On Avoiding Truth
“Physicists do it…Psychologists do it…Even political scientists do it…Research findings confirming a hypothesis are accepted more or less at face value, but when confronted with contrary evidence, we become “motivated skeptics”
The great mass of people form their political beliefs with little regard for facts or logic. However, the elites also have a strategy for avoiding truth. Elites form their political beliefs dogmatically, using their cleverness to organize facts to fit preconceived prejudices. The masses’ strategy for avoiding truth is to make a low investment in understanding; the elites’ strategy is to make a large investment in selectively choosing which facts and arguments to emphasize or ignore. Moreover, if the general public is ignorant, then elites are free to act against the interest of the general public. Converse sees this from a left-leaning perspective, leading to policies that favor the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. Somin sees it from a right-leaning perspective, leading to government power that is excessive and unchecked. He writes,
Rationally ignorant voters are unable to keep track of more than a tiny fraction of all this government activity. Indeed, they probably would be unable to do so even with considerably greater knowledge than most of them currently possess. Other things equal, the greater the size and complexity of government, the greater the likelihood that many of its activities will escape meaningful democratic control.
Those who believe in the wisdom of the political process might argue that the competition between political elites–between Democrats and Republicans or between Krugman and Limbaugh–promotes reasonable outcomes. However, I suspect that the net result of this competition is to lead to greater accretion of government power, giving the elites more to fight over. Politics ultimately becomes a competition to promise the undeliverable, whether it be better public education, inexpensive health care, or government suppression of drug abuse or sexual immorality.
I believe in democracy because I distrust the elites. I distrust the elites because I believe that self-deception is widespread, and the elites are particularly skilled at it. Accordingly, I believe that it is important for those in power to have the humility of knowing that they may be voted out of office.
Others believe in democracy because they are hoping to see the triumph of a particular elite. Many liberals want to see sympathetic technocrats manipulating the levers of government, nominally for the greater good. I see government technocrats as inevitably embedded in a political system that inefficiently processes information. The more they attempt, the more damage they are likely to do. Many conservatives want to see government used for “conservative ends.” However, I believe that the more that government tries to correct the flaws of families, the more flawed families will become.
As Taber and Lodge observe in the quotation with which this essay began, in all of our intellectual pursuits we tend to follow strategies for avoiding truth. The more knowledgable we are, the more we follow a high-investment strategy of selectively accepting evidence that favors our outlook while discounting contrary information. In science, this process ultimately is checked by the methods of experimentation, prediction, and falsification. In markets, it is checked by the process of profit and loss. In politics, the checks are less powerful. Our political beliefs are likely to be especially unreliable, regardless of which strategy we use to avoid truth.
-exerpted from TCS Daily