The “Magic” Bullet

October 2013

 

If you had to pick one thing that is most responsible for our country’s current serious problems, what would it be? Well, maybe we should first decide what our current serious problems are. I vote for two: unchecked climate change and the growing influence of money in politics. Since I’m writing this in October of 2013, just after the House Republicans’ government shutdown and debt ceiling threat, I feel compelled to also add seriously dysfunctional government to the list of our worst problems.

In fact, you might say that dysfunctional government is most responsible for our serious problems, since if we had a functional government it could pass strong campaign finance reform laws (addressing our money-in-politics problem) and strong climate change laws (addressing our climate change problem).

But why do we have such a dysfunctional government? There has been a lot written about this,[1] especially lately, after watching the horror show of the radical right rump of the Republican Party shutting down the government and threatening to push the nation into default on its debts if its demands were not met. It has repeatedly been observed that the Tea Party Republican congressmen’s constituents are deeply conservative, and they love what their congressmen tried to do.  If these Tea Party Republican members of the House were up for reelection tomorrow, they would presumably be reelected in a landslide in their deep red districts, even though huge majorities of the rest of the country were outraged at the extortion effort they spearheaded.

It has also been pointed out that many (perhaps most) of the people in deep red districts live in an “epistemic bubble”; they get their “news” from a few deeply conservative sources – notably, Fox News and conservative talk radio shows – and are largely closed to input from other sources.  Many of them hold rabidly anti-science views: they don’t believe in evolution or climate change, for example, and apparently no amount of evidence in support of either of these well-established scientific “theories” will change their minds.[2] They are “practitioners” of what has been called “epistemic closure” – they shield themselves from any facts that contradict what they already believe.[3] There are undoubtedly people on the left who similarly practice epistemic closure, but in recent years the phenomenon has been markedly more virulent on the right.

In the political context, “epistemic closure” is a fancy term for an attitude that says, “I know what I know, and I don’t need any additional input, thank you very much.” To people outside such an epistemically closed system, it’s often screamingly obvious that the individual or community inside does indeed need additional input, but it is not allowed in.

If I had to pick one thing that is most responsible for our current serious problems, I think it would be that attitude – that epistemically closed mind that is so dismayingly prevalent.

Although none of the problems I voted “potentially most serious” were caused by this “closed mind” phenomenon, all of them have been allowed to reach levels of critical severity because of it. The recent attempt at extortion by the Tea Party Republicans in the House of Representatives is only the latest and most eye-popping example of an actually destructive act by congressmen whose constituents back home cheered them on. Why? Because they shared their congressmen’s loathing of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) – and the Federal Government in general, especially under President Obama. And that loathing is, to a significant degree, based on an astounding amount of misinformation.

There are facts, there are opinions based on facts (or the lack thereof), and there are preferences. I can say that my preferences differ from yours, but I cannot argue that your preferences are “wrong.” If we share the same set of facts, but your opinion about what to do in light of those facts differs from mine, it is probably because you are making different assumptions about the things we do not know and/or you have different preferences, and we may have to agree to disagree. But if you have a different set of facts that contradicts my set of facts, then something is wrong. As the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”[4]

At the root of much of the loathing of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on the rabid right is a worrisome amount of misinformation about the ACA itself as well as about President Barack Obama, whose signature achievement it is. Many on the right think Obama is (1) a Muslim, (2) a socialist set on putting us on the path to totalitarianism, and (3) not even an American citizen.[5]  These “facts” are demonstrably false, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Many Tea Partiers are sure about them and are not easily dissuaded.

Similarly, Tea Party Republicans believe that Obamacare is a “government takeover” of healthcare in the United States, that it will cause people’s health insurance premiums to go up, and that, in general, it is a “trainwreck.”[6] The first “fact” about Obamacare is demonstrably false (since, with the exception of the Medicaid component, Obamacare relies solely on private insurers). The data on the second “fact” are not all in yet, but the evidence to date is just the opposite of what Republicans think: in those states that have published such data, premiums have generally been lower than the CBO projections – and often substantially lower.[7] Finally, the third “fact” cannot possibly be true, since Obamacare has hardly even gotten going yet. (It is possible that it could turn out to be a “trainwreck” in the end, but it’s clearly too soon for such an assessment to be factually correct.)

