Seriously?

Anyone who could write something as ignorant and philosophically naive as this: “The right knows that facts and reason have a liberal bent”, needs to read this essay.
“Facts” have neither a liberal or conservative bent (do I really need to point this out?!).  A fact is nothing in itself.  A fact is information.  Reason, as well, has no inherent liberal or conservative bent (how silly).  We bring reason to bear as an analytical tool, a method, and we interpret facts, through a greater narrative/worldview/metaphysical lens (which is held by faith).  It is this lens that leads us to believe (or “see”) that a fact, or what is reasonable, is of a liberal or conservative bent—or some other “bent” of meaning. How laughable to attribute to a “fact” some inherent political leaning.  Should we divide everything up into liberal facts and conservative facts as if we could turn a “fact” over and see “liberal” or “conservative” stamped on the underbelly?  How does the writer miss the hypocrisy here of her claiming personal objectivity, and objective facts, while telling us “facts” are of a liberal bent?  All the while judging her opponents as biased!  So much for objectivity.  An objective person, who believes in objective facts, would say something like, “This fact could be interpreted in many ways, but here is why I think it best to look at it this way.”  But this distinction is lost, clearly, on the writer and it would be lost on a conservative claiming that facts had a conservative bent.  Such a claim by either is ridiculous.

This is the insanity of what debate has become in modernity.  This is where we get people thinking the other person’s views are disproved by science, facts, or reason, when what is really going on is a philosophical disagreement stemming from differing narratives/worldviews.  Instead of admitting this–each side tries to claim the other is biased and selective in their use of (or outright hostility to) facts, evidence, and reason.  This goes nowhere because it is true of both sides, but it has nothing to do with the facts, evidence, or reason or their selective use–and all to do with the narrative, metaphysical, frameworks they each inhabit and bring to bear upon the facts and evidence. 
Heather Cox Richardson is confusing the lens for the fact or reason.  This is what leads her to be as blind to her own bias as the conservatives she rails against.  We have the blind arguing against the blind.  They deserve each other.  May they both aimlessly flail about at each other in the ditch called modernity, which both have fallen into.

Also, see here

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22 Responses to Seriously?

  1. Hello Darrell

    It's been a while. I wonder if this isn't an oversimplification. Certainly claiming facts have a liberal bent makes little sense, but on some key issues, conservatives and liberals do indeed disagree over facts.

    For example, not only do conservatives tend to oppose raising (or implementing) minimum wages, but they often argue that raising the minimum wage will have a significant (negative) impact upon employment levels. Liberals tend to ague that this effect is overstated. This is a factual disagreement. For any given situation, one of them will be closer to the truth of the matter than the other.

    One can find many such examples within economic debates. The exciting thing about being able to identify such factual disagreements is that such disputes are, at least in principle, resolvable. So, for example, my stance on minimum wages is in part contingent upon my beliefs regarding the employment trade-off. If that belief turns out to be in error, my political stance will shift accordingly. This is, it seems to me, the civilised way of doing political business. Not all disputes reduce to facts, of course, but those that do allow us to maintain an open mind on the relevant issues.

    Bernard

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  2. RonH says:

    Hi, Bernard…

    I hope you are well!

    Actually, I think conservatives and liberals are usually disagreeing not on facts so much as interpretation of facts. So regarding minimum wage effects… The facts are minimum wage levels and unemployment levels. I don't think these are much in dispute. The disagreement surrounds the causal relationship between those, which is hard to determine. It's quite hard (maybe impossible?) to isolate those two factors from everything else going on in an economy. You suggest that such a factual disagreement is resolvable in principle, but I don't see how. One reason being the lack of counterfactuals. Even if you can agree on a course of action, you can never know what would have happened if you hadn't chosen that course of action. The disagreements are regarding predictions of what will happen in the future. Given that economic states aren't exactly repeatable phenomena (“no man can step in the same river twice…”), I fail to see how a disagreement over such a prediction is a disagreement on a matter of fact.

