How Reality-Based Is the Community?

by on 2013-02-07 in Duck- 14 Comments

Community-cast John Quiggin at Crooked Timber discusses the American right’s quick shift to admitting a decline in U.S. income mobility. He then asserts that this is part of a process by which “objective truth, rather than political acceptability, should be the criterion against which factual claims are tested.” (There’s also a long discussion of The Overton Window, although I suppose he meant this one.

Quiggin goes further:

If this view is right, then the most important single development was probably Nate Silver’s successful prediction of the 2012 election. Silver was up against both the pseudo-science of the Republican “unskewers” and the faith of centrist pundits (historically exemplified by Broder) that their deep connection with the American psyche was worth more than any number of least-squares regressions. Given the centrality of horse-race journalism to the pundit class, their defeat by relatively straightforward statistical analysis of opinion polls was a huge blow.

My response to this is somewhat more tempered than Quiggin’s–although probably warmer than the average CT reader’s. First, I’m skeptical of the notion that Science and Progressive Politics will go through life merrily holding hands. There’s no particular reason to think that liberal values are anything but orthogonal to the findings of most research, lab-scientific or observational-scientific. There are some nicely convenient findings for liberal values–the democratic peace hypothesis, for one–but would anyone be willing to give up democracy if we found incontrovertible evidence that democracies (not just Mansfield-and-Snyder-style democratizing countries) are more bellicose? Or, alternatively, would we give up democracy if the field coalesced around a consensus that democracies are less bellicose because they are more successful at using social pressure or other nonviolent forms of coercion to eradicate dissenting views? Social scientific findings rarely provide evidence that prompts us to revise our value systems.

The problem that liberals will increasingly face is close to the dilemma that the brilliant, late BBC sketch programme That Mitchell And Webb Look satirized by asking whether, if “the computer” said that killing the poor would raise economic growth, you would actually do it.[1] It is true that at the moment Republicans are pretty far from occupying the intellectual high ground, but it strikes me as a little suspect that a great many liberals (and here I’m thinking less of the named folks who write blogs and more of the mass who comment on blogs) are now convinced that Science Is On Their Side.

Nate Silver is a visible part of the debate, possibly because he happened to tell readers what they wanted to hear and partly because (largely coincidentally, from the readers’ point of view) he was “right.” Silver predicted a Democratic win, and conservatives obligingly vilified him. But if, counterfactually, the state of the world had changed just enough that Silver’s models and the underlying data-generating process were pointing toward a Romney victory, would liberals have adopted him as a prophet or would there have been an unskewed polls movement created by the left? [2]

Quiggin is too comfortable in his analysis. The notion that “objective truth” sits much more easily with leftist politics now than it does with conservatives is, ahem, objectively true. But that is not because of an essential affinity with leftism. Forty years ago, the Soviet Union was comparatively inhospitable to objective truth. And basing one’s value arguments so firmly on an evidence-based foundation is clearly self-defeating. Liberals’ response to the question “Should the Boy Scouts admit gays?” is not to commission a randomized field experiment to compare outcomes (merit badges per scout?) across gay-friendly and traditional clubs. Nor, when conservatives raise arguments gay marriage (which I must say are almost always prima facie stupid), liberals rarely react with the measured caution of a peer-reviewed article. Instead, they react with scorn (which, I have to say, I pretty much share, even if I think the T-shirt is a bit over the top).

It’s pretty easy to conceive of a political issue in which the right is friendlier to the objective evidence than the left: genetically modified organisms spring readily to mind. [3] Of course, given that the right is openly hostile to science, that set is unlikely to get larger any time soon. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that politics is any less tribal now because our tribe happens to be allied with the small faction of nerds in lab coats.

[1]Explaining why we can’t kill all the poor, one policy analyst sputters, “Well, ’cause they do all the — they clean — they do all the things that we don’t fancy!” Second analyst: “Aren’t you thinking of immigrants?” Also notable: after the model suggests that killing the poor wouldn’t help, the minister responds “Have you tried raise VAT and kill the poor?” I can only dream of a day in which U.S. cabinet ministers are so familiar with interaction terms.

[2] Almost certainly to have been named “Occupy Statistics.”

[3] Indeed, if I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d suggest that GMOs are a distraction for liberals to keep them from taking up antitrust actions against Monsanto, ConAgra, and AGM.

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  • Chris Lawrence

    I’d also add nuclear power and cellphone radiation to the “objective evidence” list where Republicans are more likely to support scientific evidence than Democrats; perhaps energy policy more broadly (fracking, oil pipelines, drilling in ANWR, etc.) although there are more judgment calls there. Free trade (assuming we’re willing to concede that the social sciences are “science” for the purpose of this discussion) may be a wash in the electorate, although in terms of elected officials it’s probably more supported by Republicans than Democrats, even today.

    OTOH I’m not sure where you put things like water fluoridation and vaccine hysteria (HPV aside, which seems to be more a right-wing crusade), which tend to freak out both leftist hippies and right-wing nutters.

  • Dave Schuler

    What does Apollo Global Management have to do with GMOs? Or do you mean ADM (Archer Daniels Midland)?

