Knowledge Is Not Ideology

 
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This model is almost as pretty as Ezra Klein. Almost.

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 Education, General
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  1. Mendel Inactive
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    While I don’t disagree with the main hypothesis here (confirmation bias rules all? Who would’ve guessed), I also think it’s possible to exaggerate the problem.

    Yes, people’s ideology can drive their opinions on scientific issues even after they become better informed – for a certain subset of difficult scientific issues. Yet on other issues, scientific evidence and even (gulp) consensus actually rules the day.

    History is full of examples of scientific evidence trumping ideology, going all the way back to heliocentrism. Why does science trump ideology sometimes but not always? I think in the end it comes down to how clear the science is. The evidence of heliocentrism, or the germ theory of disease, eventually became so airtight that even the most staunch ideological opponents had little ground to stand on.

    The evidence on global warming – in either direction – simply has not reached that point of clarity yet. And it might never do so.

    • #1
  2. Jim Lakely Inactive
    Jim Lakely
    @JimLakely

    To quote (is it Reagan?): It’s not that the eco-leftists are wrong, it’s that they know so much that isn’t so. In short, what they “know” is that humans are causing a global climate crisis. But that just isn’t so.

    Yes, sea levels are rising … as they have been for thousands of years since the end of the last Ice Age. They are not rising at any significantly quicker rate since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

    Yes, global temperatures are rising … on a very long-scale. In the last 100 years, there was a decline in global temperatures in the 40s and in the 70s, and there has been no global warming (as measured by satellite) for almost 19 years. And then there was the “Little Ice Age” of a couple of centuries ago.

    Are the ice caps melting at an alarming rate? Hard to say, since we’ve only been able to accurately measure them by satellite since the early 1970s. But recent years have been well within the norm over that 40-year period, and the North Pole was not ice-free last summer, as Al Gore predicted.

    See, I’m a man of the right — a layman who knows quite a bit about the latest science. And I’m also informed about what the left believes about the climate. But the eco-left has no interest in knowing the acutal facts I’ve noted above from memory.

    That is a big part of the problem — not just on the climate, but on many issues. People on the right know the positions the left takes, and they know why, because it is the default position of the culture, media, and academia. People on the left have never needed to know the right’s position — from grade school through college and grad school — and see no reason to ever know it. Because science … or something.

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  3. Pilli Inactive
    Pilli
    @Pilli

    I was watching an interview on TV  a while back.  Don’t remember who was on either side of the table.  The question was asked, “Do you believe in global warming?”

    I think that question encapsulates the issue.  When it comes to global warming, it has become a belief system, a matter of faith. Science no longer comes into play.

    Heliocentrism was once the same.  If you didn’t believe it, you were against the Almighty, religion and all it stood for.

    The difference?  There’s no evidence the governments at the time were making policy and spending decisions based on that belief.

    • #3
  4. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith
    @MerinaSmith

    Mendel:While I don’t disagree with the main hypothesis here (confirmation bias rules all? Who would’ve guessed), I also think it’s possible to exaggerate the problem.

    Yes, people’s ideology can drive their opinions on scientific issues even after they become better informed – for a certain subset of difficult scientific issues. Yet on other issues, scientific evidence and even (gulp) consensus actually rules the day.

    History is full of examples of scientific evidence trumping ideology, going all the way back to heliocentrism. Why does science trump ideology sometimes but not always? I think in the end it comes down to how clear the science is. The evidence of heliocentrism, or the germ theory of disease, eventually became so airtight that even the most staunch ideological opponents had little ground to stand on.

    The evidence on global warming – in either direction – simply has not reached that point of clarity yet. And it might never do so.

    What are your thoughts about global warming Mendel?

    • #4
  5. Fredösphere Inactive
    Fredösphere
    @Fredosphere

    It seems to me that as knowledge increases, certain controversies are resolved (flat Earth) while others become possible (<insert some n-dimensional quantum multiverse gobbledygook that I can’t be bothered to look up here>).

    • #5
  6. Kate Braestrup Member
    Kate Braestrup
    @GrannyDude

    While I generally agree with the premise of the OP (with the corollary that education/knowledge, by itself, does not make people more moral, either) there are issues upon which people can come closer to agreement if information is provided.

    Two personal examples: Having enjoyed a number of arguments about guns here on Ricochet, I’ve changed my mind about how I think we should address the problem of gun violence. And in the span of a single lunch with my (liberal) editor, she was persuaded by information (provided by yours truly) to change her mind about Ferguson and the relationship between the police and minority communities.

    • #6
  7. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: 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.

    In other words, account for people’s priors?

