Friday, March 2, 2012

You Might Be Politically Irrational If ... and What You Can Do About It

[Personal note: so, I'm back from Europe. I had a great trip - a huge thanks to my Belgian friends for hosting me and showing me such a good time. If you're interested in beer at all, it's worth traveling to Belgium for a week just to sample the beer, if nothing else - Belgians brew such interesting and flavorful beers that are available nowhere else. If you consider yourself a beer connoisseur, you must go there! I did manage to bring back a European head cold with me, but I'm trying to post in spite of it.]

This TED video was posted while I was away, and it's an awesome video that everyone should watch.

About the video, from the YouTube description:
Michael Huemer focuses on the scope and nature of what we know, morality and truth. He is an expert at structuring logical arguments the premises of which are easy to go along with, which makes it annoying if you don't agree with his conclusions. We'll let you decide. In this TEDxMileHigh Talk, he details the irrationality of politics.
And the video itself:



He says that a good example of political irrationality is the War on Terror: "If you have a policy that kills seventy times as many people as the problem that you're trying to solve, then that's usually a prima facie indicator that it might be an irrational policy."

He gives a checklist of indicators that you might be engaging in political irrationality:
  1. Do you get angry during political discussions?
  2. Do you have strong opinions about a subject before acquiring relevant evidence?
  3. Do you seek information only from sources you agree with?
  4. Do you think that people who disagree with you must be evil?
Some people might accuse me of being politically irrational - but I think they'd be wrong. I can get angry during political discussions, I'll admit - but my anger often stems from the utter stupidity that I often face in political discussions, when the other side refuses to accept facts as facts. An example from a conversation that my brother and I once had with my (conservative) father - he swore (and probably still swears) that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. That is simply not true - but how can you have a political discussion with a person who has their basic facts about reality so wrong? That's the kind of thing that makes me angry.

I do better on the other questions, for the most part - I have strong opinions about most subjects, but then again, I've spent a lot of time gathering political information (I even spent a few years at grad school doing little else other than gathering political information), and I'll usually refrain from forming an opinion about something until I know more about it. I'm even willing to change my opinions on things - for example, I used to be very skeptical of free trade, but after learning more about it, I'm now a big proponent of free trade and am very anti-protectionist (the second example of political irrationality from the video above). I also used to think that the auto bailout was a terrible idea and doomed to failure, but I'll admit that I was wrong, and it's been a much greater success than I ever thought possible.

I also seek information from sources I don't necessarily agree with, though I admit I find that tough to do sometimes, as I don't bother seeking information from sources that deny or question the basic facts of reality. Therefore, most of the conservative viewpoints I read come from the conservative "elite" - conservative economists and a few select columnists who might put their own spin on things, but at least they get the basic facts right.

I also don't think that most people who disagree with me are evil - I just think most of them are ignorant. I do think a few of them are evil, since I think they consciously and deliberately manipulate the ignorance of the masses for their personal financial and political gain - examples include Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck - as these guys lie about basic facts to promote their twisted agendas.

So why are people politically irrational, other than those who manipulate intentionally for their own gain? Here is Huemer's explanation:
  1. Political information is costly to acquire (i.e. becoming educated on political matters takes time and money).
  2. In addition, rationality is costly - it prevents us from believing what we want to believe, and it requires serious cognitive effort to overcome biases.
  3. People accept costs only when the expected rewards exceed the costs.
  4. The expected rewards of political information are negligible - practically zero. Voters realize that their personal probability of influencing public policy is approximately zero - perhaps just slightly above zero.
  5. Therefore, people don't collect reliable political information and thereby remain politically ignorant and act in politically irrational ways.
It all makes sense, but when vast swaths of the public remain politically ignorant and irrational, they remain very susceptible to demagogues, charlatans, and other people who desire to exploit their ignorance for their own financial or political gain. This collective ignorance of the voting public imposes HUGE costs on society:
  • We do things like fight the War on Terror when those resources would be better spent elsewhere.
  • We engage in protectionist trade policies when we should promote free trade across the world.
  • We deny the reality of global warming when practically all scientists agree that it's happening and that its costs will be astronomical (and perhaps cataclysmic) if we do nothing.
  • And so on.
People on both the left and the right engage in political irrationality and denialism, but the research that has been done on the topic concludes that people on the right are more likely to act irrationally and to cling to their irrational beliefs when presented with information that contradicts their beliefs than are people on the left - there seems to be something about people on the right that makes them "irredeemably incompetent at accepting scientific information that conflicts with their bias."

Unfortunately, combating political irrationality and denialism (on either the left or the right) is difficult; Huemer suggests that the best approach is to address the fact that people are being irrational, rather than to attack their irrational beliefs directly. Other social scientists agree:
The only effective strategy when one faces cranks and denialist ideas is to create awareness of the problem of denialist arguments themselves and to teach people, from an early age, not to respond to these forms of defective reasoning. If there is a broader rejection of these types of arguments, and promoters of denialist arguments are marginalized and excluded from reasoned debate for the cranks they are, then maybe we will have some chance of bringing public debates on science back into some semblance of sanity.
Sigh - I certainly hope we can, before it's too late! (Hey, I never claimed to be above a little [harmless] demagoguery myself.)

1 comment:

  1. The Hedgehog vs Fox dichotomy.The Hedgehog is more likely to be conservative whereas the Fox is more likely to be liberal. A good explanation: http://www.chforum.org/library/choice12.shtml

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