed-upon facts and events, not whether those facts and events existed.
And twenty or so years ago was when this current state of affairs was really beginning to take its current character.

G. Verloren said...


Except in most matters of verifiable and quantifiable fact, such as inflation rates, murder statistics, daily temperature, et cetera, things have actually gotten better.

Climate change is taken far more seriously today than twenty years ago. Murder is significantly down, as is all violent crime, and crime overall. The total number of Russian and American nuclear warheads is down from around 25,000 to about 5,000. Free trade and globalization has produced measurably greater gains than it has losses. Inflation between 1996 and 2016 was less than a third of what it was between 1976 and 1996, and about half of what it was between 1956 and 1976, as well as between 1936 and 1956. Our GPD per capita has nearly doubled. An additional 5% of adult males are literate, and roughly an additional 10% of adult women. Fuel economy of both cars and trucks has gone up by almost 20%. Solar and wind power are reaching maturation when before they were practically pipe dreams. And on and on.

And yes, countless people are ignorant of these changes, and may even actively deny them for various reasons. But those same sorts of people were just as ignorant and wrongheaded twenty years ago.

Republicans in 1996 didn't believe in climate change, were freaking out about crime despite it being down even then, and wanted to return to Reaganomics despite it never having worked. They were going to defund Social Security, Medicare, and many other public services. They were going to amend the Constitution to overturn Roe vs. Wade. They wanted to get rid of affirmative action, bilingual education, and if possible immigrants themselves - causing Hispanic heavy states like California to swing from Republican to Democratic as voter registration among Latinos increased.

What's different today? Not much. The monster of the week has changed: the popular migrant boogyman is now Muslims, not Hispanics - just the most recent in a long line of feared and hated immigrants, including Jews, Germans, Italians, Irish, Chinese, and others. What else? Well the Republican party itself isn't as unified - back when Pat Buchanan took an early surprise lead, the GOP quickly unified around a traditional establishment pick in the form of Bob Dole, out of fear of losing control and fracturing the party. This time they went to pieces, and when Trump started to show signs of gaining steam, they simply couldn't manage to put the pieces back together.

Everything else is mostly the same, it feels like. The rhetoric has gotten nastier, but the underlying values and viewpoints haven't really changed. As I said: same shit, differnt day.