Seeking the Truth: The Political Road Less Traveled

May 2013

 

Have you ever noticed that egregiously wrongheaded and harmful behaviors are often accepted by society, are actually the social norm – until they’re not?  The most obvious examples are the second-class status of whole groups of people – women, African-Americans, people in the LGBT community. Women didn’t get the vote in the United States, after all, until 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution.  I would guess that before that most Americans just accepted that half the population was shut out of our democratic process. And of course the treatment of African Americans as second-class citizens, subject to Jim Crow laws, with separate and unequal status until not that long ago – this too was the norm, which most people simply accepted (including many African Americans, who, after all, didn’t have a say in the matter). In all such cases, even if people acknowledge that something is wrong, if it is pervasive and of long standing, we have a tendency to just accept it, to say, “that’s just the way it is” – until we don’t.

It is obvious to us now (well, most of us), with twenty-twenty hindsight, that these social norms were wrongheaded and harmful.  It may be less obvious that there are also political norms that are wrongheaded and harmful – to everyone in our country.  But, like the social norms, they are so deeply ingrained, so completely commonplace, that we don’t even give them a second thought; we expect them and would notice only if they suddenly weren’t there.

Almost all political “bad behaviors” – the smearing, the lying, the “factually challenged” pronouncements – are like this, so commonplace that they are pretty much expected. We do notice them (especially if it is someone on their side who is smearing or lying about someone on our side). But we would really sit up and take notice if this sort of behavior suddenly stopped. In the meantime, we simply accept it; it’s the political air we breathe.

I thought of this “soft bigotry of low expectations” in the political sphere as I read an op-ed piece recently in the New York Times, “Debt and Growth: A Response to Reinhart and Rogoff,” by Robert Pollin and Michael Ash. Pollin and Ash, both professors at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, took part in an effort to revisit the data behind a striking finding of the Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff.  Reinhart and Rogoff found that once public debt levels exceed 90 percent of GDP, a country will experience a sharp decline in economic growth – in particular, an extreme drop in the GDP growth rate (into the negative range).

What the U. Mass. team found when they examined the Reinhart/Rogoff data caused an uproar in economic and political circles. Those of you who, like me, follow this sort of economic/political wonkery may have seen it splashed across the blogosphere and the pages of the mainstream media.

The reason the work of the U. Mass. team caused such a stir is that, when they took a close look at the data behind the Reinhart/Rogoff finding, they discovered an Excel spreadsheet coding error and some partial exclusion of data.  When those mistakes were corrected, the striking Reinhart/Rogoff “finding” disappeared.[1]

And the reason the Reinhart/Rogoff “finding” was so important in the first place is that conservatives have relied on it to support their argument that the current U.S. debt level is dangerously high and deficits must therefore be reduced now, even though our economy is still depressed.  Or, as Pollin and Ash put it in their op-ed piece, “[Reinhart and Rogoff] abetted, or at least failed to stop, the use of their scholarship by politicians who latched on to their findings — in particular the now discredited 90 percent figure — to call for severe cuts in government budgets and services …”

Politicians who latched on to their findings … This struck me as a particularly apt description of what often happens.  Those conservative politicians professed very strongly held beliefs about the dangers of public debt well before the Reinhart/Rogoff “finding” appeared.  They simply “latched on to” that finding because it supported their prior belief.  There is other evidence that contradicts that belief, but they dismissed that evidence because it did not fit their story.[2] There were also valid concerns about the Reinhart/Rogoff “finding,” even before the work of the U. Mass. researchers brought to light some serious mistakes.[3]

In other words, the politicians trumpeted the evidence (or, in this case, “evidence”) that supported their prior belief while ignoring the evidence (or any other considerations) that contradicted that prior belief – a practice known as “cherry-picking.”

We all do something similar to this in our own lives; it is a very human thing to do – we often don’t even notice evidence that runs counter to what we believe or want to be true. However, politicians probably do notice evidence that runs counter to their prior beliefs, and criticisms of those beliefs, since their opponents are likely highlighting such evidence and criticism; but they willfully ignore it or dismiss it or try to find fault with it.  What they don’t do is assess the evidence (either for or against their prior beliefs) in an unbiased way.  This is because getting at the truth isn’t their goal.  Their goal is winning the argument – and having policy crafted accordingly.

Think about that: The goal of many politicians is not to get at the truth, but rather to win an argument and thus have policy designed to their liking. Toward that end, they cherry-pick evidence that supports their prior beliefs and ignore or dismiss evidence that runs counter to those beliefs.  Did you know that? How often do you think about that?  Probably not often. It’s so commonplace we don’t even notice it. It’s just the way it is.

But there are serious consequences to it being this way. If you have a bias when you consider evidence for a hypothesis, you are likely to come to conclusions that aren’t true – doubly so if you simply dismiss evidence that runs counter to what you want to believe.

