Left Behinds

The anti-andrewsullivan.com. Or, the Robin Hood (Maid Marian?) of bright pink Blogger blogs.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Not only am I right, I’m not even going to explain why

I’ve had a number of exchanges recently that touch on the idea of empiricism, or at least the shabby form I try to believe in. Several people have explained to me that most Americans – most people in the world, for that matter – do not believe in the primacy of evidence derived from their five senses (which, by extension, means that they do not believe in science as a main way of understanding the world around us). Well, obviously.

About three in four Americans profess at least one paranormal belief, according to a recent Gallup survey. The most popular is extrasensory perception (ESP), mentioned by 41%, followed closely by belief in haunted houses (37%). The full list of items includes:


Believe in


%

Extrasensory perception, or ESP

41

That houses can be haunted

37

Ghosts/that spirits of dead people can come back in certain places/situations

32

Telepathy/communication between minds without using traditional senses

31

Clairvoyance/the power of the mind to know the past and predict the future

26

Astrology, or that the position of the stars and planets can affect people's lives

25

That people can communicate mentally with someone who has died

21

Witches

21

Reincarnation, that is, the rebirth of the soul in a new body after death

20

Channeling/allowing a 'spirit-being' to temporarily assume control of body

9

The healing powers of the mind have been demonstrated empirically, reflected in the power of placebos, among other examples. More than half of Americans, 55%, believe in this connection.

Strictly speaking, visits from aliens are not part of paranormal beliefs. Although definitive scientific evidence of such visits is lacking, in principle the existence of extra-terrestrial beings and their ability to visit earth are subject to empirical verification.

All of the other 10 items listed above require the belief that humans have more than the "normal" five senses.

So 75% of Americans believe in lunacies. I’m not even going to get into the fact that more than half of Americans do not believe in evolution - not natural selection as the model for evolution as opposed to “intelligent design,” mind you, but that humans evolved at all.

I think we have come to accept that it was ever thus. But it wasn’t.

A 1997 [Yankelovich] poll compared current belief in paranormal phenomena with belief levels measured in 1976.

Which if any of the following do you 
believe at least to some degree?
 
Belief
 
1997
1976
Spiritualism
52%
12%
Faith Healing
45%
10%
Astrology
37%
17%
UFOs
30%
24%
Reincarnation
25%
9%
Fortune Telling 
14%
4%

There is a concerted assault on Enlightenment rationalism in this country. There has been for years. It’s working.

We on the left traditionally have had a core faith in “consciousness raising” (although we haven’t always used that term). The assumption is that if people can be made to face the true facts, they will make more rational choices. (Unstated here is the assumption that our choices are the more rational. Leave that aside for now.) That is why we have been champions of ever-more-universal education. But what if education doesn’t promote rationality?

Believe it or not, higher education is linked to a greater tendency to believe in ghosts and other paranormal phenomena, according to a new study.

Contrary to researchers' expectations, a poll of 439 college students found seniors and grad students were more likely than freshmen to believe in haunted houses, psychics, telepathy, channeling and a host of other questionable ideas.

While 23 percent of college freshmen expressed a general belief in paranormal concepts—from astrology to communicating with the dead—31 percent of seniors did so and the figure jumped to 34 percent among graduate students.

"As people attain higher college-education levels, the likelihood of believing in paranormal dimensions increases," Farha and Steward write.

This leaves us with a serious conundrum. People who don’t believe in rational ways of approaching the world cannot be reasoned with. And education does not make people more likely to be rational.

For the last fifty years, conservatives in this country have had another model available to them: Straussianism. The most objectionable part of which derives from Plato’s Myth of Metals – not the Myth itself, actually, but the way Plato proposes to use it.

Such is the tale; is there any possibility of making our citizens believe in it?

Not in the present generation, he replied; there is no way of accomplishing this; but their sons may be made to believe in the tale, and their sons' sons, and posterity after them.

I see the difficulty, I replied; yet the fostering of such a belief will make them care more for the city and for one another.

Why is such mythmaking necessary? Because most people cannot face the truth – in fact, most people will abuse and destroy anyone who tries to force them to face the truth.

And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he's forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.

..

Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.

The temptation to manipulate people is strong. In the last few days, our own Solomon has asserted that the “unwashed masses” “need candy dangled in front of them to motivate them to have the bare minimum of decency and morality” and advocated circumcision because dampening male libidos is good for society.

