Wednesday, December 5, 2012

BOOK NOTE: Critical Review on “Political Dogmatism”

While we take a look at the immediate “fiscal cliff” crisis in the onstage debate I’ll moderate on Monday (which you should attend), one journal that has been taking the long view of things for a quarter-century now is Critical Review, and if there has been a general direction in its mostly-libertarian evolution, it has been toward ever-greater agnosticism. 

Social reality, whatever else you may say about it, is complex – leading to a great temptation to shoehorn it into simple theories – and editor Jeffrey Friedman’s “Motivated Skepticism or Inevitable Conviction?  Dogmatism and the Study of Politics” in Vol. 24, No. 2 sums up an additional problem: We are psychologically inclined to think our opponent’s theories have glaring holes while our own are pretty solid. 

Furthermore, contrary to the self-image of many intellectuals (especially on the left), the well-educated are more likely to engage in the dogmatic defense of their beliefs than are the relatively-flexible, easygoing, less-convicted (albeit less-informed) masses – it’s the blinkered leading the blind, as Friedman likes to say.  And with each round of new data, the intellectuals (fitting the info into their pet theories) become more rigid, not less, in their beliefs.  Skepticism tends to be something you deploy against the other guy and can’t quite find a way to use to devastating effect against your own side.

More alarmingly for anyone still prone to believe in the power of dialogue, the more people discuss things like politics – whether with fellow believers or opponents – the more convinced they tend to become of their own positions.  Indeed, ideologues tend to become more committed to their positions when confronted with counter-arguments than if they are not confronted with counter-arguments (whereas most people appear to benefit from considering “the other side,” according to other articles in this issue). 


I have long thought that these problems may mean that that great formula for bourgeois moderation, apathy, may therefore be our best hope of avoiding insanity, but Critical Review has not quite taken the step of recommending that just yet.  And tragically, I fear our troubled times may call for something more nuanced than mere apathy.  (Tomorrow, as my “Month of Dogmatism” continues, a look at Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book A Righteous Mind, about how unlikely people are to be impartial, given the mental architecture homo sapiens has inherited.) 

Friedman, in an effort to be charitable, tends to express a view (similar to Haidt’s) that how you filter political data is largely just a matter of what you read first when forming the hypotheses by which you do later sorting, like a child taught, say, to divide the world into dangerous and non-threatening animals, as opposed to a child taught to see all animals according the degree of fascination they hold for zoologists.  But even on the meta-theories, ironically, people can disagree, and I’m inclined to think some of these insights actually lend credence to my view that the ad hominem attack (roughly speaking) is now vindicated as never before – because
politics tends (tends, I say) to be an expression of personality type. 

Your flaky hippie friend probably has flaky hippie policy views, and your morally-rigid, conservative-seeming friend probably has conservative political views – not always, but with predictable frequency.  It’s not just a stereotype anymore – now we know their policy positions are (often) expressions of what they’re really like!

And it’s not clear that the people most attentive to these problems are even the ones best suited to overcome them: Academics and ideologues who are attentive to their favorite minutiae but blind to larger psychological/cultural patterns can be even more naive and dangerous than normal people (and, yes, some small number of people’s psyches might be so fully suffused with hate or sadism that they – and their agendas – actually warrant being called “evil,” though your garden-variety liberal or conservative does not and surely is fumbling toward truth and doing the right thing with the same mixture of facts and fetters as his foes). 


Despite the intellectual caution we should all practice given insights like those above, naturally I am inspired by them to make a special plea on behalf of my own political philosophy.  There is the broad, timeless point that libertarianism at least demands less (and less frequent) consensus among individuals than does any philosophy based on the unity, solidarity, general will, majority opinion, or representative consensus of the population.  If people stubbornly argue for doing things their way, at least you rarely have to worry about it under conditions of individual liberty. 

But setting policy questions aside completely, there is a reason to have some sympathy for any currently marginal political philosophy, from libertarianism to Marxism, in conventional political debates (whether formal or cocktail-party).  And that is the unconscious ratcheting up and down of standards of evidence that people do when confronted with ideas they find alien vs. ideas they find comforting and familiar. 

