Thursday, March 1, 2012

We Aren't Rational

And a lot of people are figuring it out:
The democratic process relies on the assumption that citizens (the majority of them, at least) can recognize the best political candidate, or best policy idea, when they see it. But a growing body of research has revealed an unfortunate aspect of the human psyche that would seem to disprove this notion, and imply instead that democratic elections produce mediocre leadership and policies.

The research, led by David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University, shows that incompetent people are inherently unable to judge the competence of other people, or the quality of those people's ideas. For example, if people lack expertise on tax reform, it is very difficult for them to identify the candidates who are actual experts. They simply lack the mental tools needed to make meaningful judgments.

As a result, no amount of information or facts about political candidates can override the inherent inability of many voters to accurately evaluate them. On top of that, "very smart ideas are going to be hard for people to adopt, because most people don’t have the sophistication to recognize how good an idea is," Dunning told Life's Little Mysteries.
People Aren't Smart Enough for Democracy to Flourish, Scientists Say (LiveScience)
Digby sends us to Chris Mooney on how conservatives become less willing to look at the facts, more committed to the views of their tribe, as they become better-educated:
For Republicans, having a college degree didn’t appear to make one any more open to what scientists have to say. On the contrary, better-educated Republicans were more skeptical of modern climate science than their less educated brethren. Only 19 percent of college-educated Republicans agreed that the planet is warming due to human actions, versus 31 percent of non-college-educated Republicans.

But it’s not just global warming where the “smart idiot” effect occurs. It also emerges on nonscientific but factually contested issues, like the claim that President Obama is a Muslim. Belief in this falsehood actually increased more among better-educated Republicans from 2009 to 2010 than it did among less-educated Republicans, according to research by George Washington University political scientist John Sides.

The same effect has also been captured in relation to the myth that the healthcare reform bill empowered government “death panels.” According to research by Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan, Republicans who thought they knew more about the Obama healthcare plan were “paradoxically more likely to endorse the misperception than those who did not.”
What Chris Mooney is telling us is that this is a vain hope. Highly educated political conservatives — and this includes conservative economists — are going to be less persuadable by empirical evidence than the man or woman in the street. The more holes you poke in doctrines like expansionary austerity or supply-side economics, the more committed they will get to those doctrines.

This debate isn’t going to be won by rational argument.
This Tribal Nation (Paul Krugman blog)
But there is a fly in the ointment of this palliative thought. If you try to objectively account for the state of the world today as the result of our being so smart you have to ask a very important question: If we are so smart, why do we humans find ourselves in such a terrible predicament today? Our species is facing a constellation of extraordinary and complex problems for which no one can suggest feasible solutions (see below). The irony is that these problems exist because our cleverness, our being so smart, created them. Our activities, clever as we have thought them to be, are the causes of the problems, which, collectively, threaten the very existence of humanity! This seems a paradox. We were smart enough to create the problems, but we're not smart enough to fix them. My own conclusion was that maybe smartness wasn't enough. Maybe something even more important to cognition had been missing that allowed this predicament to develop. That has been the thought that has been motivating my own search for an answer.

Craig Dilworth, Reader in Theoretical Philosophy at Uppsala University in Sweden, has asked this same question from a slightly different perspective, but comes to a similar conclusion regarding the role of intelligence in creating the predicament. In Too Smart for Our Own Good Dilworth masterfully pieces together the story of how humans, being so clever, but still motivated by our animal instincts and drives, have made a real mess of things. Put simply, he concludes that the evolutionary experiment called Homo sapiens is intrinsically unsustainable. He builds the evidence carefully and skillfully, though I have a few concerns regarding some possibly nitpicking details (to be discussed later). His arguments are both complete and consistent with observed reality. And he pulls no punches.
What is a Smart Species Like Us Doing in a Predicament Like ThisToo Smart for Our Own Good by Craig Dilworth, Reviewed by George Mobus. (Cassandra's Legacy)

UPDATE: Mark Thoma: Make Them Identify Emotionally. Based on the same article as the Krugman post, with some aditional comments:
I agree with the "make them identify emotionally" part for conservatives. For example, this is telling:
Last week, 2012 GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney released a tax plan that, in addition to giving the richest 0.1 percent of Americans a $240,000 tax cut, would blow a $10.7 trillion hole in the deficit. Romney insists that his tax cuts would be paid for by limiting deductions for the rich, but many analysts have pointed out that his numbers simply can’t add up.

Today on ABC’s This Week, former Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D-MI) noted that Romney’s tax plan would exacerbate income inequality while causing the deficit to explode. Former Gov. John Engler (R-MI) responded by dismissing the numbers, saying that “voters aren’t analysts”:

Granholm: Every analysts who’s looked at, for example, Mitt Romney’s tax plan, says it exacerbates income disparities. Even the deficit, between $2 trillion and $6 trillion he adds to the deficit.


Engler: Voters aren’t analysts. Voters are emotional, and it’s about leadership. And they know what they’ve got. If they like that, they can vote to keep it.
So, for Republicans it appears to be more about signaling by taking extreme positions than truth telling. What I'm less sure about is the claim that the way to convince liberals is to "bring out the charts and spreadsheets." Perhaps, but I think emotional appeal is important here as well. What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. You know what Mark Twain said about men and dogs...

    ReplyDelete