The problem, of course, is that unlike Solomon Grundy (seriously), the people currently in power are a bunch of idiots. They lie to us because they think they are right and we are to be manipulated into following them, but that only works if they are in fact right. They hardly ever are.

I don’t know what to do. Argumentation is useless. Education doesn’t help. The leaders in power are witless. Those I trust more, who are out of power, have not shown anything like a comparable ability to manipulate the public. And most people don't care if we ever become rational again.

I would say we should be more upset, but who would be the "we" in that sentence?

And as to truth, I said, is not a soul equally to be deemed halt and lame which hates voluntary falsehood and is extremely indignant at herself and others when they tell lies, but is patient of involuntary falsehood, and does not mind wallowing like a swinish beast in the mire of ignorance, and has no shame at being detected?





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UPDATE (July 11, 2006): I have been advised by someone who would know that the article on Strauss linked to above is full of errors. For one thing, most of the people listed as Straussians did not in fact study with either Leo Strauss or his students. In fact, I now think that most of what I once believed about Strauss was mistaken. Kindly ignore the last third of this post. Or just leave Strauss out of it and insert "lying rightwing fuckwads" in his place. That works too.

23 Comments:

  • At 5:32 AM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Great post. I'll comment after I sleep.

    Briefly, I should emphasize that I was being very ironic when I wrote "unwashed masses," because I generally identify with the unwashed masses, which is one of the things that makes me not a Straussian.

     
  • At 12:28 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    I know. You want me to clarify I know you were kidding?

     
  • At 1:18 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Heh, no. I just wanted it on the record in the comments.

    Btw, I still haven't slept, so maybe my brain is working slowly, but without seeing the original study, the media accounts of that superstition/higher ed study seem to suggest correlation, not causation. Basically, that study is so weird that I have to wonder about it.

    I guess your point is that we would assume that higher ed would disabuse people of their irrational beliefs, but maybe there are other factors that make superstitious people persevere in higher ed at a greater rate than rational people.

    Or maybe it's the accumulated effects of all the beer.

     
  • At 1:23 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    Yeah, I'm not pointing to the survey and saying higher ed causes superstition, but clearly it doesn't seem to make it go away.

     
  • At 6:04 PM, Blogger Phoebe Evergreen said…

    Union members consistently vote Democratic in larger numbers than non-union members, all else being equal.

    Gallup surveys on whether teh gay is cool would probably show big improvements from 1976 to 1997 and even better going beyond. (Am I wrong?)

    This not to say that the truth wins out of its own accord, just that people can be organized to change, whether individually or in broader social currents, and that we're not losing everybody all the time.

    Or, in the words of Mother Jones, "Don't mourn, write a pink blog."

     
  • At 8:10 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    Gallup surveys on whether teh gay is cool would probably show big improvements from 1976 to 1997 and even better going beyond. (Am I wrong?)

    Of course I am not arguing that all things have gotten worse since the 70s. In many areas societal attitudes have gotten better.

    Of itself, though, that proves little except that people have grown more accustomed to certain ideas over the course of a generation (such as gayness, or interracial marriage). Not necessarily as a result of thinking rationally about the matter, just because familiarity breeds boredom. Could be true of anything--our increasing boredom with extreme violence, for example.

    Not in the present generation, he replied; there is no way of accomplishing this; but their sons may be made to believe in the tale, and their sons' sons, and posterity after them.

    In many other areas we have lost ground, such as in public and especially governmental friendliness to worker power and organization.

    In fact, I would say that in most areas lately we are losing. I don't expect we will win all the time on all issues, but simply saying "organize" ducks the question of how to get through to people when they are fundamentally as likely to respond to bullshit as demonstrable truth.

    Sometimes I write letters intended to persuade Members of Congress, crafting careful arguments about why including poor people in economic development is sound public policy. These arguments are meant to appeal to pro-business Republicans, so they talk about enterprise and America's competitive standing in the world. It makes me kind of sad, because at base (1) the people I ghost-write for care about what happens to poor people but can't say it, and (2) the people I'm writing to don't give a shit about poor people and couldn't be more obvious about it. No rational argument is going to sway them, and the result is deep cuts to every social program in the face of the desperate need brought on by Katrina, even though those cuts are miniscule in relation to the deficit.

     
  • At 10:38 PM, Blogger Phoebe Evergreen said…

    You're absolutely right. I suppose what I was saying is that just because reason doesn't work on people doesn't mean that a) it ever has and b) we're accordingly fucked.