There are a couple things going on here.  The Tea Party Republicans who hate Obama and Obamacare get their “information” largely from sources such as Fox News and right-wing talk radio. There is a lot of purposeful misinformation, or opinions masquerading as “facts,” disseminated from these sources.[8] Those who dish out this misinformation have their own motives (involving, I would guess, profits and their own ideological preferences). But what about those who receive the misinformation? It seems they virtually never question what they hear.[9] They don’t ask, “Is that true?” This, I would guess, is because they are hearing what they want to hear.[10]

There is a mindset underlying this phenomenon of unquestioningly believing (mis)information that you want to be true: people who do this aren’t really interested in finding out the truth; rather, they are interested in having their worldview confirmed and their related emotions supported.

How would the country be different if people didn’t do this – if they instead asked, “Is that true?” My guess is that it would be immeasurably better, because the clearer our understanding of reality, the better chance we have of improving that reality. And to have a clear understanding of reality (at least, as clear as is possible), you have to want to get at the truth. And you have to want to get at the truth more than you want to be right.

“Epistemic rationality” has been defined as “believing, and updating on evidence, so as to systematically improve the correspondence between your map and the territory.  The art of obtaining beliefs that correspond to reality as closely as possible.”[11] It is thus the opposite of epistemic closure. I first learned about epistemic rationality – and the importance of wanting to get at the truth – from my daughter, Julia Galef, who is the president and a co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality, a relatively new non-profit devoted to teaching methods of applied rationality. I recognized its significance immediately.

If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing about all human beings, I think it would be to make them all epistemically rational. I would confer upon them the desire to get at the truth – and the understanding of the best way to do that – and I would make them all want to get at the truth more than they want to be right. I would make them feel that it is far better to change one’s mind in light of new evidence than to blindly stick to one’s prior convictions regardless of the evidence.

I’m not saying this would produce a perfect world with perfect human beings. There are other characteristics besides rationality that make for a good person – compassion, for example. And even if everyone were epistemically rational, people would still have different preferences and opinions; so universal epistemic rationality would not solve all our problems. But it would give us the best shot at solving many of them, including some of the most important ones we currently face.

Consider the House Republicans’ recent threat to refuse to raise the debt ceiling if their demands were not met. The opinion among the experts – economists and international financial analysts – was almost universal that this could have catastrophic consequences, plunging the country back into a deep recession and perhaps permanently eliminating the special status and privileges the United States has enjoyed in the global economic system.  And yet several Tea Party congressmen expressed the belief that it would be “no big deal.”[12]

Now, because the world economic system is very complicated, and because we’re talking about something that has not yet happened (since the United States has never defaulted on its debt), we’re in the realm of opinions here rather than facts. There are many facts underlying the opinions, of course, but there are still unknowns about what would happen if the United States actually did default on its debt, so we’re talking about opinions. Thus the issue here is not so much denying facts as refusing to really consider the opinions of virtually all the experts.

The Tea Party Republicans who advocated for carrying out their threat had two “arguments” to support their position: one was that the consequences would not be so bad as the experts claimed, and the other was that, regardless, Obamacare was so horrible that anything was worth stopping it dead in its tracks. How would things have been different if these Tea Party Republicans had actually wanted to get at the truth – and wanted that more than they wanted to be right?

Well, they would have wanted to listen to what the experts were saying and to understand why they thought there would be catastrophic consequences, and exactly what those consequences would be.[13]

Similarly, they would have wanted to understand how Obamacare is intended to work, the ways in which it is intended to improve on the status quo, how it differs from healthcare systems in other countries, and what the similarities are.  They would have wanted to find out how similar systems in other countries are working, and how people in those countries feel about their healthcare systems. They would have been able to acknowledge that much of what the right has been screaming about Obamacare simply isn’t true – there are no “death panels,” it is not a “government takeover” of healthcare in this country, and it is not socialism.[14] About other accusations that are not so transparently false – e.g., that Obamacare will “kill jobs” – they would have done the research necessary to make a truly considered opinion.

And finally, they would have weighed all the evidence in light of their preferences, and developed an opinion about the ACA and whether, in net, it is good for America.  All of this would have been done with as little bias as possible – remember, in my fantasy world, people do not approach a question with an agenda; they approach it with a sincere desire to get at the truth, whatever that may be.

