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Conservatives - How to Win at Politics, and Fail at Reality

by ThatBritGuy Sun May 8th, 2011 at 07:47:19 AM EST

[Originally posted at the Big Orange - where it sank without trace - so this is somewhat simplified compared to an ET diary.]

Many readers will remember Colbert's classic 'Reality has a well-known liberal bias' quote.

Like all the best jesters, Colbert was using truth-through-humor to make a valid point -  which is that conservative talking points may dominate the media, but conservatives are frequently and objectively wrong.

The wrongness isn't a matter of partisan opinion - it's a verifiable fact that can be quantified and tested scientifically.

The basis of science is accurate modelling and prediction. If you make a prediction in science and engineering and it turns out to be wrong, you lose authority.

If you make a lot of wrong predictions, you're considered incompetent and potentially dangerous, and it's very likely you'll be out of a job. Mistakes mean that bridges fall down, planes fall out of the sky, and essential services fail. There may be explosions, death, and people getting hurt.

Bizarrely, the pundit business works the opposite way. The more often you're demonstrably wrong, and the more nonsense you spout, the more likely you are to have a prime media spot.

for your Sunday discussion - Nomad


If you always suspected this is how the pundit business works, your suspicions have been confirmed.

A study by Public Policy students at Hamilton College called "Are Talking Heads Blowing Hot Air?" (available here) tested the accuracy of predictions and correlated it against partisanship and job description.

Huffpo ran a story which is currently doing the rounds, which is entertaining and worth reading. The punchline is the original conclusion of the study, which says:

We discovered that a few factors impacted a prediction's accuracy. The first is whether or not the prediction is a conditional; conditional predictions were more likely to not come true. The second was partisanship; liberals were more likely than conservatives to predict correctly. The final significant factor in a prediction's outcome was having a law degree; lawyers predicted incorrectly more often.

So if you rely on a conservative lawyer to model your reality for you - bad things will happen.

So far, so entertaining. But let's think about this in more detail, because it illustrates a critical difference between science and politics that too few people understand.

Science is - for better or for worse - about understanding reality. Science has a concept of independent objectivity. Truth in science is independent of the person describing it.

In practice, scientific truths lie on a sliding scale from stuff we're really quite sure about (college level physics and engineering); to more speculative works-in-progress (string theory, some parts of climate science) where there may be limited data; to frankly suspect research, which may include industry-funded polemics about the (lack of) medical effects of smoking, or the (questionable) positive effects of certain drugs.

You can think of science as a series of concentric circles of decreasing predictive reliability. At the centre are the known knowns. The further you get towards the periphery, the less certain the beliefs, models and predictions become.

Most scientists understand this idea of confidence levels, even though this model of science isn't as public as perhaps it should be.

But the key point is that even as you get towards the periphery of the circle, there's still a touchstone - a benchmark, a key notion - that it's possible, with time and effort and collaborative cross-checking, to confirm or deny models and to improve predictions in a useful and reliable way.

To most adults, this seems a reasonable position.

Unfortunately politics, law and most of economics are based on a completely different premise. If you're assuming there's some interest in objective truth in any of the above - there isn't, except to the limited extent that reality is either absolutely unavoidable, or temporarily and disposably useful.

Politics, economics and law are all about persuasion - and the basis of persuasion is that truth is whatever you can get away with.

Now, I'm not making a rhetorical point here. This is the literal benchmark for almost all (not quite all - but almost) political decision-making in this culture. If you have practical experience of law or politics you'll understand that the ultimate goal is power. It's not honesty or integrity as we understand them as personal values, and it's not a consistent relationship with reality as is understood in science.

Posters on dKos regularly seem surprised that conservatives do two things:

1. Reduce arguments to trite dog-whistle talking points - such as flip-flopper, tax-and-spend, "soft on defence", and so on.

2. Lie. Repeatedly, in public, with no moral consistency in their talking points.

If you accept that the purpose of politics is power, not integrity, neither of these becomes shocking.

If truth is whatever you can get away with, then it's perfectly acceptable - in fact it's obligatory - to use whatever rhetorical techniques you can to win a debate and destroy the power of your opponent.

Is this wrong? To most people, yes it is. In personal culture, only con-artists and deluded souls lie regularly. If someone lies consistently to family, friends, or coworkers, they're considered untrustworthy at best, and mentally ill at worst.

