23 October 2012

Reality's Liberal Bias

Liberals are wont to quote Stephen Colbert: "Reality has a well-known liberal bias". And they're smug about it too, implying that those who disagree with them are not just ignorant, but wantonly so. Why should that be?

"They're idiots" is an easy conclusion to jump to whenever stubborn disagreement manifests itself. It allows one to "flip the bozo bit", consigning the opposition to a stereotyped dustbin of stupid unwillingness to see what is obvious. And yet it's clearly not the case. If you're liberal, I'd lay dollars to doughnuts that you can effortlessly invoke baffling examples of friends or public figures who are clearly intelligent, not obviously corrupt, yet persistent in denying what seems transcendentally factual.

Evolution. Climate change. The failure of austerity as an economic booster rocket. To the "academic elite", and especially to those in the sciences, these matters are hardly in factual dispute -- they were settled long ago. And yet a significant proportion of the country sees "liberal bias" in those conclusions, refusing to accept them as matters of fact. What's going on here?

I submit that what's happening is a fundamental difference in orientation, a disparity in worldviews so basic that it's hardly visible. For example, to the evolution denialist -- let's not mince words here, the scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelming -- the "liberal" academic consensus is weighed against the plain Word of God, and found wanting. Where do a bunch of scientists get off, flattering themselves that they know more than the Creator of the universe? In other words, of the two authorities, they'll pick God, thanks very much.

Climate change is a bit murkier, instructively so. After all, for every ten scientists proclaiming that anthropogenic carbon emissions are a critical danger, there's one* who has data purporting to show the opposite. Whose authority should we trust?

And of course in economics it's harder still. Important, credentialed figures -- the sort Paul Krugman calls Very Serious People -- continue to insist that in the depths of a recession, with unemployment reaching riots-in-the-streets levels in many countries, the crucial thing to do is to reduce the deficit! No matter that we now have actual experimental evidence that it doesn't work, that austerity measures cripple revenue and thus don't even reduce the deficit, to say nothing of the human suffering they cause. Very Serious People say that investor confidence is at stake, and we must believe them!

The correlation between educational attainment and "liberal" views is by no means 100%, but it's quite strong. In the sciences, it's even stronger. And this gives us a clue. People not immersed in the sciences tend to mistake what it's about, and I believe that leads them to fundamental errors on these sorts of issues. It's not ignorance, it's not stupidity, it's not stubbornness, but a natural consequence of worldview.

Ask laypeople about the nature of science, and you'll get some interesting responses. I've done so, and it's pretty instructive. Many think that science is chiefly a body of facts about the world, that one proceeds by memorizing those facts, and that furthermore those facts are frequently later found to be mistaken, so the whole thing boils down to a question of whom you choose to believe, that what your gut tells you will, in the end, turn out to be right.

That's the crux of the problem. Science is, more than anything else, a habit of skepticism. As Richard Feynman said, "The first principle is not to fool yourself, and you're the easiest person to fool". One's preconceptions color one's judgement of the data in subtle and confounding ways, so that scientists have learned, literally over centuries, that the data, and removing biases from their collection, are the whole game. Not who collected them, or how prestigious their position, but the actual observations

Since no person can possibly reconstruct the entire edifice personally, trust is still required, of course, and this is what the practice and customs of science attempt to guarantee. I haven't personally repeated the observations of transitional-form fossils myself, but given that the results have been repeated, and the process examined by skeptical scientists before me, I'm willing to accept that evolution, in fact, has occurred.

Note that skepticism is not, in itself, an absolute value either. After a point, when experiments have been repeated, observations confirmed, conclusions debated, the reasonable scientist has to accept that we're done -- the conclusion is slotted into the structure of scientific fact. New data might dispute it (viz. Einstein on Newtonian physics), but a crucial distinction missed by those who misunderstand science is that one doesn't keep banging on, desperately refusing to accept facts that refute a treasured idea. Those people are not called scientists, they're called cranks.

Conservatives tend to lambaste liberals for their wishy-washy lack of absolute principle. And to some extent they're right -- in the sciences, at least, it doesn't matter how sacred a precept is, if the data show it to be erroneous, then it must be abandoned. So science-minded liberals (and remember, the two are pretty strongly correlated) perforce are parsimonious on the number of absolutes they're willing to adopt. Which makes them suspicious of authority, while conservatives tend to see authority as the standard of judgement.

This, I believe, is what drives intelligent people to adopt world models at odds with scientific fact. Akin to moral relativism, "factual relativism" leads them to believe that there are, in fact, two (or more) equally consistent and defensible worldviews to choose from, and it all comes down to whom you choose to believe. The conservatives choose the people most in tune with their values; the assertions they make are just as good as the other guys', after all.

Flipping the bozo bit isn't going to help -- it merely relegates my fellow citizen to an "other" status, and pretty well precludes any kind of dialog or constructive work. There are fundamental differences, some of which aren't amenable to compromise, or at least not in the "find the middle between two extremes" sense of the word. But we do not progress by poisoning the well of political discourse. These are our fellow Americans, and they deserve our respect, even if some of their ideas are demonstrably false.

Highlight the sources of disagreement, where you can, instead of attacking the values of the person you're facing. Frame the issue in terms they can come to grips with.

Don't give up. We might arrive there by an unnecessarily costly, frustratingly indirect path. But if you have the facts on your side, reality will eventually win out.


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*Well, almost one, anyway. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Climate_science_opinion2.png. And the role of fossil-fuel funding for these researchers is not to be ignored, either. Or forgiven; they seem to have succeeded in paralyzing action when it would have made a difference, so having purchased their profitability at the cost of untold lives and ecosystem wreckage. Let's not forget to give them their reward when the all-but-inevitable happens.

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