    The real “oversimplification” was the asinine claim of Richardson in her article: the reason there is a liberal/conservative divide is that conservatives hate Reason and Truth. This claim is both polarizing and demonstrably false. I've referenced Dan Kahan and his Cultural Cognition project before. It's worth taking a look at. Kahan does a good job of demonstrating how high-profile points of conflict in the US (evolution, climate change, vaccinations) are related more to cultural/tribal identifications, rather than science illiteracy, rejection of “facts”, etc. He goes further to suggest that insistence that the conflict is due to science illiteracy or rejection of “facts” only exacerbates the polarization and prolongs the time it takes for society to converge on a course of action.

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  3. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    Good to hear from you. I agree with Ron here, the 'oversimplification' being done here is by Ms. Richardson. But she goes even further–actually believing the worst of those she disagrees with. That someone so biased would write such an embarrassing screed about other people being biased takes some doing…and some real blindness and self-unawareness.

    She, and those like her, are a hindrance to honest conversation and debate.

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  4. RonH says:

    BTW, Darrell… I notice you often post links to articles on “Salon”. How on earth do you stomach it??

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  5. Darrell says:

    Ron,

    Ha! I hear you! What I have found though is that we must listen and try to hear what those we disagree with are trying to say. I try and step out of the echo chamber every now and then and seek out contrary voices–the voice of the 'other'. I think this is healthy. We can learn much from even those we disagree with.

    Those on the Left and those who are atheists/agnostics should try it.

    Good to hear from you.

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  6. Hi guys

    I have no argument with your analysis of the article in question.

    For my part Ron, I am very often swayed by economic data, not because it can be entirely conclusive (it's a fluid system) but because a compelling piece of data (fact) is often enough to at the very least create a case to answer.

    This is not just confined to economic data. Early on in the climate change debate, the two sides argued over whether we were indeed seeing a warming pattern, an argument resolved not by changes in interpretation, but by data.

    So it goes for medical trials, educational methodologies, road safety interventions and so forth. First step is surely to get the data as clear as one possibly can. It won't always resolve the debate entirely, but if we retain an open mind, the data can (and should) guide us.

    Bernard

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  7. RonH says:

    Bernard…

    I'm all for as much data as we can get. And, sometimes, data is pretty conclusive. Other times it can still be quite muddy. Even if the minimum wage is raised and unemployment increases, there are so many factors swirling around in an economy that it can be difficult to know that the wage increase triggered the unemployment, or if so why. Perhaps other state actions caused it. Or price fluctuations in certain industries. There isn't a consensus of economists here.

    A more interesting situation is when you do have a consensus, but still have significant difference in the population (as is the case with evolution in the US). Another interesting case that Kahan brings out is the vaccination issue, where you have a consensus, don't have a significant difference in the population, but have media outlets highlighting it as if it were. News about anti-vaxxers is all over the media here, but the Centers for Disease Control claim that vaccination rates are well into the 90 percentile ranges, and polls indicate that parents overwhelmingly believe in the efficacy of vaccines. In these cases, the issues aren't about facts but about cultural identifications. As such, pushing the facts harder (or accusing the other tribe of irrationality, stupidity, science hatred) only creates more conflict. For example, Kahan demonstrates that acceptance of evolution in the US is actually not linked to scientific literacy, despite the popular stereotype that it is. Ironically, the young earthers I've known typically knew more about evolution and the evidence for it than rank-and-file evolution believers.

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  8. Hi Ron

    Yes, we're not disagreeing here, I don't think. I'm just suggesting that many times facts are important in shifting opinion. Even in economics, where the best we can do is deal with probabilities, well established trends can be tremendously important, even though the best they can do is let the participants in the debate know what they're betting against.

    You raise immunisation and this is a good case in point. As you'll know, there are critical threshholds for 'herd immunity' and when we slip below them (I think measles is somewhere in the 95% immunisation region) the diseases is able to get a hold.

    The falsely established link between immunisation and autism gained genuine traction in the UK, and led to a significant number (in many cases highly educated liberals, by the way) forming a belief that was contradicted by the data. The dispute was a factual one, with folk swapping sides based upon their sense of what the data was (with one side misled by a fraudulent practitioner). As a result, there was unnecessary illness, and indeed death. Data matters.

