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.