Take the issue illuminated by the Reinhart/Rogoff debacle, for example.  Conservatives profess a strong belief that the current U.S. debt is dangerously large.  To support this belief, they uncritically latched on to the Reinhart/Rogoff “finding” – even though there was plenty of criticism of this “finding” among economists.[4] And with that “finding” in their evidentiary arsenal, conservatives have pushed for big spending cuts that would be devastating for poor people in this country and would, many economists believe, put us back into recession. Needless to say, these are not small consequences. For several years now the focus in Washington has been on reducing the debt rather than creating jobs. And the efforts to reduce the debt by slashing government services (and shedding government employees) have only exacerbated the unemployment problem. And this has resulted in a lot of misery for a lot of people.[5]

You might wonder whether conservatives have decided to take another, more careful look at the evidence, now that the mistakes in the Reinhart/Rogoff work have come to light.  Actually, no.   Because it’s not about getting at the truth of the matter; it’s about defending their position. Most politicians act like lawyers, not academic researchers. [6]

If politicians were truly interested in seeking the truth, they would do something along the lines of a process that has been formalized by the academic field of Bayesian statistics.  In this process, we start with our prior beliefs and any data (evidence) that may exist.  Given our prior beliefs and the data, we formulate posterior beliefs – prior beliefs that have been adjusted in light of the data we have.[7]  If the data suggest that our prior beliefs were correct, these posterior beliefs will be pretty similar to our prior beliefs; however, if the data suggest that our prior beliefs were not correct, our posterior beliefs will be different from our prior beliefs – they will reflect the information in the data (that was not reflected in our prior beliefs).  Then, when more data become available, we repeat the process – with our posterior beliefs from the first round now becoming our prior beliefs in the second round.  In this way, we continually update our beliefs in light of new evidence. While there is a formal mathematical process for doing this in Bayesian statistics, this description captures the essence of the process – and it is the essence of any truly truth-seeking process.

If politicians and pundits went through a Bayesian type of process of updating their prior beliefs in light of new evidence, they would have a much better chance of actually getting at the truth – and the American people would have a much better chance of avoiding the harmful effects of misguided policies.

The issue of how to deal with the public debt, highlighted by the Reinhart/Rogoff debate, is only one example where misguided policy has very real and potentially harmful consequences for people. There are others.  It has been suggested, ironically, that Republicans don’t actually care about the debt, that they are using that as an excuse for shrinking the federal government, which is their true goal.[8] And indeed, the belief that a small federal government is always best – and the best thing the federal government can do is to “just get out of the way” – seems to have attained the status on the political right of “untouchable ideology.”  But here too, facts that don’t fit the ideology are simply ignored. Consider climate change, for example.  If ever there was a problem that requires a coordinated federal response backed by sufficient resources it is climate change.  And if ever there was a chance for misguided (or a complete lack of) policy to result in very serious harm to millions of people, this is it. And yet I have yet to hear a coherent response to the challenge of climate change from the small-government-is-best crowd.

But more than any particular issue, what matters most is the underlying political pathology – that the truth is not the goal; that ideology becomes so hardened that politicians and pundits defend it mindlessly against any “offending” evidence.  And this has been such a longstanding and pervasive characteristic of our political class, it has been so commonplace, that we barely notice it.  It’s just the way it is.

Although neither the political right nor the left has a monopoly on this pathology, it has become particularly pervasive and extreme on the right in recent decades.[9]  In March 2010, Julian Sanchez, a young conservative, coined the term “epistemic closure” to refer to the claim that “the belief systems of political conservatives are closed systems of deduction, which cannot be affected by empirical evidence.”[10] This epistemic closure on the right became glaringly obvious two years later, when Republicans were completely taken by surprise by the re-election of President Barack Obama.  As Bruce Bartlett (one of the few Republicans to openly criticize his party) colorfully put it, “They were genuinely shocked at Romney’s loss because they ignored every poll not produced by a right-wing pollster such as Rasmussen or approved by right-wing pundits such as the perpetually wrong Dick Morris. Living in the Fox News cocoon, most Republicans had no clue that they were losing or that their ideas were both stupid and politically unpopular.”[11]

Bartlett wrote that in November 2012; the Reinhart/Rogoff debacle happened more recently, in April 2013 – and the reactions on the right to the findings of the U. Mass. team do not bode well for an end to this pathology on the right any time soon.

I suspect that, underlying each case in which wrongheaded and harmful behaviors are the norm in society, there are innate human tendencies supporting that behavior. Racist behaviors, for example, may well be based in a fear of “the other” – of people who are different.  Such fear of “the other” may have been selected for back in the early days of human evolution when openness to anyone not of your “tribe” might have been maladaptive.

Similarly, adherence to beliefs in the absence of supporting evidence – and even in the face of evidence that contradicts those beliefs – is a pervasive human trait (adherence to religious beliefs being the most obvious example). And, as noted above, people routinely cherry-pick evidence to support their beliefs. Truth-seeking is typically not what people are doing when they “sift” through evidence. So you could say that our politicians are just doing what people routinely do – and perhaps that’s the reason we just accept it.