    I wonder if there isn't something inherently defeatist about thinking all disputes will be tribal. In the areas of medicine, climate change or indeed economics, I have no interest in belonging to any particular tribe. I just want to know what's going on, so at the very least I can know the background context for my inevitably subjective decisions.

    And a great deal of the time I change my mind on issues because of the way my understanding of the data changes. I encourage my students to do the same.

    You are quite right that accusing people of stupidity is a lousy way of encouraging change. far better to walk respectfully alongside those we disagree with.

    Bernard

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  9. RonH says:

    Hi, Bernard…

    Kahan references studies which indicate that presenting contradictory facts to a person with an entrenched cultural affinity only causes him to dig in harder. This is counter-intuitive, but research bears it out. While the facts are obviously important, how they are presented — and by whom — can be even more critical in bringing a person over to your own perspective. (In reality, “facts” are often even incidental…) People will absorb facts (even ones that contradict positions they hold) from people they trust, but will reject the same facts from someone they perceive as a threat. Meanwhile, they will seize on facts that fit their narrative. (Areas of science aren't exempt from trust issues, btw. Remember: the blatantly fraudulent vaccine-autism link was published by The Lancet, of all things.)

    I wonder if there isn't something inherently defeatist about thinking all disputes will be tribal.

    It's curious that you phrase it that way. I don't see who is claiming all disputes are tribal. I think we're just saying that thinking facts alone will resolve disputes without lending appropriate consideration to cultural factors (both one's own and the others') is naive at best, and further polarizing at worst.

    And, far from being “inherently defeatist”, admitting the cultural factors in play would appear to be a necessary first step towards convergence.

    I have no interest in belonging to any particular tribe. I just want to know what's going on

    There is no such position. Nobody stands outside their cultural milieu. We are all situated in time, space, and societal context, and those factors inevitably bias us. Science isn't much of a refuge. Up until around WW2, it was widely accepted in the scientific community that non-whites were less evolved. It was the disturbing direction that eugenics took under the Nazis that finally led to a cultural shift and eventual rejection of eugenics by the scientific community. Science didn't “prove” racist theories, and science didn't debunk racist theories. Rather, scientific facts were put to the service of cultural values. Widely accepted facts are widely accepted because they cease to be controversial, not because they are facts.

    Certainty about facts is a myth. The most we can hope for is agreement about interpretation, and that will happen faster once we all admit that certainty about facts is a myth. Or unless we use state power to eradicate those who disagree with our interpretation. Whichever comes first.

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  10. Hi Ron

    I claim no certainty about facts. Rather, I suggest we are as careful and honest as we can be in our assessment of the data, and we let this in turn inform our opinions.

    Consider the advances in medicine over the last century. Careful and disciplined consideration of facts does indeed save lives.

    Bernard

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  11. RonH says:

    Again, Bernard, I think you're not giving enough credence to the role of perspective and cultural bias. “Facts” don't save lives at all. The decisions we make based on the conclusions we infer from facts do, and those conclusions will be as much informed by our cultural perspective and biases as well as the facts. And this applies to all of us.

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  12. Darrell says:

    “Consider the advances in medicine over the last century. Careful and disciplined consideration of facts does indeed save lives.”

    No one would disagree with this as long as we are taking Ron's point regarding perspective into account, but I don't see how it's relevant to the essay or my post. No one is saying facts or information aren't important–critical even.

    And this is interesting, because clearly you are “hearing” this or reading it that way–which actually does go to the point of my post.

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  13. Hi guys

    Yes, we agree, of course, for the point is a commonplace. Facts help shape our opinions but do not determine them. There are also cultural factors in play.

    I was merely pointing out, I thought rather uncontroversialy, that often when our understanding of the facts change, so too do our opinions. So, I know people who I greatly respect, who make different decisions regarding immunisation than I do. Not because they hold different values, or are inherently more suspicious or anti-authoritarian, but because they genuinely believe there is an established link between immunisation and various health risks, and because they genuinely doubt the efficacy of immunisation.

    Were we to share an understanding of the facts of the matter, we would also share a viewpoint regarding best course of action (for we both want the best for our children). Now, Ron's point is salient, simply telling them they have their facts wrong (and hence implying they are ignorant) won't get the job done. Chances are, it will actually make the problem worse.

