Emotions often (lets say 99% of the time) over-rule rational thought so it is hardly surprising politics is seldom an exercise in reason. However, politicians turn their backs on reason to the detriment of all of us.
Politics is about values right? This is true – people interpret the world in different, incompatible ways and the result is a popularity contest (or a good old fashioned mud wrestle to the death).
If it is true that values tend to trump reason and evidence in political discourse, what role is there for science and reason in politics? What should the role of science and reason be in politics?
Science and reason – informed politics
One the basic tenets of the recent Reason Rally in Washington DC and a sure fire way to keep our politicians honest (which is what we all want right?) is to demand that policy be based on facts and evidence.
There is always a political dimension to science. The determination that one thing is true and something isn’t often conflicts with what group or another deems to be ‘heretical’ in some sense. This, I believe, is one of the prime reasons people tend to deny science and engage in motivated reasoning.
If a scientific finding conflicts with political mental model then which caves? Political thinking seems to emanate from the core of the human personality, probably because such thinking is very good at organising simple/complementary core ideals. It is therefore unlikely a new, conflicting idea will integrate into a person’s belief model simply.
If one doesn’t wish to look stupid then one shouldn’t say stupid things
Ultimately, a politician/party that resorts to overt irrationality in making political decisions will face a number of pressures.
Firstly, a sufficiently strident irrational viewpoint will tend to fall under the weight of evidence over time.
Secondly, in recognition of this failure to catch up with reality, external forces from media, opposition parties and voters will pile on the criticism.
The point that goes missing when debating political issues is the fact that we are not free to make up our own facts. We can have a position relative to the facts but so often political discussions descend into personal attacks, conspiracy theories and denial of sound science.
The honourable position is never to hold steadfastly onto falsehoods and spread misinformation. Instead, the courageous and honourable position is to say you’re wrong when you’re wrong and admit that you at least could be wrong. The reason it is courageous and honourable is because admitting one is wrong juts right up against the human tendency to blame, justify and explain away.
When values collide with reality
The reasonable position – update your beliefs in the face of new information – is seen as a weakness in political discussions and debates.
Intrinsically, the acquisition of beliefs is not worthy of an award. In fact, not developing beliefs is often a more honourable position.
What does it say about a person’s values and beliefs when it becomes a necessity to create alternative history, deny science and declare their own ideas as reality despite objective evidence to the contrary?
What does it say about a policy position that is based on anti-intellectual ideas?
It is unsurprising that the person who takes the reasonable position – that this is what I stand for but if new facts enter the fray I will change my mind – will not get very far in politics. This also explains in part why, at present, Republican candidates have resorted to pandering to the Conservative Christians and Mitt Romney (the least extreme of an extreme bunch of candidates) has been labelled “Moderate Mitt” (not as a term of endearment).
My next post will look at some of the research that has gone into the psychology and cognitive factors that lead people to their political persuasion.