So personally, we have few defences against someone who lies for personal gain. We don't expect people to do this, we're surprised when they do it, and we're not quite sure how to respond. Pointing out that they're doing it is a start, but it's not enough, because by the time we've deconstructed one talking point they've moved on to another.

And yet - it's not a stretch to suggest that the right-wing pundits aren't there to predict reality or produce useful insights and guidelines into future events; they're there to persuade, not to inform.

For the most part, they do very well. Because many people accept authority, they accept positions, statements, beliefs and ideas that are clearly outrageous and nonsensical when considered objectively.

With depressing regularity many of them can be persuaded to vote against their own interests.

The paradox here is that we already have a perfectly good system for sifting reality from personal indulgence and rhetoric. It's called science, and it has tools that can do this job for us.

But the chaos will continue until political structures join the 21st century and begin to make decisions on the basis of objective policy.

If a pundit claims that abstinence education decreases teenage pregnancy - fine. That's a testable point. Do some field studies, find out which policies actually do decrease teenage pregnancy, and if the pundit is wrong, make sure everyone knows.

If a pundit claims that lowering taxes increases employment - test that point.

More than that - build the reality testing process into the legislative machinery, so that it becomes impossible to enact policies that have been proven not to work.

Is this wishful thinking? At this moment, it is. Western political processes are designed to lock out objective testing, and to make everything a matter of opinion - which implicitly means a matter of subjective persuasion.

This is how poor decision making and rhetoric can trump fact-based policies based on research and mature realism.

But consider this. We don't accept this quality of decision making from scientists and engineers. We don't accept it from friends and family. We don't agree that planes should fall out of the sky and bridges should fall down because some loud, ignorant noob in a suit thinks their opinion is more significant than anyone else's - especially not if that opinion personally benefits them and their friends.

So why do we continue to accept it as a valid product of our political system, which can have far more influence over the quality of our lives than anything else?

Progressive politics needs to move into the 21st century and change not just which decisions are made, but how they're made - and to obliterate the illusory pretensions to moral stature of those who try to persuade us otherwise.

It's time to up the game, to go after a bigger prize than a president or a party, and to start thinking about ways to hold the rhetorical posturing of the propagandists and lawyers to the same standards we expect from reality-based professionals - and to make smart, informed and reality-based policies the only options in every debate.

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politics, law and most of economics are based on a completely premise

You may want to correct the missing word in the DKos original...

Economics is politics by other means

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri May 6th, 2011 at 06:13:55 AM EST
The whole article is also doubled by  large copy/pastes...

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Fri May 6th, 2011 at 06:35:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Fix-ed. (Incompatible diary formats - grrr...)
by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Fri May 6th, 2011 at 06:44:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But the key point is that even as you get towards the periphery of [science], there's still a touchstone - a benchmark, a key notion - that it's possible, with time and effort and collaborative cross-checking, to confirm or deny models and to improve predictions in a useful and reliable way.

To most adults, this seems a reasonable position.

Unfortunately politics, law and most of economics are based on a completely premise. If you're assuming there's some interest in objective truth in any of the above - there isn't, except to the limited extent that reality is either absolutely unavoidable, or temporarily and disposably useful.

I am reminded about Veblen's Theory of Business Enterprise in which he argues that the habits of thought of the industrial workers are shaped by dialy interaction with the impersonal laws of nature, while the business class lives in a world of human convention, and that this difference in habits of thought explains the iconoclastic characteristics of the socialist movement in the 19th century.
But after all qualifications have been made, the fact still is apparent that the everyday life of those classes which are engaged in business differs materially in the respect cited from the life of the classes engaged in industry proper. There is an appreciable and widening difference between the habits of life of the two classes; and this carries with it a widening difference in the discipline to which the two classes are subjected. It induces a difference in the habits of thought and the habitual grounds and methods of reasoning resorted to by each class. There results a difference in the point of view, in the facts dwelt upon, in the methods of argument, in the grounds of validity appealed to; and this difference gains in magnitude and consistency as the differentiation of occupations goes on. So that the two classes come to have an increasing difficulty in understanding one another and appreciating one another's convictions, ideals, capacities, and shortcomings.

...