    Nevertheless, at heart what we have is a dispute based upon different assessments of what the facts are. Not all disputes are about interpretation of the facts.

    Bernard

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  14. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    “Nevertheless, at heart what we have is a dispute based upon different assessments of what the facts are. Not all disputes are about interpretation of the facts.”

    Putting aside that the above statement seems contradictory (I think interpretations and assessments to be pretty much the same thing in the context of this discussion—or it is a distinction without a difference), and putting aside that my post was not suggesting that all disputes are about the interpretation of facts, I’m glad we agree that the writer’s essay (what my post was about) is certainly biased itself and most definitely unhelpful with regard to understanding those we disagree with.

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  15. RonH says:

    Bernard…

    Nevertheless, at heart what we have is a dispute based upon different assessments of what the facts are. Not all disputes are about interpretation of the facts.

    I still wonder if you're oversimplifying. The facts are that The Lancet published a study linking vaccines to autism, then (many years later) recanted because the study was fraudulent. Some people may not know both of these facts. But I think if you waded into a colony of staunch antivaxxers you'd discover that their real issue was not that these facts were not unknown to them.

    If the problem is a lack of knowledge about facts, then the problem would go away once the facts have been presented. If you think this will work, then try it out on your anti-vax relations. If it doesn't work, why do you think it doesn't? Are they just stubborn? Willfully ignorant?

    I keep pushing back on you because it sounds to me like you're saying “If we all just accepted the facts, we wouldn't be in conflict”. But this isn't substantially different than what the original article author is saying.

    Creationist geneticists (there actually are a couple) don't reject common descent because they don't understand the facts of genetics. AGW skeptics don't fail to understand the fact that a consensus exists among climate scientists. Knowledge of the facts (or lack thereof) is not the ultimate problem.

    Your original pushback to Darrell was that, indeed, you believe that on key issues the dispute is simply a disagreement over facts. That is the real oversimplification.

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  16. RonH says:

    Oh, and even if it were an accepted fact that increasing minimum wage did not increase unemployment, that says nothing about whether or not we should increase the minimum wage. I'm not sure how one could establish an “ought” as a fact.

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  17. Hi Ron

    That there are groups of people who are stubbornly attached to their views, regardless of facts, is not something I would dispute. And, as you say, bringing them around simply by presenting facts is a fool's errand. We are in total agreement here.

    However, we're not all zealots. In my experience, the great majority of people are not. And so, a great swathe of public opinion is moved about by changes in the common perception of the state of the data. Hence, when the immunisation scare took hold, people recalibrated their sense of risk, and behaviour changed as a result. The underlying narrative (let's look after our children) was not widely disputed, but the means for doing this, which hinged upon an assessment of the data, was.

    Similarly, while climate change deniers abound, a great many people, over the last twenty years, have moved into the anthropogenic climate change camp purely based upon their sense of what the data is showing. The core value, look after our planet, has not changed for them, but their perception of the data has.

    On minimum wages, part of the problem of demonising the right is it becomes very easy to buy into the idea that those on the right just don't care about poverty in the way liberals do, and therein lies the problem. Perhaps, at the fringes, this is true, but again, the middle voter very often does want to see poverty reduced, but is not sure how to do it. Will raising minimum wages simply alleviate the pain of the working poor, or will it rather force a great many into unemployment. For many, a strong sense of the underlying patterns will inform their views on minimum wages.

    In each of these areas, and very many more, my beliefs and values have changed over time, as I have gained a clearer sense of what the data was showing. And in all of them, if the data swung the other way, I would go with it. There is no meta-narrative tethering me to either side, independent of data. The things I value (themselves narrative based – so leaving a habitable planet for my children, keeping my children safe, sparing people the pain of poverty) will accommodate either side of these debates, and hence are not decisive.

    Bernard

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  18. RonH says:

    Bernard…

    There is no meta-narrative tethering me to either side, independent of data.

    That's right. I forgot. You operate in a narrative-free zone, which allows your sail to catch only the wind of true facts.

    If only the rest of us could achieve your clarity…

    Then again, some of us think your narrative-free zone is itself just a myth. Another… er… narrative.

