Resolving differences of opinion
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“Facts don’t matter,” some observers have asserted, as an explanation for why it’s so difficult to resolve differences of opinion about public policy issues. The underlying premise is that “our side” operates on facts and logic, but the “other side” won’t listen to reason. No wonder DC is mired in partisan gridlock, and the government often fails to do much beyond kicking the policy can down the road.
Is this an accurate description of the state of play in US politics, and would it be possible to do better?
I. Says who – The facts don’t matter mantra has been voiced by liberals/progressives (Side A), conservatives (Side B), and the purportedly impartial (Side X). For example:
#SIDE A - As Donald Trump surged towards the Republican nomination in 2016, there was consternation on the left re statements the candidate and his surrogates were making and the enthusiastic reactions of his supporters. What to do? One report cautioned against challenging alleged misstatements, citing years of academic research, on grounds that the attempted corrections would repeat the misstatements and trigger the confirmation bias (desire to validate one’s current beliefs). Why facts don’t matter to Trump’s supporters, David Ignatius, Washington Post, 8/4/16.
Screaming back at Trump for these past 12 months may have been satisfying for his critics, but it hasn’t dented his support much. What seems to be hurting Trump in the polls now are self-destructive comments that trouble even his most passionate supporters. Attempts to aggressively “correct” his remaining fans may only deepen their attachment.
As Election Day neared, another Washington Post reporter slammed Trump’s attacks on the experts (thereby undermining public confidence in our institutions) and factual hyperbole (e.g., “real unemployment” may be as high as 42%), all so the candidate might seem to be offering something better than the status quo. Polls were said to indicate that these tactics weren’t working, however, and it was further suggested that Side B had failed with similar tactics in the past. When the facts don’t matter, how can democracy survive? Catherine Rampell, Washington Post, 10/17/16.
. . . this anti-intellectual, ignore-the-data attitude mostly owes its growth to a careless, conspiracy-theorizing league of (mostly) conservative politicians and pundits. They elevated themselves by sowing distrust in traditional institutions and sources of authority, from the media to civil servants to scientists. They presented themselves as the sole truth-tellers, system de-riggers and messianic statistics unskewers, while maintaining that everyone else was feeding the public lies.
In this regard, SAFE did its level best during the 2016 presidential race to evaluate the candidates based on their stands on the issues as opposed to personalities and theatrics. It wasn’t easy, either, because the discussion of policy issues was often disjointed at best. See, e.g., Campaign issues: Social Security, 3/28/16, in which after an objective discussion of what the five candidates still in the running had said about Social Security and related policies we rated their positions: Worth considering - Cruz; Not helpful - Trump, Kasich; Misguided - Clinton, Sanders.
#SIDE B – Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, is noted for his videos and writings. He sees liberals (aka social justice warriors) as attempting to brainwash our society, and associates their spiel with “postmodernist” denial of objective truth. See, e.g., Why facts don’t matter anymore, Jordan Peterson, youtube.com, video (10:31).
Postmodernism defies ready summarization, but in general seems to be aimed against established norms in our society versus in support of affirmative principles. Targets on the hit list include nuclear weapons, capitalism, consumerism, spoliation of the environment, income inequality, democratic constitutions, and religion. Hmm, sounds a bit like the leftist political agenda. Postmodernism: a description, allaboutphilosophy.org, accessed 4/11/19.
Members of Side A don’t relish being portrayed as troublemakers, and one of their stock defenses is that it’s not so terrible to garble the facts now and then if one’s intentions are constructive. Consider Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s rejoinder, for example, when Anderson Cooper challenged her on some perceived misstatements (four Pinocchios) re wasteful Pentagon spending. AOC: Facts don’t matter when you’re “morally right,” Ed Morrissey, hotair.com, 1/7/19.
If people want to really blow up one figure here or one word there, I would argue that they’re missing the forest for the trees. I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.
This line may work for AOC as a rookie member of Congress out to challenge the status quo, but we don’t recall similar defenses being successfully used by conservatives. And rightly so, because the public has traditionally been less impressed by high-minded intentions than by results. Road to hell is paved with good intentions, Izzy Kalman, psychologytoday.com, 8/16/10.
#SIDE X – A panel discussion on National Public Radio offered several examples of purportedly untrue information that has gained currency in the political conversation. Examples: exaggeration of crime along the southern border, claims that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US and that the birth certificate produced was a fake, and belief that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was justified by Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. There was also discussion, including examples related by callers, of how questionable beliefs tend to be changed in the long run – often by a process of “self-education” versus as a result of being directly challenged about one’s beliefs. In politics, sometimes the facts don’t matter, talk of the nation, npr.org, 7/18/10.