    Better be careful, or we might start talking about framing.

    And actually, I think it pays to go back to organizing, especially as you think of it as presenting the truth to people as hand-in-hand with their self-interest. The problem with your letters to business Repubs is that they present the case hand-in-hand with the recipient's stated ideals, which is not at all the same as his or her self-interest.

    If your point is that free beer beats sound argument, well, no, I'm not going to argue with you.

    As for public and governmental friendliness to worker organization, don't think the two are the same -- the former is much more than the latter.

    I didn't write this above because I was lazy, but the second example was an example of clear positive change, and the first one was one where changing the way people think doesn't take generations but happens as their material lives and social organization changes.

     
  • At 12:07 AM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    I do think of organizing as presenting the truth to people as hand-in-hand with their self-interest. But there is a gigantic assumption there: that people will see the truth, will see their self-interest. That is the basic assumption of economic theory, among other things: that people will act rationally in accordance with their self-interest.

    I'm just losing my irrational faith that that assumption is valid. Something is clearly broken in our politics.

    "Framing" is just a new word for a good ad campaign. Advertisers have known what Lakoff says for a long time. How do you think they get us to buy all sorts of crap we don't need? They're certainly not trying to present us with the facts about their products so we can make a rational decisions about what's in our best interests. And it's pretty obvious that in the current political landscape, the pull of organizing is WAAAAAAY weaker than sophisticated PR.

    That's just my view of reality as it now is. It doesn't mean organizing always loses, as in, for example, the inspiring story of "small town kicks Wal-Mart to the curb." But it seems to be losing more than it's winning.

    If I can find hope it might be here: Another way of thinking about organizing is not as a mode of presenting facts and arguments about people's self-interest, but as creating social structures where people can be subjected to peer pressure. I suppose that could be our answer to Straussianism. In its way it's more benevolent.

     
  • At 12:29 AM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    Though churches will always trump anything else peer-pressurish we could come up with.

     
  • At 8:34 PM, Blogger Phoebe Evergreen said…

    And churches will often be on the side of good. As well as the side of superstition.

    I do think of organizing as presenting the truth to people as hand-in-hand with their self-interest. But there is a gigantic assumption there: that people will see the truth, will see their self-interest. That is the basic assumption of economic theory, among other things: that people will act rationally in accordance with their self-interest.

    But there's a social component to it -- you build an organization that makes that clear. You don't just count on people to read The Truth And How It Connects To My Self-Interest magazine.

    We're getting into glass half-empty/glass half-ass stuff here. Would you like the last word? I'll let you flip me for it. Call it in the air.

     
  • At 10:47 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    I'll say one more thing and then let you have the last word: good and reason aren't synonymous. In fact nothing I've said should in any way suggest that irrational people can't do good. After all, Plato wanted to build a utopia, not rip off oil royalties. It does imply a dynamic, however, whereby some "we" who know better are going to be trying to convince "the people" by fair means or foul to do what we think is right, because they aren't going to see it our way on their own. You said as much earlier, that truth doesn't win out of its own accord. But a core tenet of liberal organizing has been that truth will win out if people know it, and that if it doesn't win out it's because it's being obfuscated. Is it more important, then, to respect people's right to choose for themselves, without resorting to one form of manipulation or another, or is it more important to build support for what you believe is right?

    I'll give you an example. You know Ian. In 2004 he was precinct-walking in Pittsburgh, and talked to a guy who said he wasn't going to vote for Bush because he'd so badly mishandled Iraq.

    "That's great," said Ian. "I hope John Kerry can count on your vote."

    "Yeah," the guy said, "Bush should have just nuked the whole place and gotten it over with."

    What should he have done? Argue with the guy, or just accept that he's going to do the useful thing for incredibly fucked up reasons?

    For me it's a pretty easy choice, actually, since I don't have that much respect for people in the abstract.

     
  • At 1:47 AM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    That is the basic assumption of economic theory, among other things: that people will act rationally in accordance with their self-interest.

    I'm just losing my irrational faith that that assumption is valid


    Hm, that's actually a pretty controversial question, involving somewhat complicated stuff like revealed preferences and meta-ranking of preference orders. In Rational Fools, Amartya Sen argues for an expansion of the classical model to include commitments that could be contrary to self interest (such as religious commitments or commitments to various communities). Models including those types of commitments more closely resemble actual behavior (such as the fact that the famous prisoner's dilemma almost never obtains in real life or even experimental settings).

