Pundits, Politics, And Punters

It is always perilous to the mind to reckon up the mind.

—G. K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”

conservative 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 soccerbaseballus 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.

blind ref

[Photo: REUTERS/Patrick Smith]

5 Comments

  1. Ben Field

     /  July 14, 2014

    I am reminded of a sociology experiment done in which American children and Mexican children were given a game to play. They were playing tic tax toe in a room with a table that also had a large bowl of candy on it. They were told only the winner would be awarded the candy. The American children played well and very competitively. After a number of games it was determined a draw with cat the winner. The candy was denied. The Mexican children played one game and when the researcher came in both children were eating candy. When he asked what they were doing, one pointed at the other and said “He won” but he shared with me. American kids were competitive, but the Mexicans were cooperative.

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  2. ansonburlingame

     /  July 15, 2014

    Duane,

    Basic science, rational reasoning, exposure to the technical (logical) sides of how to debate issues (either side), understanding of law, in short all the “left brain” things we learn over the years helps to express our politics. But how we form our politics is a whole different matter, it seems to me.

    I fall back on an old Rickover saying, about how he and his staffs “created” the Naval Nuclear Power program. He, the Admiral, frequently said that a naval nuclear propulsion plant was about 10% science and 90% good engineering. Unless of course there was a nuclear scientist in the room, then it became a 5%/95% type of relationship, according to Rickover!

    Nuclear energy could never have been produced by man until the “science of the atom” became understood to a degree. But once that basic science was known, then putting the mechanisms in place to produce power (a bomb or electricity), it became far more of an engineering challenge than going deeper into the science of the atom. Look at fusion today, a huge engineering challenge. We already know how fusion “works” but containing that incredible level of energy is an engineering issue, heat transfer, fluid flow, etc.

    In terms of politics, it seems to me the reverse is true. We know full well how to “engineer” a political campaign. But we have yet to plum the depths of the “science” of human thought, either the neurology or, perhaps more important, the psychology of humans brains and “spirits” (a non-religions term when I use it as such).

    I have been conservative, politically, all my life, even before I understood politics. You on the other hand were not “born” conservative or liberal as you changed, rather dramatically. I seriously doubt your change was all based on logic as well. Something within you made you switch sides. I don’t believe you nor the best psychologist or neurologist in the world can determine why either of us “ticks” politically and I don’t think we completely understand that issue as well, personally.

    Genetically, we are all born with predispositions. It then becomes a question of probabilities that social scientists (I don’t like that term) and “real” medical science can develop but never predict the end results completely and accurately, iike we can with the power produced by physically splitting the atom.

    But predispositions can be rather dramatically affected by “nurture”, the envirnoment in which one lives and grows, all their life. Certainly environment plays a huge role in one’s politics. But how much is yet to be determined as well.

    Another point, an important one in my view. In the physical sciences there are always “right” answers and almost always only one right answer. Not so with politics in my view. Politics is developing an understanding of human thought processes and then “engineering” the results to produce a political outcome. We are still in the infancy of “scientifically” understanding human thought processes. at least in my view.

    Finally, back to Rickover. We know the “science” of the atom AND the engineering to put together a nuclear “thing”, cold and correctly. The big problem with nuclear power today, the safety of nuclear power is all “human engineering” by and large now. People make mistakes and when dealing with “nuclear things” the consequences can be devastating.

    Comparing that example to politics, well we, humans, have yet to even make a solid and science based political “machine” (like a reactor or bomb), much less get to the point where it will function all the time as predicted unless humans make mistakes with such a machine.

    Anson

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  3. Ezra Klein’s piece just confirms what anyone who actively blogs on politics already knows. It is the substance of ideology. It is why the Hatfields hated the McCoys and why the Shiites hate the Sunnis. It is why: xenophobia. The real question, though, is, to what extent can ideology be overcome by reason? I’m not sanguine about it but I’m not ready to give up either, because there are examples of progress.

    How about Japan? Thanks primarily to Douglas MacArthur’s vision, their ideology was abruptly altered by a new Constitution. The two Korea’s too, stand as a profound example of radically different political trajectories. Germany too, of course. It not only turned from war but has provided an economic model in which labor and management coexist in a symbiosis that America would do well to emulate.

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  4. ansonburlingame

     /  July 17, 2014

    Jim makes an excellent point about success stories in politics. The whole “American experiment” is just such a success story, up to a point. Good politics averts common “tribal conflict” and one element of such success is simple compromise, neither side gets their own way all the time.

    A correct math equation must always remain balanced, one side must always equal the other side, all the time. As far as we know for now E always equals MC(squared). But we can imagine and argue, if you like, that C is NOT a constant and might well change, somewhere, sometime. So far not yet, but “what if”. That can become a “political argument” trying to say “if such happens something different will follow”. Imagine the world of physics today if E equaled MX, where X is a variable, not a constant!! We might find a whole new type of energy if we can find where and when C becomes variable.

    If humans ever find “something” that travels faster than the speed of light, well Newton knows how that feels as Newtonian Physics got turned on its ear (only in very “little space”) when quantum physics came along, or so it seems thus far in the field of physics.

    Moral “equations” have no such precision. Take the Golden “Rule”. Sure I can do to you what I HOPE you do to me, but if you don’t, well there we go, into politics and even “law”.

    That art of politics is figuring out IF I do this, then you will do that. And really great politicians, but not moralists, find a way to get their way using politics, not morality. When two really great politicians go head to head, compromise is the only solution found thus far by mankind, as far as I know, either that or WAR. (which you recall is another form of politics).

    Anson

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