I’ve come to a point of frustration. Let me explain.
A conclusion I’ve flirted with for many years is that humans are fundamentally NOT rational (which isn’t necessarily to say humans are irrational; a better word is ‘arational’). Humans have some minimal capacity for rationality, but I suspect most of what is considered ‘rational’ is too often largely just rationalization. This is no grand insight per se. Still, I’ve resisted it. I want to believe that humans can be persuaded by facts. I want to believe that truth matters. However, I think it ultimately comes down to the fact that people don’t change much once set in their ways (which tends to happen early in life). As such, people don’t usually change their minds even when confronted with new facts and new ways of interpreting the facts. It’s just that people die and new generations come along (with new biases). The best hope one has of changing another’s mind is to meet them when they are a small child. After that point, there is little hope left for any further change.
Debating most people is about as worthwhile as bashing your head against a brick wall. Even worse, the people most interested in ‘debate’ tend to be the very people who are least interested in truth. It’s rather ironic. People tend to seek out debate because they want to ‘prove’ themselves right, not to explore possibilities, not to learn something new. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between. You might bash your skull to a bloody pulp before you find them.
And, no, I’m not excluding myself from my own criticisms. I know from my own experience how challenging it is to try to be ‘rational’ (objective, emotionally neutral, self-critical, aware of cognitive biases, being on guard for logical fallacies, genuinely trying to understand different viewpoints, being fair toward another’s argument, considering all the data instead of cherrypicking, and on and on). It’s hard enough for me to deal with all this within myself. It’s just too much to have to try to deal with it in other’s as well, especially when those others in most cases don’t want to (or don’t have the capacity to) deal with it in themselves. Spending so much time online, I end up interacting with many people who don’t bring out the best in me and who put me in a generally combative, irritable mood. And it’s my fault for being so easily effected. I’m the way I am. People are the way they are. There is nothing that can be done about that. In this post, I merely wish to explain my frustration.
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I’ll give some examples.
I recently wrote about the differences between Southern and Northern cultures. There are two ways of treating these differences. The standard liberal view is that cultures are different with both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ aspects. The standard conservative view is that some cultures are inherently or fundamentally superior. The problem with the conservative view is that conservative states and societies don’t rank well on many factors most people consider worthy (education, health, economic equality, etc). The conservative will often dismiss this data outright or rationalize it away. And, of course, a lot of (most?) conservatives have little interest in conceding to the liberal view of openminded and tolerant multiculturalism. As a liberal, how do I win or how do I find a win/win middle ground of understanding? I often can’t.
When I was writing about the Southern/Northern culture issue, I also brought up the related issue of race and IQ because it’s a favorite discussion of conservatives. As a liberal, I have a bias toward believing in egalitarianism. It bothers me on a fundamental level that conservatives are always seeking to prove others (usually those different than them) are inferior. Nonetheless, I’m inclined to defer to science on these kinds of issues. Facts are more important than my beliefs and preferences. I take it seriously when conservatives reference studies suggesting a correlation between race (i.e., racial genetics) and IQ. Because I take facts so seriously, I’ve researched the subject extensively by looking at all the studies I could find along with meta-analysis of the studies. It’s true there are some studies that suggest a possible correlation between race and IQ. But what these conservatives don’t wish to acknowledge is that there are also many studies showing no correlation between race and IQ and also many studies correlating IQ to many other factors. Simply put, the data is complex and the research is inconclusive. There is no scientific consensus, as far as I can tell.
I find odd this conservative attitude. These conservatives will cite research that supports their preconceived conclusions while ignoring all the research that contradicts their views. They completely ignore the issue of scientific consensus. I’ve found conservatives quite suspicious of scientific consensus. Conservatives like science when it agrees with them, but they realize scientific authority is a two-edged sword. Once you accept scientific consensus, you eliminate your ability to cherrypick the data. As a comparable example, most conservatives utterly despise the fact that most scientists in all fields and vast majority (98% as I recall) climatology experts who are active researchers agree that the data supports the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). It took decades for conservatives to accept global warming was even happening, but seemingly most still don’t accept that humans contribute to global warming. So, despite the strong scientific evidence and strong scientific consensus, conservatives are wary about science when it disagrees with their beliefs. They’ll ignore what most scientists conclude about AGW and instead they’ll find the small minority of studies and scientists who agree with them.
Accordingly, science is just there to be referred to when convenient and ignored when inconvenient. I don’t understand this attitude. I just don’t get it. If the majority of experts agree about something, I won’t be so presumptuous as to claim that I know better nor will I simply cherrypick the data that agrees with me. Why would I do this? What is to be gained by such anti-intellectual tactics?
