[Author’s Note: Rumors of my demise have been very marginally exaggerated. However, despite the full-bore reappearance of Brother Will in my absence and our failure to blog at the same time for many moons, I can neither confirm nor deny that Brother Will and I are in fact alter egos of each other.]
Much as I enjoyed and agreed with Jason’s indignation and Will’s hysterical satire, I fully intended to write my own lengthy response to DougJ’s questions for “reasonable” conservatives at Outside the Beltway and here at the League (though I note that few, if any, front page contributors here would self-identify as “conservative,” and most would refuse to identify more with the Right than the Left if forced to make a decision on that scale; I personally am pretty explicit that I identify notably more with the Left than the Right). Alas, Ken at Popehat has written just about exactly what I had intended to write, right down to his description of his past relationship with math and science which parallels my own. Please do read the whole thing, but I’d like to riff off a few sentences from Ken’s post. Ken writes:
As a result of my laziness, I am willfully ignorant — practically innumerate and scientifically demi-literate. Thus, when I evaluate the scientific issues of the day — from global warming to evolution — I am, on some level, succumbing to an argument from authority. Which people spouting science I barely grasp, using methodology I can’t follow past the Sunday-supplement level, do I believe?
As it happens, I find the evidence (as I understand it) of evolution to be very substantially more convincing than the criticisms levied against it. Similarly, I find the evidence of a global warming trend more convincing than the evidence and arguments to the contrary. The weight of consensus on one side or the other is one factor, though by no means a deciding factor. The whys and wherefores of that are far beyond the scope of this post.
I think most people on most issues succumb to this same sort of laziness, even if few are humble enough to recognize it, and even if they nonetheless wind up on the factually correct side of the debate. But laziness is probably not the right word to describe it – on some level, we all actually need to succumb to arguments from authority if we’re going to live our lives in the world outside of politics, and in the world with which we actually interact as individuals every single day. No one can be an expert on everything, and yet when we enter the political realm, we – and especially our politicians – have to be, at least if we are to make informed decisions about policies that can literally affect any given subject matter.
Take the question of global warming, for example. Certainly it does not take any expertise to verify for oneself that global temperatures have in fact been rising for an extended period of time (though even here there’s a strong element of trust involved – ie, whether one trusts the data collection methods). But to understand through first-hand analysis what is causing that rise, how long that rise may continue, and what the potential effects of that rise may be would take years of dedicated research that few, if any, amateurs have the ability to conduct. To answer these questions, the rest of us have little choice but to turn to sources we trust, and when those sources conflict with each other, then we will have little choice but to succumb to the conclusions of the source we trust more.
And there’s a lot that goes into deciding in whom we should place our trust as free-thinking individuals: personal experiences, personal relationships, religious belief or non-belief, and, yes, shared ideology (which is itself in no small part a function of the same factors that dictate whom one trusts), and probably a myriad of other factors. These factors will align differently for every individual, but we should not be surprised or even upset if it turns out that ideology is the most important determinant of which authority one trusts on a given topic. Ideology, after all, is little more than a default set of preferences for weighing and managing tradeoffs – a system of prioritization- combined perhaps with some distinctive moral views.* One will inherently trust someone with similar priorities far more than someone with divergent priorities if those two sources conflict.
So DougJ’s questions would perhaps have been better phrased as “when scientific consensus conflicts with the views of your religious or ideological leaders, which do you trust more?” The implication of course would be that only one who trusts scientific consensus more is a “reasonable” person.
Is this true, though? Why would only an unreasonable person trust one’s ideological compatriots (whom you know to have expended far more effort into understanding a given issue than you have) more than one trusts a group of self-appointed experts whom one has never encountered and who you know to have a vastly different set of priorities than you? What if, as is the case with global warming, there are a handful of experts with facially similar qualifications to the main group of scientists who: 1. share your ideological or religious predispositions; and 2. dissent from that main group? Is it the mark of an inherently unreasonable person to trust the former over the latter? I am not trying to suggest that both views are equally valid – clearly at least one is invalid, and I certainly have strong beliefs as to which one. Instead, I’m simply saying that it can be perfectly reasonable to trust a given leader or expert with whom you have something in common even if that leader or expert’s views will ultimately be proven wrong and even if the vast majority of those who have closely studied that issue vehemently disagree with that leader or expert.
Likewise, I do not see how it is the mark of an inherently unreasonable person to trust his interpretation of a holy book over the product of the scientific method. Faith is experienced, and it is experienced personally in different ways by different people of different religions. The scientific method, for the most part, is not experienced in recognizable ways by many people. Would only someone who is inherently unreasonable trust their faith as actually experienced by them over a product of the scientific method?
As Ken continues, following up on what I’ve quoted above:
This leads me to another sort of laziness, a type that I’ve tried (with mixed success) to avoid. Should “belief” in evolution and global warming (and particularly man-made global warming) be used as a quick and easy way to separate people whose views we should consider from those whose views we may safely ignore?
Unlike the above, this really is a sort of laziness. Once we choose to enter into the political realm, we are choosing to discuss and debate with all those who choose to do likewise. This, after all, is the very essence of politics. When we create litmus tests on some questions to define who is and is not worthy of engaging on all questions, we are taking a short-cut and refusing to do the heavy lifting that is necessary for a political system to function.
*I say only “some” distinctive moral views because even in a highly diverse society as exists in the US, all or almost all of us can agree on basic definitions of “good” and “bad” on most topics. For instance, in a vacuum, all but perhaps the most ardent pro-choicers would view abortion as an evil, and all but perhaps the most ardent pro-lifers would view the right to make decisions about one’s own body as a clear good; where they disagree ultimately is over the circumstances in which the good of choice should triumph over the good of fetuses becoming children. There are some exceptions of course – there are those who view homosexual intercourse as inherently evil, those who view it as morally neutral, and those who view it as inherently beautiful. But for the most part when we debate politics we’re really just debating priorities.