The business classes are conservative, on the whole, but such a conservative bent is, of course, not peculiar to them. These occupations are not the only ones whose reasoning prevailingly moves on a conventional plane. Indeed, the intellectual activity of other classes, such as soldiers, politicians, the clergy, and men of fashion, moves on a plane of still older conventions; so that if the training given by business employments is to be characterized as conservative, that given by these other, more archaic employments should be called reactionary.(12*) Extreme conventionalization means extreme conservatism. Conservatism means the maintenance of conventions already in force. On this head, therefore, the discipline of modern business life may be said simply to retain something of the complexion which marks the life of the higher barbarian culture, at the same time that it has not retained the disciplinary force of the barbarian culture in so high a state of preservation as some of the other occupations just named.

...

The socialistic disaffection shows a curious tendency to overrun certain classes and to miss certain others. The men in the skilled mechanical trades are peculiarly liable to it, while at the extreme of immunity is probably the profession of the law. Bankers and other like classes of business men, together with clergymen and politicians, are also to be held free of serious aspersion; similarly, the great body of the rural population are immune, including the population of the country towns, and in an eminent degree the small farmers of the remoter country districts;(22*) so also the delinquent classes of the cities and the populace of half-civilized and barbarous countries. The body of unskilled laborers, especially those not associated with the men in the skilled mechanical trades, are not seriously affected. The centres of socialistic disaffection are the more important industrial towns, and the effective nucleus of the socialistic malcontents is made up of the more intelligent body of workmen in the highly organized and specialized industries. Not that socialism does not spread in virulent form outside this narrow range, but at a farther remove from the centre of dispersion it appears rather sporadically and uncertainly, while within this field it is fairly endemic. As regards the educated classes, socialistic views are particularly likely to crop out among the men in the material sciences.

He also speaks to the conflict between the industrial urban proletariat and the rural populations:
The advocates of the new creed have made little headway among the rural classes of Europe, whether peasant farmers or farm laborers. The rural proletariat has hitherto proved virtually impermeable.(23*) The discipline of their daily life leaves their spirit undisturbed on the plane of conventionality and anthropomorphism, and the changes to which they aspire lie within the scope of the conventionalities which have grown out of these circumstances of their life and which express the habit of mind enforced by these circumstances.



Economics is politics by other means
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri May 6th, 2011 at 06:39:50 AM EST
On this head, therefore, the discipline of modern business life may be said simply to retain something of the complexion which marks the life of the higher barbarian culture, at the same time that it has not retained the disciplinary force of the barbarian culture in so high a state of preservation as some of the other occupations just named.

This is exactly right - but it's rarely acknowledged.

And if you're in that class you don't need to care about the laws of nature, because if you can use persuasion or force to make others care for you, it's no longer your job to care.

It's more efficient to leave the lower classes to deal with physical and scientific reality, while you get on with the business of ordering them around for your benefit.

But - as I'm suggesting - this is an incredibly bad basis for anything that pretends to be a democracy. Eventually it fails to work, because even if you own the entire population of the world, it can only buffer you against (e.g.) climate change to a limited extent.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Fri May 6th, 2011 at 06:49:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
...the habits of thought of the industrial workers are shaped by dialy interaction with the impersonal laws of nature, while the business class lives in a world of human convention, and that this difference in habits of thought explains the iconoclastic characteristics of the socialist movement in the 19th century.

This provides another rationale for the de-industrialization of the 20th Century USA, aided, of course, by the emergence of that staple of political philosophy for the culturally illiterate technical specialist -- Randian libertarianism.  

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat May 7th, 2011 at 10:36:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
European Tribune - Conservatives - How to Win at Politics, and Fail at Reality

More than that - build the reality testing process into the legislative machinery, so that it becomes impossible to enact policies that have been proven not to work.

Maybe we should have a look at what practices are already in the law-making procedures to make it more reality based. These could then be augmented.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Fri May 6th, 2011 at 07:13:47 AM EST
I keep thinking that we should run through historical left party candidates and seats, and count the proportion of Lawyers/accountants/people straight out of university verses the number of candidates and seats held by actual working people/trade unionists/people who havent come up through the university political culture. im sure it would tell us something about the capture of parties of the left by if the theory is correct people more interested in power than the truth.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Fri May 6th, 2011 at 07:45:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There's also the case of the children of the generation of trade-unionist leaders getting college degrees in law or economics. The difference between 1960's and 1990's social democratic politics might have a lot to do with that.