    But anyhow, in economic theory, rationality in a weak sense means making consistent choices. As Sen says,
    If you are observed to choose x rejecting y, you are declared to have "revealed" a preference for x over y. Your personal utility is then defined as simply a numerical representation of this "preference," assigning a higher utility to a "preferred" alternative. With this set of definitions you can hardly escape maximizing your own utility, except through inconsistency.

    That's the circular, weak definition. The more common definition is somewhat more meaninful in terms of what one's interests are:

    The other concept of rationality prevalent in economics identifies it with the possibility of justifying each act in terms of self-interest: when act x is chosen by person i and act y rejected, this implies that i's personal interests are expected by i to be better served by x than by y

    ANYHOW, the point is, there are clearly defined, counter-intuitive definitions of rationality in economics.

    What you are talking about is less central to classical economic theory, and is something like intellectual sophistication. Game theory, for instance, usually assumes very limited "strategic sophistication," i.e., that people can only think ahead two or three steps, if that. But that doesn't make them less rational, just less intelligent.

    All of the above is kind of a tangent.

    I am not sure I agree with you that lefties are more committed to rationality than conservatives are. I would guess that roughly equal numbers of conservatives and liberals probably think that proper education (not indoctrination, but free-thinking education) would lead to clearer understanding of the world, which would, lo and behold, match their accounts of the world.

     
  • At 3:06 AM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    For instance, I think most conservatives would say that this applies to them more than it does to liberals;

    But a core tenet of liberal organizing has been that truth will win out if people know it, and that if it doesn't win out it's because it's being obfuscated.

    I think you two have been assuming that our truth is true and their truth is false, which is of course exactly what they assume.

    You may be right that liberals tend to be more committed to fair play and good faith arguing. I am inclined to think that. However, most conservatives passionately believe the opposite.

    For anyone who hasn't read the Lakoff, it's really worth reading, and it's here.

    As he says,

    Moreover, why do conservatives and progressives talk past one another, not with one another?

    The answer is that there are distinct conservative and progressive worldviews. The two groups simply see the world in different ways.


    I think what you are expressing is a frustration that the conservatives are winning the battle of ideas because they play dirty. According to their worldview, the liberal media is the dirtiest player of them all, so they have to do whatever it takes to counteract that ultimate betrayal of impartial rationality.

    It may be that we can never talk to one another. However, most people are not stridently partisan, which means we can communicate rationally with the vast middle.

     
  • At 3:40 AM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    Um, no, I'm expressing a frustration that people are fucking stupid. That's not a partisan problem, it's a problem with people being fucking stupid. Believing in ESP is not a Republican or Democratic thing, it's a stupid thing.

     
  • At 3:48 AM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    Let me rephrase that slightly: it's partisan in that there exists a relatively small group of explicitly conservative thinkers who believe that because people are fucking stupid, we have to lead them around by the nose. And they led us right into an unnecessary war.

    But the problem I'm trying to identify with communication has little to do with how dearly people hold their political beliefs and everything to do with the fact that the vast middle isn't stridently partisan mainly because it doesn't pay attention to politics very much. We can talk to them (and the "we" here is strictly those of us in this blog discussion, not some wider political group), but we have to be honest with ourselves that we are talking to people who believe in ESP and ghosts.

     
  • At 12:36 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Right, I see. It's usually a mistake for me to write rambly posts just before I go to sleep.

    I guess I was making a couple points.

    -Classical economic theory doesn't assume rationality in the dictionary sense (or it would be a lot less relevant). It uses a clearly defined, counterintuitive definition of rationality.

    -I think Lakoff would disagree with your conclusion that argumentation is useless, since he avers that people talk past one another because of fundamentally contradictory worldviews, not diminished capacity for reasoning. My point was that, pace Lakoff, the vast middle are probably not that committed to their worldviews.

    This kind of sidesteps your evidence that the vast middle are stupid and/or reject empiricism. I am not sure I'm ready to completely write people off just because they believe in supernatural phenomena, or that holding some beliefs about the supernatural is even a very good proxy for commitment to empiricism. That seems too absolutist. There's a lot of other evidence contradicting your picture of a march toward a medieval mindset. Plus I was not terribly moved by the study correlating higher education and belief in the supernatural. Something about the media account of that study smelled stinky to me.

    You conclude that "Argumentation is useless. Education doesn’t help." For the reasons sketched above, I think that's jumping the gun.

