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There’s a natural human presumption — particularly noticeable among technology and science-loving leftists — that greater knowledge leads to greater consensus. That is, agreement is just one voxsplanation, one chart, or one Neil deGrasse Tyson special away.
This makes a certain amount of intuitive sense if you assume that your opponents are ignorant stooges, and it’s emotionally appealing for all the obvious reasons. Of course, it’s also phenomenally arrogant, naive, and doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny (other than that, though, it’s great). Almost everyone — even cloistered and closely-kept leftists working for Ezra Klein — has encountered people whose intelligence and knowledge are evident, but who disagree with them. And even those who somehow haven’t encountered a dissenting political view know that genuine controversies exist not only among the well informed, but among the best informed within a discipline.
Via Ron Bailey (whom I’m starting to think deserves a cut of my paycheck) through his book, The End of Doom, a Yale University study about attitudes regarding climate change and nuclear power illustrates this extremely well. In essence, it found that the more scientifically literate liberals and conservatives are, the larger the gaps between them on those two issues.
Why does polarization increase with scientific literacy? “As ordinary members of the public learn more about science and develop a greater facility with numerical information, they become more skillful in seeking out and making sense of—or if necessary explaining away—empirical evidence relating to their groups’ positions on climate change and other issues,” observe the researchers. Confirmation bias, the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, is ubiquitous.
[The researchers] suggest the Hierarchical/Individualists discount scientific information about climate change because it is strongly associated with the promotion of carbon rationing as the exclusive policy remedy for the problem. They note that other policies that could address climate change might be more acceptable to Hierarchical/Individualists—for example, deploying more nuclear power plants, geoengineering, and developing new technologies to adapt to whatever climate change occurs. While the values of Hierarchical/Individualists steer them toward discounting the dangers of climate change, it is also true that the values of Egalitarian/Communitarians push them to magnify any dangers and to discount the risks that top-down policy interventions pose to the economic well-being of society. Confirmation bias is everywhere.
In other words, how we interpret information is largely shaped by our biases and relative trust of others’ motivations. This isn’t to say that real answers don’t exist, but that any successful effort to seek them must account not only for knowledge, but also for people’s political and moral philosophies.
But even if we somehow could do that in some objective way (don’t hold your breath), there’s still no reason to hope for consensus as people often do have genuinely different preferences and beliefs. There really isn’t an objective way to determine, for example, how much liberty or safety are ideal or how much global warming might be acceptable.
By all means, let’s all strive to be better informed and more cognizant of our biases, and let’s strive to separate our opinions from the facts. But let’s also not pretend that knowledge leads to political consensus. It never has, and it’d be boring if it ever did.Published in