But here’s the big difference: If an individual isn’t truth-seeking, if he makes irrational decisions that are based on myths rather than facts, he may suffer the consequences in his own life – in particular, he may find it harder to achieve whatever it is he wants to achieve. If politicians aren’t truth-seeking, we all suffer the consequences; and those consequences can be huge. Take climate change, for example …

Still, there is hope that, like the wrongheaded and damaging social norms that have been slowly disappearing, this political norm may eventually die out too. There is a movement afoot, spearheaded by young people in their twenties and thirties, to focus attention on rationality and the value of rational decision-making (as opposed to what most of us typically engage in).  There is even a new “start-up,” the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR) devoted to teaching people about the typical biases we all have in decision-making in our own lives and ways to avoid those biases and make more rational decisions. There are many benefits to rationality. One of them, as the president of CFAR, Julia Galef, has pointed out, is that if we were more rational we would demand evidence from our politicians to support the statements they make. (Full disclosure: Julia Galef is my daughter.) If more of us did that – and, in general, if more of us were truth-seeking and demanded this of our elected officials – perhaps this wrongheaded behavior in our political class would eventually die out, with potentially enormous benefits to us all.

I am certainly not the first person to point out that many politicians are not seeking the truth, but rather are defending a position. What has perhaps been less frequently noted is how harmful such behavior can be.  But because it is pervasive and of long standing, we have a tendency to just accept it, to say, “that’s just the way it is” – until we don’t.


[1]  For a good discussion of the whole debate about the Reinhart/Rogoff findings, both before and after the mistakes were corrected, see http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-04-28/refereeing-the-reinhart-rogoff-debate.html

[2] Paul Krugman has written extensively about this. See, for example, http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/20/other-austerity-bloopers/.

[3] One of the most important concerns is well stated by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, two professors at the University of Michigan, in their overview of the whole Reinhart/Rogoff debate: “Lost in all this sound and fury is the real question that we should be debating: Is it appropriate to infer that high debt is driving slower growth, and hence governments need to take greater care before taking on debt? Or is lower GDP growth, or perhaps some other factor, the reason that debt burdens rise? If the observed correlations reflect the latter reason (and there are hints that it may), then the whole exercise has little relevance to public policy.” See http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-04-28/refereeing-the-reinhart-rogoff-debate.html

[5]  For a nice overview of this, in an easy-to-listen-to form, Chris Mooney, of Point of Inquiry, interviewed Paul Krugman in January 2013. The podcast is available at http://www.pointofinquiry.org/paul_krugman_science_and_pseudoscience_in_economics/; See also http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/06/opinion/krugman-the-chutzpah-caucus.html?_r=0

[6]  There have been some notable exceptions.  Bruce Bartlett and David Frum, two conservative Republicans, have both criticized the Republican Party for its blind adherence to ideas that are not supported by evidence.  In a particularly worthy piece, Bartlett described his gradual disillusionment with the GOP, including his realization that an “arch enemy” of conservatives, liberal economist Paul Krugman, was correct about the economic woes of the United States – both the cause and the solution. To his great credit, Bartlett clearly stated as much: “For the record, no one has been more correct in his analysis and prescriptions for the economy’s problems than Paul Krugman.” See http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/revenge-of-the-reality-based-community/

[7]  There is a formal process in Bayesian statistics for doing this.  There are many references for the interested reader. (Just put “Bayesian statistics” or “Bayesian inference” into Google.)

[9] There has been a lot written about this.  See, for example, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/11/opinion/krugman-the-ignorance-caucus.html

[10]  See Wikipedia’s “Epistemic closure in US political discussion,” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemic_closure. Wikipedia further notes that, “in this sense, ‘epistemic closure’ is essentially an extreme form of confirmation bias.” Accessed May 1, 2013.

Advertisements

2 comments on “Seeking the Truth: The Political Road Less Traveled

  1. Doug Molitor says:

    As Schopenhauer observed: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

    Our grandchildren will marvel that anyone defended austerity, bank deregulation, corporate personhood, or fracking.

  2. Eelco Hoogendoorn says:

    As for your closing paragraph on the disappearance of irrationality in politics: there is such a thing as rational ignorance. Politics is full of it, and exactly because said ignorance is rational, more rationality will not make it go away. Where is the incentive to demand reason from my politicians? It may be a fun hobby to you, but it sounds like work to me. As you correctly note, the cost of irrationality of politicians is spread out over their entirely constituency. Unless you change that fundamental fact, the incentives remain identical. Less politics sounds like a better way to curb the spawning ground of irrationality to me. More localized governance will quantitatively strike at the root of these issues. But I fear I may start sounding like a evidence-hating tea-bagger now…

    Norms and expectations can indeed matter to political reality. But in the end, norms and expectations are also shaped by incentives; and they can at most provide inertia, rather than a fighting force, when incentives are overwhelming.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s