    Then you conclude that lefty leaders "have not shown anything like a comparable ability to manipulate the public." Are you calling for a lefty Straussianism?

     
  • At 1:49 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    Ok, first of all, sorry I didn't say anything about your explanation of economic rationality. I bow to your knowledge of the subject and didn't have anything to add.

    I see what you're saying about Lakoff. I just have a hard time taking him seriously. I've read that article before, and his take on what will work as a Democratic/liberal "frame" (i.e., implicitly advocating a mommy state) seems so wrongheaded to me that I can't buy into the rest, except insofar as it's pretty straightforward ad-think. In other words, as is often the case the diagnosis part is way better than the prescription. I think liberal arguments should be based on principles of fairness--which is what he's saying about taxes being societal dues. But "nurturant parent"? Yech.

    And if beliefs about the supernatural aren't a good proxy for a commitment to empiricism, then there isn't one. You're essentially saying we just have to take people's rationality on faith. (In a discussion about empiricism you can't just refer to evidence contradicting an argument without presenting it. That's cheating, man.)

    Finally, I'm not advocating anything in particular. This frustration arises for me mainly in relation to major questions of science (such as global warming) or esoteric policy where public explanations are difficult to impossible. When I said "I don't know what to do," I wasn't necessarily suggesting we all need to become better Platonists/Straussians. Unless we're talking about foreskins.

     
  • At 2:02 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    Oh, and one thing about the education survey: a better one would have tracked the same group of people through college and beyond. But if education had a strong effect in counteracting superstition, you would expect to see a marked decline in superstitious beliefs among people with increasing levels of education. And the survey fails to show that. That result actually doesn't surprise me very much, as your example in comments below of the highly educated evangelist illustrates.

     
  • At 2:07 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Speaking of foreskins...

    Just kidding. Although, aren't we always already speaking of foreskins? Or lamenting them? I like that frame.

    Yeah, the mommy state thing is a little, um, Alan Alda. I agree that fairness is a better frame. You should, like, write an article about that or something.

    Oh and in terms of evidence, I wasn't cheating, just being sloppy. What I was thinking and what I should have said was "such as what Josh I mean Phoebe mentioned."

     
  • At 2:43 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Thinking about this more:

    Come on. You don't think a majority of people have the capacity to be rational? That is an almost absurdly pessimistic view of human nature. I can't cite a study offhand, but the ad absurdem of your position would suggest that people would think the same whether they had a 4th grade education or a PhD. Sorry to be so glib, but c'mon. You're being so extreme.

    So people admit to sometimes believing in ghosts because they saw a compelling episode of The Other Side. Does that mean they're lost causes and could never be engaged in rational debate? Very few people could pass that kind of empiricism purity test.

    It seems more reasonable to suggest that people tend to be lazy thinkers, thus their exercise of reason is imperfect. But I think most Americans take pride in thinking of themselves as "able to see through bullshit." I mean, Jesus Christ, a majority of them think they've got the Great American Novel inside them. Rationality is an ideal, but there are competing influences that sometimes trump it.

     
  • At 3:27 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    Just because most people think they can see through bullshit doesn't mean they really can.

    That said, of course I believe people have the capacity for rational thought. It's just that we're in a historical moment where it seems that the exercise of that capacity is at a low ebb. I originally meant the post to wind up asking more sincerely what we could do to get people back to greater respect for reason and science, and instead got all depressed and bitchy. But I still am kind of baffled, since education isn't the silver bullet and TV drowns out most everything else.

     
  • At 4:40 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Maybe better education and better TV?

     
  • At 5:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    A quick meta-observation. Of course there are witches. Tossing followers of Wicca into that pot should be as offensive as someone saying that there are "Christians and Catholics." Indeed, did you know that some people are trying to get the DoD to change its policies to allow Wiccan symbols on military grave markers? It's a recognized religion, but they haven't had enough people (a dozen, vs the required 100?) make the request for the normal procedures to kick in.

    I wonder how much of the contrary results is due to an awareness of these shades of gray. Witches that have magic do not exist, but witches that follow Wicca do exist. Which is the respondent thinking of? Witches even cast "spells", but they may be rituals closer to meditation than eye-of-newt. Again, which is the respondent thinking of?

    It's harder to argue the other questions, but not impossible. Can the test distinguish between a full-on spiritualist and somebody who takes comfort in interpreting a single bizarre occurance as a sign that a loved one is a peace instead of just random chance?

     

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