Economics is politics by other means
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri May 6th, 2011 at 07:53:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
askod:
Maybe we should have a look at what practices are already in the law-making procedures

Most Political Science curricula have senior and graduate level "policy analysis" courses that provide a good basis for appropriate analysis of the impact of laws. Lots of congressional staffers have this background. But successful politicians, (ones who have won more than one election), usually learn quickly when to base votes on rational policy and when to base them on receiving sufficient contributions to win the next election. The conservatives believe this is right and proper. The liberals accept that this is what they have to do to survive.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat May 7th, 2011 at 10:45:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I was thinking more in terms of institutionalised analysis. In effect, what is mandatory in ways of analysis before a law is passed.

In Sweden - by constitution or custom - a change of law starts by an inquiry into the effects of a proposed change. I think they are always appointed by the cabinet and when parliament wants a bill that the cabinet does not want, parliament passes a motion to order cabinet to launch an inquiry. The inquiry has a set lenght (normally around six to twelve months), inquisitors are appointed by cabinet but works independently. The inquiry is pre-released a number of weeks before the final date and sent to stake-holders. Stake-holders - and others, it is public - can then write their answer, and inquiry and answers are then sent to cabinet and parliament.

Since inquisitors are in general academics or career public servants they stand to loose face if they claim absurd things. Politicians are always free to claim otherwise, but at least then the journalists has something to work from other then what the opposition says.

- Why do you say that reform X will only cost Y millions, when the inquiry says it will cost 3Y millions?

I have no idea how this procedure is performed in other countries.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Sat May 7th, 2011 at 12:18:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In Denmark, all laws must pass in parliament twice as drafts before they are passed into law, in order to ensure that the opposition and the public at least has the text for a month or so. The public also has the right to comment on drafts and proposed laws. Occasionally - very occasionally - these drafts are even revised.

In practise, the only thing that a Danish government has to care about are the parliamentary majority and the courts in Strassbourg, in that order. So in practise, as long as they have a parliamentary majority (which is always - otherwise they're not a government much longer) and don't tick off the Commission too bad, they can break the constitution, international law and the UN charter with the same gratuitous impunity that the rest of us break traffic regulations.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sat May 7th, 2011 at 05:28:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
European Tribune - Conservatives - How to Win at Politics, and Fail at Reality

If truth is whatever you can get away with, then it's perfectly acceptable - in fact it's obligatory - to use whatever rhetorical techniques you can to win a debate and destroy the power of your opponent.

Is this wrong? To most people, yes it is. In personal culture, only con-artists and deluded souls lie regularly. If someone lies consistently to family, friends, or coworkers, they're considered untrustworthy at best, and mentally ill at worst.

So personally, we have few defences against someone who lies for personal gain. We don't expect people to do this, we're surprised when they do it, and we're not quite sure how to respond. Pointing out that they're doing it is a start, but it's not enough, because by the time we've deconstructed one talking point they've moved on to another.

I think we should note that most people are bad liars, and might not even become good liars if trained to in a law school. Good liars are also more effective at moving up the political power scale. So in the bottom - local politics - we can expect to find reasonably bad liars and even politicians who has concluded that they better off being honest. Which would mean that decentralisation gives not only decisions closer to the involved but also more reality based policies.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Fri May 6th, 2011 at 07:19:19 AM EST
truth is whatever you can get away with.

Truth is whatever you can get people to believe it is. Religionists have been doing this for years, why not politicians  ? They're more or less in the same game of selling dreams and they do it in the same way; not by proof but by consistent repetition of underlying motifs.

It's why pols are more religious than the electorates, it's where they learned their trade.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Fri May 6th, 2011 at 08:41:10 AM EST
The classic philosophy vs. sophistry conflict, 2500 years on...

Economics is politics by other means
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri May 6th, 2011 at 09:37:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Posters on dKos regularly seem surprised that conservatives do two things:

  1. Reduce arguments to trite dog-whistle talking points - such as flip-flopper, tax-and-spend, "soft on defence", and so on.

  2. Lie. Repeatedly, in public, with no moral consistency in their talking points.

If you accept that the purpose of politics is power, not integrity, neither of these becomes shocking.

This should have been noted by the Yes2AV campaign as well. It doesn't bode well for any future EU referendum.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Fri May 6th, 2011 at 08:46:01 AM EST
anybody got one?

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat May 7th, 2011 at 05:37:27 PM EST


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