Monday, November 12, 2012

Partisanship and Objectivity

I dislike being partisan.

I tried to join the Democratic Party once. I found too many elements as distasteful as the religious right and the Tea Party. So, I clearly do not think that the Democratic Tribe is a den of perfect wisdom and moral virtue. I walked out of the county convention eight years ago and changed my party affiliation to Independent. (Well, it took me a few years to actually get the paperwork filed.)

One difference is that the Democrats seem to be holding these fringe elements in check. However, I fear that these fringe elements are held in check by the need to do so to win elections. The weaker the opposition to the Democratic Party, the stronger the voice that these fringe elements have.

I am not at all inclined to support Democrats merely because they are Democrats.

Yet, at a time when Republicans deny even the hard sciences of physics, chemistry, and biology - in a system that only has room for two parties - there is not a lot of choice.

Ultimately, Romney's presidential campaign suffered from the same sickness that plagues the whole of the Republican Party generally - confirmation bas. First, they decide what to believe (the Earth is not warming, Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, evolution is impossible, marriage requires one man and one woman. Romney will win the election). Then they go about sorting the evidence. "This supports my belief - it stays. That does not support my belief - it is to be tossed out."

Religion treats confirmation bias as a virtue. It calls this "faith". It is about picking a conclusion that you like and holding onto it, ignoring all evidence to the contrary and twisting the evidence you do have to support your conclusion. I suspect that, with so much praise going into this way of (non)thinking among Republicans, it has infected their policies even on matters where there is scientific (or military intelligence) information to be weighed and elections to be won or lost.

Do you want to believe that Romney will win the election? The polls do not support that conclusion. Well, since the conclusion cannot be questioned, this implies that there is something wrong with the polls. They over-estimate Democratic turnout. They underestimate Republican enthusiasm. How do we know this? Because the polls say that Romney will lose the election and that is the wrong answer. This means we have to find the cause if the error."

This is no different from the view that Scripture is the answer book - that everything in it is true. Does science give us a different answer? Well, then science must be doing it wrong. Either the scientists have made a mistake, or scientists are involved in an evil conspiracy where they are hiding the truth so as to serve a hidden but malevolent agenda.

However, this is not a Republican problem. It is a human problem.

Science is aware of these dispositions and attempts to negate their influence. Scientists do not say, "We are objective and you are not." Scientists say, "None of us can be objective. However, we can set up our experiments so that we can minimize the harm done by our inherent lack of objectivity."

For example, where possible, we must make our research double-blind. Everybody is biased. They see what they want to see and interpret events to fit the model. This means that the person taking the measurements cannot know what numbers she is "supposed" to get. "Is this a member of the study group? Or the control group?" They isolate variables and look for measurable results. They look to see if others can replicate the research.

(Note: Science needs "Journals of Negative Findings" in all fields. There is currently a publication bas where those that report positive results get published, but failure to replicate those results do not get published. Given that science has this bias and admits to it, the next thing is to create tools to correct for it.)

Political parties will be well served to set up institutions to fight group-think as well. It would be useful to have institutions where a person can question the "de dicta" unquestionable truths of the group without being shot - even anonymously.

It would be useful to make this a personal goal as well. "There are intelligent people whom, I have no reason to doubt, are just as good as I am who think I am wrong on this matter. Seriously, why do they think that? Can I get my head wrapped around how a person can fail to see things as I do without imagining him being bent on the destruction of humanity?"

Right now, Republicans might be asking, "How do we make sure our beliefs are true and that we removed bias?"

The answer: Learn science.


Peter Hurford said...

What constitutes the Democratic fringe?

mojo.rhythm said...

I agree that it is a human problem. However, Chris Mooney has shown that conservatives actually tend to display these irrational traits more regularly than their liberal counterparts, which is interesting. For more, check out his writings on

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Currently, that is true. Which is why I mostly target conservatives.

However, that can change - if one is not careful. Currently, conservatives have been hit quite hard with the ill effects of living in a bubble.

That same situation may make it easy for Democrats to create a new bubble, where they only listen to themselves and fail to consider outside ideas.

Thus, the pendulum swings.

The remedy is to admit to the problem and take active steps to avoid it.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Peter Hurford

Dennis Kucinich

Violent protestors at the World Trade Organization and G20 meetings.

People who hold that it is better that people in a foreign country live in squalor without jobs or medical care - literally dying of starvation and disease - than that one factory is moved into their area to provide them with jobs.

mojo.rhythm said...

People who hold that it is better that people in a foreign country live in squalor without jobs or medical care - literally dying of starvation and disease - than that one factory is moved into their area to provide them with jobs.

Nobody believes that. I bet if you asked them, they would say the second is slightly less immoral than the first. But they would still, rightly, condemn the corporation for exploiting Third World people and treating them as commodities instead of trying to make a better life for them while making money for themselves, which is what a corporate CEO with good desires would do.