We are more comfortable with this perspective than with partisan pitches that our side respects facts but the other side doesn’t care about them. If human beings are programmed to dig in their heels when their beliefs are attacked, then one would expect to see such behavior by members of both Side A and Side B.
The question remains, however, of where to draw the line between unfashionable beliefs, which may nevertheless merit respect, and crazy ideas. For example, we are aware of no legitimate support for the “birther” claim that Barack Obama was born outside the United States, but there is credible evidence (despite dismissive comments by Dana Milbank of the Washington Post) that Obama’s purported birth certificate (posted on-line after Donald Trump made an issue of the matter) may have been a fake after all. Don’t believe everything you hear, Presidential documents, 3/12/12.
Critics noted possible flaws in the birth certificate image and urged production of the paper document for authentication. When this request was rebuffed, they persuaded Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona (who has also clashed with the Feds re enforcement of the US immigration laws) to undertake an official investigation. *** Arpaio’s team of investigators concluded that the image of the birth certificate image was created on a computer rather than being scanned in from a paper document as had been represented.
For more examples of where such lines should be drawn, see The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the enemies of science, Will Storr, 2014.
While we are not about to believe that Hitler knew nothing about the Holocaust or the creation story in the Bible is literally true, the other controversies that are explored seem less susceptible to black and white answers. Maybe brain waves do emanate beyond the physical boundaries of our skulls (some recent research suggests that “mind reading” may be possible after all), homeopathic remedies work in some cases (if only due to the placebo effect), and the global warming debate is about politics rather than science.
II. Assessment – As the foregoing discussion indicates, many people act as though “facts don’t matter.” They know what they believe, it’s either true or at least well-intentioned, and they aren’t interested in contradictory evidence. As the old saw goes, “My mind is made up so don’t confuse me with the facts.”
Does this mean facts don’t matter? Maybe it does, in one sense, but definitely not in another.
Let’s say some controversial issue is under consideration. The people engaged in or following the discussion have stopped listening to each other, so the decision in question (e.g., proceed with Brexit in the UK or conduct another referendum) will necessarily be made on some basis other than an objective evaluation of “the facts.” Ergo, the facts don’t matter.
If decisions get made that aren’t supported by the facts (whether knowable at the time or revealed by subsequent developments), however, the consequences may be disappointing or even disastrous. So in the longer run, facts certainly do matter – and smart people will try to figure out what the relevant facts are before committing to support politicians and their policy proposals.
To be sure, assessing the facts and making sound policy decisions is easier said than done. Our world is a complicated, constantly changing place, and decisions are generally made based on imperfect information. Sometimes the best answer is “in the middle,” which argues for compromise and taking the time for additional research, while in other cases a decisive change in direction may be long overdue. For example:
#PROCEED WITH CAUTION - Proponents of the manmade global warming theory urge a quick, “cost is no object” transition from fossil fuels to other energy sources and mock people with a different opinion as “science deniers.” On the other hand, skeptics have been known to call this theory “a hoax,” or words to that effect. The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the enemies of science, Will Storr, 2014.
Will Storr’s theory, admirably supported by interviews with a series of people with very pronounced and often controversial views, is that human beings need a story that places them in the scheme of things and provides assurance that their lives matter. Thus . . . what happens when a global warming alarmist argues with a global warming skeptic like Lord Christopher Monckton? “It is not a matter of data versus data, it is hero narrative versus hero narrative . . . David versus David . . . a clash of worlds.”
Members of the general public often give lip service to the need to fight global warming, but they don’t seem interested in paying for the effort. Accordingly, it’s unlikely that effective regulatory controls or taxes on carbon will be imposed any time soon. Perhaps the time has come to consider other options, such as a new generation of nuclear power plants that could support the power grid far more reliably than wind and solar power. Seeking middle ground on MMGWT, 1/28/19.
#STEP ON IT – Illegal immigration has been a serious problem for decades, yet most of our political leaders keep finding excuses for ducking it. The real issue is not the complexity of the problem, but the fact that both parties see political advantages in maintaining the status quo while blaming the other side for any problems. A nice thought, but the real world is more challenging, Section B, 4/1/19.
The president recently backed off of his threat to “close the border” in reaction to the failure of the Mexican and Central American governments to stem the flow of would-be immigrants to the US. Trade across the border is being disrupted anyway, however, as a result of the need to reassign border guards screening vehicular traffic to help handle the surge of new arrivals that is crossing the border and claiming sanctuary. Illegal immigration is already hurting commerce at the border, Daniel Horowitz, conservativereview.com, 4/12/19.
The corrective actions needed aren’t rocket science: upgraded border barriers, narrowing of the legal grounds for amnesty claims, law changes to permit Central American immigrants to be promptly returned to Mexico, effective monitoring of visa overstays, and mandatory use of the E-Verify program to dry up US employment opportunities for illegal immigrants. The main obstacle to success is a lack of political will.