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  19. Darrell says:

    “There is no meta-narrative tethering me to either side, independent of data.”

    Again,no one is saying our meta-narratives are independent of data. Rather, we “see” and interpret the data through our meta-narratives–we all do this–including you.

    You inhabit a meta-narrative that indeed does “tether” you, and with which you interpret the data. But, again, the point was how ridiculous it was for the writer to miss this while accusing others of being biased or ignorant of the data, which somehow magically is “bent” to favor her interpretations.

    You seem to keep reading into this things that are not there, which again, sort of proves the point of the post.

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  20. Hi Ron

    I'm speaking of specific cases here. Take immunisation as our example. Yes, my take on this is absolutely narrative independent. It is my personal narrative that makes a priority of my children's physical well being.

    However, given this narrative, both points of view are available to me – either I should immunise or I shouldn't. The test is determined by my narrative: will the action increase my children's chances of good health? Given this narrative, the deciding factor though, is the data. What do we know without the relationship between immunisation and health outcomes?

    So in this case, we can reasonably say that my narrative is not tethered to one particular outcome (it accommodates either, depending upon the data) and the decisive factor is the data.

    So, while we are all soaked in personal narrative, no question, in a great many cases it is the data that pushes us one way or the other. I would offer climate change and minimum wages as other examples, I can think of a great many others. The modernist project, then, might be seen not as an attempt to deny the importance of narrative, but rather an attempt to ensure the tests our narratives demand carried out using the most reliable data we can find.

    Bernard

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  21. RonH says:

    Hi, Bernard…

    I still think you're oversimplifying the immunization case. For example, I can argue from the data that the chance of my child contracting measles is incredibly small; and that given the choice: 1) of my inaction almost certainly having no negative consequences, and 2) a tiny chance of my action producing serious negative consequences in an otherwise healthy child, it is rational for me to not vaccinate. You might respond with arguments about herd immunity and all that, but I could simply say “Screw the herd, I'm looking after my own child's welfare. I'll vaccinate when it starts to look like a serious problem”.

    Another approach would be for me to press you on why exactly you have so much faith in numbers reported by government agencies or Big Pharma, all of whom have an acceptable level of “collateral damage” that means nothing to them but everything to me if it's my kid.

    A still third approach might be to accept all of your facts about risks and herd immunity, but to assert that the State simply has no right to override a parent's wishes in the absence of a clear and present danger. After all, in 2014 we only had around 640 measles cases in the US, out of a population of 320 million. My kid's probably more likely to be killed on the 15-minute highway drive to the pediatrician's office to get the shot. (Interestingly, you might not be able to make the same argument in NZ… The NZ Ministry of Health reported 283 cases in 2014, out of a population of 4.5 million. Are anti-vaxxers prevalent in NZ?)

    My point is that “the facts” play a role in the nature of the cultural conflict, but not the decisive one. Believing that better knowledge of the facts will lead to faster social consensus is a failure to apprehend the complexity of the problem.

    So, while we are all soaked in personal narrative, no question, in a great many cases it is the data that pushes us one way or the other.

    I don't think history bears this out. Nor does Dan Kahan's research. “The facts” aren't on your side here, Bernard. 😉

    The modernist project, then, might be seen not as an attempt to deny the importance of narrative, but rather an attempt to ensure the tests our narratives demand carried out using the most reliable data we can find.

    No, the modernist project was precisely an attempt to get outside narrative. To raise the flag of the Really Real around which we could all rally. It hasn't worked, and it doesn't work. The “most reliable data we can find” is itself only perceived through the lenses of our narratives. The results of “testing our narratives” themselves are read through the lens of narrative.

    (And, just for the record, I'm not an anti-vaxxer. My kids have received all the immunizations required by the state of Texas and recommended by my pediatrician.)

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  22. Hi Ron

    We agree that data alone is not sufficient to create a consensus.

    However, in a great many cases, values in a debate are agreed upon, whilst data is the decisive factor. I know people who are anti-vaccination because of their belief of an association with health risks that I would assess as being incorrect. In this case I disagree with them because we disagree on the data.

    Bernard

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