    IMO ideology is inherently antithetical to science. It doesn’t matter what the ideology is. Believing the evidence, regardless of the conclusion to which it drives you, is non-ideological.

  • DuckPM

    Oops. Sorry. ADM is right.

  • David M

    “But if, counterfactually, the state of the world had changed just enough
    that Silver’s models and the underlying data-generating process were
    pointing toward a Romney victory, would liberals have adopted him as a
    prophet or would there have been an unskewed polls movement created by
    the left?”

    Um, I know 2010 was a long time ago and all that, but Silver predicted a blood bath for the Dems in the House and a loss of seats in the Senate. I seem to recall liberals looking at how they could limit the damage rather than creating their own polls.

  • joefromlowell

    We can look at the 2010 election and see if liberals created their own “Unskewed Polls.”

    They didn’t. Is there really anything except a Broderesque “both sides are just the same” sentiment behind the assumption that they would?

  • Benjamin

    But if, counterfactually, the state of the world had changed just enough
    that Silver’s models and the underlying data-generating process were
    pointing toward a Romney victory, would liberals have adopted him as a
    prophet or would there have been an unskewed polls movement created by
    the left?

    I thought we ran that model in 2010, when Silver predicted a landslide Republican takeover in the House and the state of the world obliged. As I recall, liberals did a lot of handwringing about how the election was going to be lost and none about how Silver’s model might be wrong.

  • Paul Orwin

    I think this is right, but also incomplete. One way to look at it in a more nuanced (ugh) way is to remember the difference between science and technology. Republicans (in the current iteration) are concerned about the results of scientific studies because they seem to contradict party ideology, so they fight and question the results (creationism, energy policy, environmentalism). The historical analogue might be the church and Galileo, or the anti-smoking push. This seems like it could be generically a conservative fear of progress (standing athwart history shouting “stop” and all that). The left wing of the Democratic party (not the main force of it, which is basically business centrist with a smear of progressive social politics) is worried about technology that it sees as dangerous. This is most clearly seen in conservation efforts and biotech, along with green energy (not always that green!), as noted in the piece. But science is not ideological – there are good conservation efforts and bad ones, good ideas for making recombinant organisms and bad ones, good windmill and solar panel designs and bad ones. The trick is to follow the facts and be clear about what you want to find and what you actually find. This is in fact extremely difficult! But I think it does speak to our innate desire for confirming evidence, and dislike for disruption. Reality is not as much fun as ideology :)

  • DuckPM

    “The notion that “objective truth” sits much more easily with leftist politics now than it does with conservatives is, ahem, objectively true.” What part of this post, if any, is Broderesque?

  • joefromlowell

    I was addressing the question raised by Quiggen, which postulates out of nowhere that liberals just gotta woulda reacted to bad polling the same way as conservatives.

  • Charles Heck

    You neglected to mention climate change, I noticed. Aside from a handful of exceptions, Republicans formed their opinions about climate change long ago when the evidence was more ambiguous. Now that consensus is within sight, the GOP is still more interested in pipelines to oil we don’t need than they are in increasing energy efficiency in the US. The US is on the verge of becoming energy independent, scraping the Arctic for oil isn’t necessary. The main reason that the GOP can be characterized as ignoring the ‘reality based community’ is that their political agenda is so closely tied to the energy sector.

  • Chris Lawrence

    Well, yes, since I was offering counterexamples to the notion that Republicans have a monopoly on the hostility to science, not cataloguing every party’s position on the issues.

    There is also a meaningful distinction between believing that climate change exists and is caused by human beings, and believing that any of the proposed policy solutions from the political left will actually do anything about climate change. There is no evidence that the developing world plans to meaningfully contain CO2 emissions, since they believe – correctly, if the historical record of countries as diverse as Russia, Japan, South Korea, and now India and Brazil is any guide – that the only realistic way to join the industrialized countries is through the use of readily-available carbon-based fuels, rather than cutting-edge technology that is far more expensive and which would export wealth from their countries rather than keeping it at home.

    Besides which, the idea the United States (or any other country) can truly be “energy independent” in the sense that the price of energy can be disconnected from world markets in carbon-based fuels is rather specious.

  • Chris Lawrence

    Because liberals’ behavior in a low-salience midterm election, where asymptotically close to zero prominent liberals/progressives faced serious risk of losing their positions in Congress (remember, it was mostly marginal, moderate-to-conservative Democrats who lost their seats, not the Pelosis and Franks), may not exactly predict how they would have behaved in an election like 2012 where the second coming of JFK might have lost?

  • DuckPM

    Oops. Sorry. I was cranky this morning.

  • joefromlowell

    So your theory is that liberals just weren’t all that concerned about losing control of Congress to the people who’d spent the past two years howling about Nazis at town hall meetings, waving around their guns, and making racially-tinged attacks on “the new JFK.”

    That’s…one theory, but if you actually go back and look, it turns out that there were plenty of internet liberals who were, in fact, pretty keyed up about the 2010 elections. They just didn’t stick their fingers in their ears and say all the pollsters were lying.