Sunday, February 26, 2012

The problem isn't education

Here is Chris Mooney explaining that the more educated a conservative is, the more wrong they are. Specifically, he is talking about climate change, and how surveys show that more educated conservatives are more likely to deny climate change, and assert more confidence in that denial.

This is old news to anybody who talks to conservatives, but what Mooney also talks about is the control group. That is, they surveyed to see if the same effect worked on liberals, using a classic liberal bug-a-boo: nuclear power.

Short answer: it doesn't. Liberals start out with a negative view of nuclear power, but exposure to information and science makes them more accepting of it.

What this tells us is that there is a more fundamental divide than just values or policies; conservatives and liberals differ on what truth is. What Mooney doesn't say (because he is an Accomodationist and desperately trying to stay in Religion's good graces) is that this is also the difference between the empiricist and the metaphysician, between the atheist and the believer.

Some people think the world derives from truth; and some people think truth derives from the world. Some people think 2+2=4 because it is a law of mathematics; and some people think 2+2=4 because every time we add 2 and 2 together they come out 4. The latter implying that 2+2 could equal 5; it just doesn't.

Given the notion that the world derives from some cosmic set of first principles, one could be forgiven for assuming that once you learn those principles, your judgements are infallible and therefore don't need to be checked against actual reality. And this describes the believer, whether it is woo, religion, or ideology. Scratch a true believer, and underneath you will find the assumption of personal infallibility. Always. Trust me on this, I'm not wrong.

The empiricist (or rationalist, scientist, liberal, pragmatist, or just plain sane - all equally valid synonyms) on the other hand, always assumes that "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Any and all claims require validation. Always. If you can't check it for yourself, at least in principle, it's as good as not true.

This may sound inverted to most people. After all, isn't it the empiricists who flatly state that miracles don't occur, psychics are frauds, and God doesn't exist? How can they be so authoritatively negative if they're supposed to be open to the unknown?

The answer is simple: because all of those claims fail the test of investigation. Meanwhile, the people advancing them are authoritarians; they are not even concerned with evidence for or against their proposition. They have derived the matter from first principles, and they look no further than that.

As always, the issue of "open-mindedness" comes down to projection. The people who are open-minded are the ones refuting miraculous claims, because they have applied the tests of validation, and the claims have failed. The people who are close-minded are the ones who insist on their claims regardless of all logic, evidence, and investigation. They are not open to alternate explanations for the phenomena under discussion; they are assuming that their personal interpretation of their experience is infallible and unquestionable.

You can change the empiricist's mind; simply present sufficient evidence, and he will embrace your claim. But you cannot change the authoritarian's mind with any amount of evidence, because he didn't choose his position based on evidence in the first place. When dealing with an authoritarian, there are only two possible avenues of approach: internally, wherein you demonstrate that the principles the authoritarian embraces actually lead to a different conclusion; and externally, which is to say, with a baseball bat.

The problem with the first approach is that once the authoritarian decides that you are the enemy as a first principle, nothing you say matters anymore. You can point out contradictions galore, and they are simply ignored as lies (or often, responded to with naked hostility). The problem with the second approach should be obvious, and yet, fundamentally, it is all we have left.

This is not a call to violence, or even a justification of it: it is a simple recognition that reason is a participatory exercise. You can't force someone to be reasonable. You can only make it expensive to be unreasonable.

In this case we use law and custom to make unreason expensive. You can give your money to a cult but you can't make us give to it; you can make your own decisions for whatever reason you want but public policy has to be set by public logic, evidence, and debate.

But when the body politic has decided that public (aka empirical) logic is a tool of the enemy, then you have a problem. If you can't marginalize those people to the extremes and the fringes, your democratic, educated, liberal society is doomed.


  1. Much of what Mooney points out about those who identify themselves as “conservatives” is equally true of those who identify themselves as “liberals.” (If I am being verbose here, it is because I object to the general use of both terms.)

    Consider the case he uses: nuclear power. It is not by any means a brute fact that nuclear power is a preferable alternative to fossil fuels. The Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents, and numerous near misses, effectively refute any notion that this is a “safe” technology. Rather, building nuclear power plants is a statistical risk whereas building coal-fired plants produces a number of negative effects with relative certainty. In choosing nuclear over coal, one is accepting that we will have periodic accidents that produce regions of considerable size that will remain uninhabitable for many decades if not centuries. One is accepting the unresolved issue of nuclear waste disposal. It is, ultimately, a policy decision of which set of problems one would prefer.

    To say that educated liberals warm up to the “fact” that nuclear is better is simply a case of begging the question. It is, I believe, assumed to be better because the liberal establishment has now warmed up to it. It is, perhaps, not the scientists who are driving the liberal opinion so much as it is Obama’s endorsement.

    Even if it were the scientific community, as a body, driving this and other issues – we must be careful not to confuse physically demonstrable facts with the general opinions of experts in authority. One must recall that the consensus of scientific opinion in the 19th century was that non-whites were intellectually inferior, and their arguments were compelling in their time. I do not wish to denigrate the scientific profession; in general, they get closer to the mark over time and have a better record of telling facts from persuasion than any other group. I would only caution that they are not immune to the general beliefs of the cultures they inhabit, and that a peer review process is only as good the epistemic purity of one’s peers.

    The idea that “empiricist, rationalist, scientist, liberal, pragmatist, [and] just plain sane” are synonymous is a serious overgeneralization. It is equally an overgeneralization to unite the fundamentalist, the bigot, the capitalist, the libertarian, and the nationalist under the banner of “conservative”. Generalizations of such a magnitude are not consistent with a genuine respect for facts, but are only consistent with a desire to persuade people to stop listening to people who do not share your views. This, I believe, is an agenda on which you, Mooney, Rick Santorum and most of history’s charismatic dictators and other idealists would agree.

  2. It is not necessary to agree that nuclear power is a good policy decision to recognize that it's not as bad as some other options. That's all the research was trying to show.

    I sympathize with your rejection of labels, more than you can imagine. Living in here in Australia, I can almost agree that assigning labels like liberal and conservative is unhelpful.

    But that is only because I live in Australia. No politician in Australia could seriously suggest that contraception should be restricted and still have a platform, let alone be considered a contender for the Republican nomination.

    The simple fact is that the Republican party in America has gone insane. The days of the Loyal Opposition are gone, and until insanity is called out for what it is, they won't be back.

    It is not that I want people to stop listening to people who don't share my views; it is that I believe there is such a thing as objective reality and it is knowable (at least in approximation). This used to classify me as a conservative, back when liberals rode moonbeams; these days it classifies me as a liberal, now that conservatives deny science, mathematics, and logic.

    And, as you surely know, I am not an idealist. But I understand it is necessary to classify me as such to construct the false equivalence at the end. What I don't understand is why this falsity does not, in your own mind, ring alarm bells.

    How is it that a person who agreed with the Iraq war, owned firearms, studied martial arts, took it as scientific fact that free will does not exist and people are machines, and asserted that empirical observation is the final arbiter of truth, can be classified as an idealist? What do you even mean by the term, other than "unrealistically hopeful that human beings can live like more than self-eating animals?" And why is it somehow bad, or idealistic, to believe that human beings can continue the progress they've been making for all of recorded history?

    I really think it is difficult to understand just how oppressive the culture of unreason in America is, until you've spent enough time living outside of it. Mind you, I would have found such a position pretentious and arrogant, back when I lived in the US; but there it is.

  3. By "Republican nomination," I obviously meant "leadership of the country." Doh!