    • #7
  8. Mendel Inactive
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    Merina Smith:

    Mendel:

    What are your thoughts about global warming Mendel?

    Generally agnostic, i.e. I really don’t know and don’t profess to know what’s really happening.

    The basic theory makes sense, the evidence of increased concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere seems convincing, the evidence for associated increase in global temperatures much less so. I find the evidence that a small number of the changes we are currently witnessing are occurring more rapidly than otherwise expected plausible, but the extrapolation that every single change is thus due to human behavior to be a bridge much too far.

    At the same time, I also find the counterargument goes too far. It is very difficult to formally disprove such a vague and vacuous phenomenon. And more to the point, we have no way of predicting what the “baseline” would have been without human action, and therefore we cannot rule out human interference no matter what the actual circumstances.

    For example, even if there was convincing evidence that global temperatures were dropping, that’s not proof that AGW is not occurring: perhaps the drop would have been even sharper without human action.

    So I’m proudly agnostic.

    • #8
  9. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko
    @JosephStanko

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: 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).

    I’d just like to point out that conservatives are sometimes guilty of this as well.  In particular, I’ve noticed a tendency to assert that anyone who disagrees with conservative economic policy prescriptions must necessarily be ignorant of basic economics.

    For one thing it is possible as you say to be well informed and still have genuinely different preferences and beliefs — for instance, a liberal might think that income inequality is a serious social and/or moral issue, so policies to reduce inequality are worthwhile even if they reduce overall productivity, or GDP, or increase unemployment, etc.

    Secondly even the facts of the matter are sometimes murky.  For instance, has NAFTA on the whole been good or bad for American workers?  It seems like a simple question of fact and measurement, but I don’t think there’s any more consensus on that than on global warming.  Even within conservative ranks you’ll find plenty of dissenters who think free trade deals have on the whole done more harm than good to the American working class.

    • #9
  10. Kate Braestrup Member
    Kate Braestrup
    @GrannyDude

    Joseph Stanko:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: 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).

    I’d just like to point out that conservatives are sometimes guilty of this as well. In particular, I’ve noticed a tendency to assert that anyone who disagrees with conservative economic policy prescriptions must necessarily be ignorant of basic economics.

    For one thing it is possible as you say to be well informed and still have genuinely different preferences and beliefs — for instance, a liberal might think that income inequality is a serious social and/or moral issue, so policies to reduce inequality are worthwhile even if they reduce overall productivity, or GDP, or increase unemployment, etc.

    Secondly even the facts of the matter are sometimes murky. For instance, has NAFTA on the whole been good or bad for American workers? It seems like a simple question of fact and measurement, but I don’t think there’s any more consensus on that than on global warming. Even within conservative ranks you’ll find plenty of dissenters who think free trade deals have on the whole done more harm than good to the American working class.

    Agree.

    I do think it is important that people actually talk to each other. People don’t know things. Even smart, educated people tend not to be particularly well=informed outside the confines of their own areas of expertise. A friend of mine energetically assured me back in the late 80s, that he thought we should abolish the inheritance tax. I knew him pretty well, and was fairly sure he didn’t come from a wealthy family; whence the energy? “Well, my mother isn’t going to live forever. And her house is going to be pretty valuable.” How valuable? “Well, I’ll be by now its worth at least 15o grand,” he said.

    He was embarrassed to be informed that the inheritance tax did not actually affect states valued at less than a million bucks. And I was appalled; how could he not know this? How had the evil Republicans pulled the wool over so many people’s eyes?

    What I realized, however, was that I only knew what I did about the inheritance tax because my grandmother, at the time, had just sent each of her grandchildren a check for 9,999$ so as to help keep her estate’s total value under the threshold. For the struggling wife of a state trooper, a windfall 9,999 tended to spark interest in debates about taxation.

    Otherwise, I wouldn’t have had the faintest idea how estates are taxed. And my opinion about the inheritance tax would have been whatever the Democratic party said it ought to be.

    • #10
  11. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    The question here is about the relative status of political opinions & science. I suppose people agree science is to do with knowledge. Reason itself. I’m not sure if people would say politics has a similar or as good claim to producing knowledge. The way people talk about knowledge in politics implies that knowledge is the servant of politics–it provides expert answers to questions it does not create–it can provide means to ends beyond its scope, which are apparently decided upon by your politicians.

    I think there is a large difference between the basics of enlightenment politics & other concerns to do with policy. I guess government monies come with an implicit guarantee of the bipartisan agreement in America that science is good because of the powers it confers on Americans. This, of course, is not a scientific opinion, but it grounds science.

    • #11
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