One last example. I was looking at reviews of some books by Jim Wallis. One reviewer (in reference to God’s Politics if I remember correctly) mentioned the abortion issue. The person was criticizing the ‘moderate’ position that Wallis was proposing. As I understand it, Wallis is against abortions except when they are absolutely necessary (such as to save the mother’s life) and so is against banning abortions entirely. This position is ‘moderate’ in two ways. First, it strikes a balance between the practical and the moral and seeks a middle ground between two extremes (of pro-life and pro-choice). Second, it is the view held by most Americans and so is the ‘center’ of public opinion. The critical reviewer was promoting the common conservative view that abortions are bad and so compromising principles is to let liberals win. In a sense this is true because compromise is a liberal principle but not a conservative principle. Polls show that liberals support and conservative don’t support compromise. Even independents, although more supportive than conservatives, don’t have a majority that supports compromise. So, when Wallis is promoting a ‘moderate’ position he is by default promoting the ‘liberal’ position. Also, on many issues, most Americans hold positions that are ‘liberal’ (even though Americans don’t like to label themselves as ‘liberals’).
It just seems like liberals in America always lose even when they win. The liberal can have facts and public opinion on their side… and, yet, liberals are treated like an elitist minority to be dismissed and distrusted. It’s understandable that conservatives are wary about science considering most scientists identify as ‘liberals’.
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All of this has made me increasingly pessimistic. I grew up among idealistic liberals which rubbed off on me a bit, but I’ve over time become cynical in response. What is the point in bringing up facts and analyzing the data? Those who agree with me probably already know what I know or are at least open to learning. And those who disagree with me probably won’t accept the facts no matter what.
My frustration isn’t entirely limited to those on the right. I often find a simplemindedness in the idealism and egalitarianism on the left. Even so, I rarely find the same radical anti-intellectualism on the left as I described above. Plenty of liberals don’t understand science and misrepresent scientific research, but they tend to do so out of an admiration (albeit a confused admiration). There are, for example, the New Age type liberals who want to turn science into a pseudo-religion about the beauty of nature and the wonder of the universe. It’s well intentioned even if naive. From my view, this liberal simplemindedness is mostly harmless. Liberals generally aren’t interested in trying to use science against some race or culture. This isn’t to say I don’t feel frustrated by the liberal New Age woo, but it doesn’t usually make me angry and it won’t make me lose all hope in humanity. Even if a liberal dismisses out of hand scientific studies suggesting a possible correlation between race and IQ, they do so because of worthy ideals of egalitarianism. Liberals want to make the world better for everyone, not just better for one group. Liberals are correct that many conservatives will use any scientific research, with or without scientific consensus, against those they perceive as ‘other’. Yes, we should be wary of ulterior motives when scientific research is being cited.
It’s hard for me to grapple with my frustration or to fully understand it. It’s my own personal issue (which relates to the depression I’ve experienced for a couple of decades), but it’s obviously not just about me. I’m a liberal in a society that is dominated by a conservative ruling elite. I see the polls showing most Americans agree with liberals like me on many issues, but none of that seems to matter. Those with the most power and those who are loudest aren’t generally the liberals. It’s rare for the majority public opinion to become visible such as with the protests in Wisconsin. The liberal majority is largely a silent majority. Most ‘liberals’ (whether or not they identify themselves as such) are ‘moderates’ and so they aren’t radicals who want force their opinion onto others. Anyway, polls showing what most Americans believe or support is quite likely irrelevant to most conservatives. Either they just know most Americans agree with them (no matter what the polls may show) or else the general masses isn’t to be trusted (any more than the intellectual elite).
I’m just frustrated. I have many non-fiction books that interest me and many posts I’d like to write if I had the time… but what is the point? Time is a precious commodity. I could be spending it on activities less frustrating. Yes, I enjoy learning new things, but the process of learning can be less than enjoyable at times because of those I run into while doing research online. I think I just have to accept that what interests me isn’t what interests most others, including in many cases most other liberals. I can get obsessive when my curiosity is piqued. It’s not unusual for me to spend weeks or months doing research and thinking about some subject before writing about it and it can take equal amount of time to gather my thoughts into the form of a post. After all that, very few people typically will ever read what I write. I largely do it for my own reasons and so this shouldn’t matter, but it does matter. It just makes me feel isolated. Truth matters to me in the same way God matters to a religious believer. Truth is my religion. There I said it. I know it sounds silly. I know most people don’t idealize truth in this way and to this extent. It’s because truth matters to me that I want to communicate my own understanding of truth. I want truth to matter to other people. I want to live in a society that values truth above all else. But that isn’t the world I live in.
Honestly, does truth matter? Why should it matter? Why should anyone care about truth?
My frustration makes me feel cynical, but I don’t want to be a cynic. Still, I do understand the attraction of ‘giving up’. As Thomas Ligotti once wrote, in response to superficial optimists (which can apply to all the superficialities of human society): “Once you understand that, you can spare yourself from suffering excessively at the hands of ‘normal people’, a pestilent confederation of upstanding creatures who in concert keep the conspiracy going by rehashing their patented banalities and watchwords.” I can’t begin to explain how much I sympathize with Liotti’s words, but he presents a conclusion of radical pessimism that goes far beyond even my own frustration. What I like about his advice is that bashing one’s head against a brick wall becomes unnecessary and avoidable once one realizes the brick wall for what it is. The brick wall ain’t going to move, not easily anyway. Even the best of us can only bash our heads against a brick wall for so long. I can’t say I’ve given up on my ideal of truth. I just need to let my fractured skull to mend a bit for the time being. Maybe I should read some fiction.