We’ve seen, time and again, how facts fail to persuade. The brain isn’t wired to reason but to advocate, and challenges to our dearest assumptions are more likely to lead us to double-down than modify our thinking.
“Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others,” wrote William Saletan in his New York Timesreview of The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt. “To explain this persistence, Haidt invokes an evolutionary hypothesis: We compete for social status, and the key advantage in this struggle is the ability to influence others. Reason, in this view, evolved to help us spin, not to help us learn.”
If facts have proven so unpersuasive, then it is instructive to judge the two U.S. political parties as one would a high school debate team, solely based on their effectiveness. The winner in this contest would, naturally, be doing better at taking advantage of what is, essentially, human nature.
And who wins? Well, conservatives, obviously. To show as much let’s start with a science example: Global warming.
In regards to climate change, one very effective tactic used by the right has been invoking the existence of winter to counter perception of an overall warming trend. Conservatives have been so effective at doing this that they’ve made virtually it impossible to speak about the topic during the cold months without inviting mockery.
By contrast, environmentalists have had considerably more record-breaking hot days overall to work with, and yet until very recently, one would have thought the situation the completely reverse.
Certainly, environmentalists have not done a very good job of utilizing heat and severe weather in their favor. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is the second straight Republican convention delayed due to hurricanes – McCain delayed his convention to visit the disaster areas of Hurricane Gustav. Part of the motivation was that McCain felt he had to draw a contrast between him and Bush’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It’s almost enough to make one think Pat Robertson is right: God is indeed controlling the weather; it’s just that Robertson is confused about which party God favors.
Yet the left doesn’t seem to be able to bring itself to exploit examples of severe weather to push climate change in the same way conservatives have done with snow storms. Those who dare to try often find a cadre of liberals and scientists ready to pounce. As a result, the message ends up modified with all the required caveats:
Climate and weather scientists are cautious about drawing a direct line from A to B, but most agree that a warmer planet will cause a higher frequency of extreme-weather events—even if you can’t scientifically prove that one single extreme-weather event is caused by climate change…
“It’s a treacherous issue,” said Kerry Emanuel, a climate-change scientist and an atmospheric science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “When considering extreme weather and climate, you have to be mindful. It’s easy to step on a political or scientific mine and have it go off in your face.”
It’s hardly got the pithiness of “It’s not global warming; it’s called the weather.”
Which begs the question: with such an obvious deficit in their “ability to influence others,” how have liberals even managed to stay in the game? Is there some other strategy liberals are employing to win the argument if that’s what our minds are designed to do?
On Point of Inquiry, Haidt warned, “Let’s not worship reason.” Reasoning, particularly for individuals, is pretty bad whenever there is any motive, self-interest or especially group interest at stake. In those cases, the mind acts more like a lawyer than a scientist.
Haidt admitted he himself possesses the same failings. What keeps him grounded is effective advocates who shame us when we get it wrong, colleagues who want to play devil’s advocate and competitors ready to smack us down if we produce bad data.
“Science is so good at what does because… other people would challenge them,” Haidt continued. “There is no cure for the confirmation bias other than other people.” Challenge each other’s confirmation bias, and the truth emerges.
In other words, it is precisely what makes liberals bad messengers that makes them more grounded in reality. Journalistic/scientific/liberal values like objectivity, open-mindedness and trying to see all points of view were designed precisely to keep our predilection for confirmation bias in check. (It is only when these values became absolutes and blindly embraced articles of faith that conservatives were able to exploit them to their advantage.)
Conservatives are able to stay on message because they value loyalty above diversity of opinion. The only thing a conservative has to worry about being “called out on” is drifting from the party line. Niall Ferguson does not fear losing his reputation for misstating CBO reports in Newsweek; he will be rewarded for it. George Will never has to lose a wink of sleep over misstating science reports so long as it confirms the message climate change is false. If anything, it is when Republicans dare to step forward and state the obvious that they pay a price.
No wonder conservatives are wrong so often: in the Republican Party, when New Orleans gets washed away it means the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is doing a “heckuva job.” By rallying around one of their own when they’re under attack for incompetence, conservatives have inadvertently created a system of “failing upwards.” (I remain convinced Sarah Palin solidified her standing with the base, not by her conservative bona-fides, but by her abysmal performance in the Cokie Roberts interview.)
The liberal lack of loyalty and unity allows for dissension, but it comes at a major rhetorical price. “Republicans want to get rid of Medicare!” becomes “end Medicare as we know it.” The irony of climate deniers speaking on a backdrop of a hurricane goes largely unmentioned because technically, although climate may cause more severe weather, you can never really say any particular weather event… yadda, yadda, ya.
Conservatives have no problem with cutting a few factual corners to further the cause. What do liberals get for handicapping themselves for the sake of accuracy?
They get to be accurate. They believe if your policy works, or you get it right often enough, long enough, you will win the debate over the long term.
As far as the commentariate is concerned, conservatives are right in real-time, but by trying to respect reality, liberals get to be right in retrospect. One had to be an extremist to oppose the Iraq War a favor of focusing on Afghanistan. Holding the same position today places you at the right of most of the electorate.
Few commentators have as good of a track record as Paul Krugman who predicted the dot com bubble, the housing bubble, that Bush’s tax cuts would explode the deficit, that Obama’s stimulus was too small, that the war in Iraq was going badly and is now pointing out the folly of austerity.
Yet Krugman has never been accepted by the DC establishment because he is never on board with their wrong-headedness of the moment. Meanwhile those who have gotten it more wrong more often keep their exalted positions among the commentariate because they are always on the “right side” of the conventional wisdom of the moment.
Thus, Kevin Hassett, co-author of Dow 36,000 gets to an economic for Mitt Romney, John McCain and George Bush. After all, he was right when everyone thought the economy wasn’t heading into a recession, and he’s right when everyone is preoccupied with the deficit now.
No serious person would come out in agreement with a Krugman column written today, but when it comes to a column written over a year ago, everyone’s Paul Krugman now. No one contends Iraq was a smashing success any more, or that Bush’s tax cuts grew the surplus. Climate change deniers and champions of austerity continually have to move the goal posts.
Those who mocked Krugman in the past will contend they always held Krugman’s position, or that Krugman was right for the wrong reasons, but the ground has shifted. Krugman might not get credit, but he doesn’t need to because he’s won the argument. Over and over again.
Conservatives might make better appeals, but distortion can’t change the facts. The best the better debater can ever hope to do when the facts are against him is obfuscate, dodge and delay. The facts will keep trudging along until the public comes around, or the end of time, whichever comes first. The one who does a better job of sussing out reality may never get respect, but they’re always ahead of the curve.
Liberals might lose every news cycle, but they’re betting that won’t matter when playing the long game.