“It is always perilous to the mind to reckon up the mind.“
—G. K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”
onservative columnist David Brooks went to a lot of trouble the other day explaining in The New York Times why it is that,
Most of us spend our days thinking we are playing baseball, but we are really playing soccer.
It seems everyone is anxious to get on the soccer bandwagon and exploit its growing popularity in America. Brooks, who still supports the Republican Party, uses the we-are-playing-soccer metaphor to, perhaps unintentionally, undermine the entire libertarianish economic platform of the party he still supports. He quotes philosopher Simon Critchley, who says, “Soccer is a collective game, a team game,” and by use of that definition, coupled with saying that most of us “are really playing soccer,” Brooks offers us quite an indictment of his political party.
Yet there is no indication that Brooks will ever abandon the GOP, which these days abhors the very idea, notably expressed by President Obama and Elizabeth Warren, that success is a collaborative effort. Brooks appears content to side with folks who find “collective” a four-letter word. Why is that?
Even though I disagree with his use of soccer as the best metaphor for our social life—because baseball is the perfect combination of “individual activities” that conspire to create intricate collective-team dynamics—he is right about this:
We think we individually choose what career path to take, whom to socialize with, what views to hold. But, in fact, those decisions are shaped by the networks of people around us more than we dare recognize.
The reality may even be worse than Brooks dares recognize. And that reality may explain why it is that Brooks, despite the evidence in his own column(s), still carries ideological water for the Republican Party.
In a great piece at Vox (“How Politics Makes Us Stupid”), Ezra Klein will ruin your day if you think you arrived at your partisan political positions through rigorous and reasoned analysis of the available information:
Cutting-edge research shows that the more information partisans get, the deeper their disagreements become.
You should read Klein’s piece for yourself, but it based on the work of Yale Law professor Dan Kahan, who “set out to test a question that continuously puzzles scientists: why isn’t good evidence more effective in resolving political debates?” Kahan’s hypothesis:
Perhaps people aren’t held back by a lack of knowledge. After all, they don’t typically doubt the findings of oceanographers or the existence of other galaxies. Perhaps there are some kinds of debates where people don’t want to find the right answer so much as they want to win the argument. Perhaps humans reason for purposes other than finding the truth — purposes like increasing their standing in their community, or ensuring they don’t piss off the leaders of their tribe. If this hypothesis proved true, then a smarter, better-educated citizenry wouldn’t put an end to these disagreements. It would just mean the participants are better equipped to argue for their own side.
Of course, as with any social science hypothesis worth its weight in soccer balls, testing was needed. And that testing seems to have confirmed the idea that ideology trumps reason. Even people good at math, who had demonstrated that they could solve a non-ideological problem by working through the evidence to find the right answer, fell victim to their ideological and partisan biases. One test was set up to focus “on a proposal to ban people from carrying concealed handguns in public” and voilà:
Presented with this problem a funny thing happened: how good subjects were at math stopped predicting how well they did on the test. Now it was ideology that drove the answers. Liberals were extremely good at solving the problem when doing so proved that gun-control legislation reduced crime. But when presented with the version of the problem that suggested gun control had failed, their math skills stopped mattering. They tended to get the problem wrong no matter how good they were at math. Conservatives exhibited the same pattern — just in reverse.
It gets worse:
Being better at math didn’t just fail to help partisans converge on the right answer. It actually drove them further apart. Partisans with weak math skills were 25 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology. Partisans with strong math skills were 45 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology. The smarter the person is, the dumber politics can make them.
Consider how utterly insane that is: being better at math made partisans less likely to solve the problem correctly when solving the problem correctly meant betraying their political instincts. People weren’t reasoning to get the right answer; they were reasoning to get the answer that they wanted to be right.
All that does seem insane. But it helps explain why a New York Times columnist, smart enough to know better, is still a Republican.
Finally, since Brooks started it, I will finish with a sports analogy that one of his commenters (“Matt”) supplied that tells a better story of contemporary America:
…Life in America today is American football and the 99% are in punt formation. The .01% is a 300 pound lineman, the 99% is a 140 pound punter, the referee is the government and it’s decided not to enforce the roughing the punter rule. And when the punter, bleeding and hurt and on a stretcher, cries foul over not enforcing the rules, he’s hit with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for arguing with the referees.
Now that is a metaphor that all thinking people should, but obviously won’t, embrace.