Even after all the evidence has been gathered and considered, there is still room for differences of opinion about Obamacare, because there are still some unknowns (about which opinions may vary) and there can still be different preferences. At the heart of the matter is a trade-off between liberty and security – Tea Party Republicans claim to value freedom above all else and express an almost rabid fear of losing it if the government controls too much. While Obamacare relies largely on private insurers, it does require that everyone purchase health insurance (the “individual mandate”), and it offers government aid to people who cannot afford any of the premiums for health insurance on offer in their state. If one is worried that reliance on government aid will breed dependency on the government, and if one believes that the government requirement that everyone purchase health insurance is “a bridge too far,” then one might make a case against Obamacare.[15] The case would ultimately be based on the preference for as much freedom as possible, even at the expense of the security of knowing that there is affordable healthcare available for everyone. I would guess that the vast majority of Americans would not make that choice, that they would greatly prefer the security of affordable healthcare to the extra bit of “freedom” they would get by not being required to purchase insurance.[16]

But if people were epistemically rational, the known facts would be sought out and made clear to everyone, and the debate would center on differences of opinion about things we cannot know for sure (e.g., the extent to which government help “breeds dependency”) and on differences of preferences, rather than on falsehoods. Ultimately, the country could figure out whether the majority of Americans are willing to sacrifice a (tiny, in my opinion,) bit of freedom for the security of affordable healthcare.

Climate change is another serious problem that would benefit enormously from universal epistemic rationality. It’s hard to find a more striking example of how dangerous epistemic closure can be.  We now have a quarter of a century’s worth of data collected, and the vast majority – 97 percent – of climate scientists are now quite certain that climate change is real, that it is largely human-caused, and that we are reaching a point at which the consequences of not taking action could be truly catastrophic.[17] Many thousands of scientific papers have been written about the already measurable impacts of climate change and the predictions of what is to come, based on the evidence so far and models (many of which have actually been under-predicting the seriousness of the problem, not exaggerating it).[18] And yet climate change skepticism and denial is still endemic on the right.

There are several reasons why climate change is a particularly difficult problem to address. (I’ve written about them in another essay, “How to Be Happy in the Age of Climate Change.”) But before we can take the kinds of actions that are truly necessary – and really must be at a federal (if not a global) level  – we have to have a Congress that is willing to acknowledge what virtually all climate scientists are saying with increasing urgency.  But we don’t. Among Republicans, it’s hard to find any congressmen who are willing to publically acknowledge the reality of climate change, let alone address the problem. Why? Because the few who have done so have lost in primaries to candidates to their right.[19] , [20]

In my fantasy world of universal epistemic rationality, this refusal to acknowledge what virtually all the experts are saying would be much less likely to happen. Even if the fossil fuel industry and the Heartland Institute persisted in spreading lies and misinformation (as they have been doing for years), epistemically rational people would ask, “Is that true?” And they would wonder, How likely is it that 97 percent of climate scientists are wrong? How likely is it that all these scientists, from countries all over the world, are part of some vast conspiracy, as the climate skeptics claim? Might the climate skeptics themselves have ulterior motives? And these epistemically rational people would seek out the truth; they would look to sources beyond Fox News. And eventually many – or most – of them would probably come to the conclusion that it’s more likely that the climate scientists are more trustworthy than the fossil fuel industry, which has an obvious ulterior motive, and the Republican congressmen who depend so heavily on the fossil fuel industry, among other sources, for campaign contributions.

That’s what would happen in my epistemically rational fantasy world. In the real world, of course, it’s been very hard to penetrate the closed “bubble” within which so many people live. Why is this? Are people just too lazy to bother expanding the set of sources from which they get information (or misinformation)? I don’t think so.  I think there are emotional issues behind this phenomenon.

As has often been observed, the country’s demography is changing. The Census Bureau projects that by the year 2043 the United States will be a majority minority country – i.e., whites will be a minority.[21]  In addition, social attitudes are changing, most notably among the young, and they are changing in ways that threaten some of the values and moral landscape of more traditional Americans, particularly those with a fundamentalist religious worldview. President Obama, being our first black president, symbolizes that change, and to people who are uncomfortable with it, he is a symbol of much that they fear and resent.  My guess is that that fear and resentment underlie much of what we’re seeing on the “rabid right.” Such emotions can stymie truth-seeking efforts or prevent the attempt in the first place. As I’ve noted elsewhere (see “Creating Reality”),

“There is the matter of trust.  Unless we can verify a reality ourselves, we ultimately have to trust others who can, and trust the process by which they do this.  It helps to understand that process.  But ultimately, we have to trust not only the competence of those others, but their integrity as well. If the scientists and the scientific process they engage in fundamentally conflict with people’s prior method of “knowing reality” – a method they have already invested a lot of their trust in – the scientists and their process are likely to lose out.

Then there is the matter of emotional comfort. If what the scientists are telling people conflicts with a world view they already hold – and hold dearly – then to believe what the scientists say means letting go of that prior world view.  Two “realities” come into conflict – one that is familiar and comfortable, and the other that the “experts” say is true, never mind if it’s upsetting.”