One obvious manifestation of that phenomenon, with which almost any libertarian is used to being confronted, is the ease with which people leap to bizarre worst-case scenarios to dismiss the new-sounding philosophy, even as they accept all manner of real, visible bad outcomes from their own philosophy.  Imagine if, say, democracy were a rarely-mentioned philosophy and the moment you brought it up, people reacted by saying something like, “Oh, and if the majority voted to start randomly killing everyone, that’d be fine?  Democracy might sound like a nice theory, but in reality it’s insane!”  And then democracy was considered dismissed.  That’s roughly how libertarians feel hearing, “So if some guy buys all the trees in the world and then sets them on fire just because he can, you’d think that’s great?  You’re insane!”

The familiar ways get a pass, the new-sounding (even if its roots are older) is subjected to intense, often quite biased scrutiny.  It’s human nature. 

A subtler problem I find interesting is that the new-sounding philosophy is often dismissed because of problems that exist for all rival philosophies as well.  So, for instance, I have seen people dismiss libertarianism because it cannot provide hard and fast definitions of, say, “adulthood” or “personhood” – but then, it seems as though other philosophies have just as much difficulty with those sorts of questions.  Why is this problem fatal for libertarianism but not other philosophies? 

Of course, most people would claim they are just being “pragmatic” by supporting government, but they may well be turning a blind eye to all sorts of data suggesting government isn’t so pragmatic – and they might start noticing all sorts of new patterns if they tried, as a thought experiment, assuming government may be wasteful and inefficient (statists might want to fit this datum into their belief that government protects our money from the ravages of the market, for instance – though it’s admittedly just one small example, fitting neatly into my working theory). 


The problem of “motivated skepticism” crops up in all sorts of less-political contexts, too, of course.  Conspiracy theorists can always free-associate to the next piece of seemingly-confirmatory evidence.  And believers in the “Pascal’s Wager” argument for belief in God must surely be guilty of motivated reasoning, if we are to believe that they in fact believe their own argument, right?  I mean, what is Pascal’s Wager if not a bribe (the short version is: believe this and you may live forever, so why not believe?). 

I’m inclined to think belief in God never holds up under careful scrutiny, and indeed were I not having drinks to celebrate a friend’s birthday tonight, I’d probably be online here (6:45-8:30pm Eastern) watching skeptics Michael Shermer and Lawrence Krauss mop the floor with religion-defenders Ian Hutchinson and Dinesh D’Souza (yes, the anti-Obama documentarian who was just bounced from his job as head of a Christian college for dating his new woman before his divorce was finalized – not that that necessarily says anything about his intellectual integrity).

On the other hand, maybe I’m subconsciously biased against paranormal claims.  I admit that I suspect, based on seeing two episodes, that the show Haunted Collector on SyFy is to some degree faked.  For the most part, in a fashion similar to the ludicrous but long-running show Ghost Hunters, it just features people leaping to conclusions without actually experiencing anything that even seems to require a supernatural explanation (lots of panicking at creaky-sounding floorboards, etc.).  

But then again, there was one in which, using infrared, they claimed to find a century-old, unnaturally-hot flenser’s knife buried near a horse who had been experiencing unexplained lacerations.  Either someone at that show is bullshitting us, as I’m inclined to believe, or ghostly energy seemed to emanate from that knife and from no other objects in the area.  If the rest of the episodes I saw were filled with fakery, the choice of what to believe would be simple.  But there was really nothing else that would seem to require any fakery (just people having bad dreams or worrying about old stories or hearing ambiguous creaking, etc.). 

So do I discard my whole worldview over that one knife – or tentatively assume these people are untrustworthy over that one knife?  There are costs either way, but obviously I’m inclined to do the latter.  Sorry, Haunted Collector producers.  Prove me wrong in more spectacular fashion in seasons to come!

Of course, as we will see in examining The Righteous Mind tomorrow, I may make unusually little use of the “spiritual/purity” function of the psyche.  Whether that’s a bad thing is a question for the next level of debate.  

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