III. Doing better – SAFE tries to approach public policy issues in an adult, fact-finding mode, and hopefully has enjoyed some successes in this regard. We like to think that facts matter, and that coming up with sound answers is important. At times this effort seems analogous to the fate of a mythical Greek figure (Sisyphus), who was condemned to repeatedly roll a boulder up a hill (only to have it roll back down). But SAFE members and other conservatives need to stay the course, and here are some ideas to maximize their contribution.
Civility doesn’t ensure success, but it doesn’t hurt either. We have never seen any advantage in insulting intellectual opponents as opposed to trying to reason with them.
Convincing uncommitted readers or observers may be more doable than seeking to convert “true believers” on Side A. Maybe the true believers will come around eventually, maybe not, but in any case it’s unlikely to happen quickly. NPR panel discussion, op cit.
Brendan Nyhan, University of Michigan: [Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction[ was one of the primary rationales for the war in Iraq, and so even after that rationale had largely been disproven, people hung on to it. But over time, we saw this kind of flattening out, as people shifted onto other rationales for the war or even came to oppose it. So I think as issues become less salient, people can admit that they were possibly wrong. But that takes a long time, and in a lot of cases the damage has already been done.
The career of a legendary member of the US defense establishment demonstrates the potential for making a difference in the decision-making process. Andrew Marshall ran the Office of Net Assessment at the Pentagon – an idea shop of 13 people charged with seeing around strategy corners to anticipate future challenges to America’s national defense – for 42 years (retiring in 2015 at the age of 93). He is credited with seeing, earlier than most, the decline of the Soviet Union, the strategic challenge of China, and the impact of the digital revolution in warfare. Andrew Marshall, Wall Street Journal, 4/9/19.
Here are some observations about Marshall’s mindset and personal style from one of his former proteges. Important ideas take time to develop. Quality is more important than quantity. Ask the right questions. Seek diverse inputs. Nurture your colleagues, and be respectful to everyone. Lessons learned: The legacy of Andrew W. Marshall, Dakota Wood, dailysignal.com, 4/9/19.
•He routinely looked beyond the usual circle of suspects to find people who thought about things in unconventional ways or whose assessments of security, economic, political, scientific, and social matters ran counter to the accepted wisdom of established authorities.
•It was normal for Marshall to assign an area of inquiry to a new military assistant—and then expect to not speak with him again for months. He wanted the person to invest in thinking, reading, and speaking to others about the issue—then to think and research it some more before drafting even a rudimentary outline for the project.
While we can’t hope to emulate Marshall’s achievements, perhaps we can profit in some ways from his example. Onward and upward!
The core point of the entry was that the “facts don’t matter” complaint is used by partisans at both ends of the political spectrum, and stems from the human tendency to double down on core beliefs that are under attack rather than reconsidering them. The basic reader reaction seemed to be that this view is naïve, i.e., liberals are acting this way whereas conservatives have so far taken the high road.
Help, does anyone else want to weigh in on this?
# A veritable “industry” of government-paid “climate research” has sprung up, in which the researchers begin with the desired findings (accelerating global warming due to the use of fossil fuels) and work backwards. How should skeptics deal with falsified “information,” e.g., should they believe that “Climategate” didn’t happen, ignore rampant reconstruction of historical climate data, and overlook that the projections of catastrophic global warming are based on the uncorroborated output of thus far unreliable computer models? - SAFE member (Delaware)
All valid points. No wonder, as noted in the entry, “members of the general public often given lip service to the need to fight global warming, but they don’t seem interested in paying for the effort.”
#I would be more inclined to trust the observations and conclusions of this entry if it cited sources other than the Washington Post and NPR. Even after the Mueller Report has been finalized, apparently coming up with very little, these and other members of the mainstream media seem curiously reluctant to look into how the Mueller probe got launched in the first place. – SAFE member (Delaware)
The complaint that “the other side” ignores the facts is being used by both Side A (Washington Pose) and Side B (Jordan Peterson and other critics of postmodernism). As for the NPR panel discussion, it took place long before Donald Trump ran for president.
#Jordan Peterson is right, facts don’t matter to Side A. If they did, a lot of bad things wouldn’t be going on. – SAFE director
#The suggestion re civility reminds me of the Butch Cassidy movie, in which Butch asks: “Rules in a knife fight?" One can’t deal with the extreme left by being polite, as they refuse to listen to facts of the real sort and remain convinced that Donald Trump is evil. They will use “ends justify the means” strategies to get their way, and that includes welcoming illegal aliens to vote against Republicans. We can look forward to dire consequences if this behavior continues. – SAFE director