If we are epistemically rational, we care more about finding the truth than about being right. But the truth can be uncomfortable – particularly if it shatters a worldview that has been held dear for many years. So epistemic rationality requires that we also care more about finding the truth than maintaining emotional comfort, if it comes to that. I suspect that, for many people, the threat to emotional comfort is the biggest hurdle.

There is little evidence to suggest that humans are innately epistemically rational, and lots of evidence suggesting they are not.[22] One of the goals of a good education should be to develop epistemic rationality, to make people see that seeking the truth really is preferable to the alternatives – and one of the most important reasons why is that, as I noted above, if you want to change something in the real world, it helps to understand that world as well as possible.

Climate change is a particularly striking example of the pitfalls of epistemic closure. Simply denying that humans are altering the climate doesn’t change the reality that they are.  And the longer people deny it and resist action to mitigate it, the greater the probability that there will be truly catastrophic consequences for human civilization and for the entire biosphere. It’s one thing to live inside an epistemic bubble if you’re the only person affected by doing so. It’s quite another, however, if it affects everyone else on the planet and the entire biosphere on which civilization depends; don’t you agree?

It seems like such a simple and obvious thing – of course we should care about finding out the truth! But it’s not simple, and it’s not easy. But it’s incredibly important. The fate of the world could depend on it.


[3] The term “epistemic closure,” used in a political context, is nicely described in Wikipedia as “the claim that the belief systems of political conservatives are closed systems of deduction, which cannot be affected by empirical evidence.” Wikipedia notes that “This use of the term was popularized by libertarian blogger and commentator Julian Sanchez in 2010.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemic_closure

[6]  The more common “non-facts” about Obamacare have been addressed in many places.  See, for example, http://egbertowillies.com/2013/10/22/obamacare-kills-jobs/

[8]  There are many examples of this. Here’s one recent example – a segment about Obamacare on the Hannity show on Fox News: http://www.salon.com/2013/10/18/inside_the_fox_news_lie_machine_i_fact_checked_sean_hannity_on_obamacare/

[9]  Since I cannot get inside the minds of Republican Tea Partiers, this is an inference based on the statistics I’ve read about beliefs and attitudes among Tea Party Republicans.

[10]  I would note that this isn’t just a phenomenon on the right, although it does appear to be more extreme on the right in recent years.

[11]  Eliezer Yudkowsky on the website LessWrong: http://lesswrong.com/lw/31/what_do_we_mean_by_rationality/

[12]  This belief is apparently shared by about half of those in the Republican Party who agree with the Tea Party contingent : http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2013/10/16/the-political-price-of-epistemic-closure-ctd/

[13]  This actually simplifies things somewhat, since some Tea Party House Republicans probably knew the consequences would be horrible, but simply regarded this as giving them valuable leverage.  They might have thought acting like they didn’t care about the consequences of default would strengthen their bargaining position. This highlights another important characteristic that epistemic rationality would not necessarily confer: being responsible.

[14]  It has been pointed out that Medicare, which many Tea Partiers love (especially those 65 and over), is much closer to socialism than Obamacare.

[15]  It has been pointed out, of course, that the individual mandate is the only way that a health insurance system can work; and, of course, it was ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

[16]  I have simplified the issue here by omitting mention of the fact that, prior to the ACA, people who could not afford health insurance tended to use emergency rooms, for which the insured ultimately paid the tab.

[17]  We are already substantially beyond the atmospheric concentration of CO2 that many climate scientists say would be “non-catastrophic” (350 ppm); we recently reached 400 ppm atmospheric CO2.

[18]  The best source of references is probably the Fifth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — http://www.ipcc.ch/,

http://www.ipcc.ch/activities/activities.shtml

[19] A well-known example is former Congressman Bob Inglis (R-SC). See, for example: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/environment/climate-of-doubt/bob-inglis-climate-change-and-the-republican-party/

[20]  The majority of Republicans still believe global warming is a hoax: http://thehill.com/blogs/e2-wire/e2-wire/291601-poll-majority-of-republicans-call-global-warming-a-hoax

[22]  Daniel Kahneman’s recent best-selling book, Thinking Fast and Slow, is a wonderful and very readable overview of the research into how people think – their fast, intuitive thinking (“system 1”) and their slower, rational thinking (“system 2”).  People often (unconsciously) rely solely on their system 1 approach, not bothering with system 2. The research discussed in this book supports the idea that people are not innately epistemically rational.

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One comment on “The “Magic” Bullet

  1. […] based on building a reputation for honesty and intellectual rigor. As I said in another essay (see here), I strive to be epistemically rational – to care more about finding out the truth, whatever it […]

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