Friday, September 12, 2008

The Bandwagon

If you don’t get off your duff and do something, we can expect wealth special interests to own the executive branch for another four years, and the religious right to own the courts for the next twenty.

Of all of the forces that shape how a person will vote in a given election, the most potent force is you.

Let me spend a few words here applying theory to action and applying it to the question of who wins an election.

Many atheists and other rationalists claim that people should always, in all instances, base their beliefs on reason and nothing else. This is a moral imperative. A person who does not do this is worthy of our condemnation.

I argue that this is absurd. None of us have the time to base all of our beliefs on reason. Because of time constraints we have to use other systems for justifying our beliefs. Those systems are less reliable than reason. In fact, because of the fact they are unreliable, they are called ‘fallacies’. However, they have a higher ‘truth per unit effort’ quotient than reason, so they are practical.

One of these is the bandwagon fallacy – the fallacy whereby somebody believes something merely because a lot of other people seem to believe it. Of course, those other people could be wrong. However, one of the things that we can say about a widely held belief is that those who believe it are still here. The belief has not destroyed them. So, as a first guess, for a creature that does not have a lot of time to evaluate every possible set of beliefs in depth, it makes sense to use the rule, “Adopt those beliefs that seem to be the most common.”

Yes, it’s flawed. However, in terms of efficiency – in terms of “truth per unit of energy input” it works exceptionally well. “These are the beliefs of those who have made it this far, so these are the beliefs that I will adopt.”

This is why most people in this country are Christians – because this is the belief system that surrounds them, and this is the belief system that got us this far. In Muslim countries, they are Muslim because, at least, Muslims survive long enough to have children.

In light of the scarcity of resources with respect to holding ALL of our beliefs up to the light of reason, we must . . . we must (there is no way out of it) . . . perform belief tri-age. Before holding a belief up to the light of reason we need to make a quick cost-benefit analysis and determine if the expected cost in terms of time and effort exceeds the expected benefit. More importantly, benefits have to exceed the cost by more than with any other possible examination.

So, if holding Belief 1 up to the light of reason provides X units of benefit, but holding belief X2 up to the light of reason provides 2X units of benefit, the fact that holding Belief 1 up to the light of reason produces a benefit is not good enough. It has to be more beneficial than alternative uses of those same resources.

Now, let’s apply this theory to the election process.

There is a very little chance that a person’s vote is going to change an election. There is almost none. So, the payoff that one gets by devoting resources into discovering who is the best candidate is very low. There are other things that are more important. This is why most voters – almost all voters – know almost nothing about the candidates running for office.

What they do instead is they apply the bandwagon fallacy. They look around for the candidate who is making the most noise, who is getting the most favorable press, and they decide their vote on this basis. They’re going to take informal polls of their friends, neighbors, bridge club members, co-workers, people who forward spam email into their inbox, headlines (without reading the stories – because the cost-benefit analysis does not justify going beyond the headlines), and 30 seconds of “political education” in the form of a campaign advertisement somewhere in the middle of a football game.

Here is where you come in.

I used to think that lawn signs, bumper stickers, buttons, and T-shirts promoting a political candidate were nonsense. You can’t learn about a candidate from a bumper sticker or a yard sign.

But that sticker or sign does carry information. It says, “I support this candidate.” In a world where a great many people form their beliefs using the bandwagon fallacy (where it is efficient and rational to do so), the thing to do is to get as many people as possible to shout as loudly as possible, “I support this candidate!”

If you support Obama for President, but you are shy and nervous about letting your opinion be known, then you are doing exactly what the McCain campaign needs you to do, given your beliefs. They need you to be quiet so that when the vast majority of the American voters apply their bandwagon fallacy and cast their votes, their bandwagon fallacy will tell them that McCain is the better candidate.

We know that if McCain wins the election that we will have an administration with no love of truth – an administration with no moral objection to using lies and other forms of malicious deception as well as meaningless distraction to divert the attention of the American voter from what they are doing.

We know that if McCain wins the election we are at risk of having an arrogant and ignorant President who thinks that she can govern the most powerful country in the world by getting advice personally from God.

We know that if McCain wins the election that the religious right will control the Supreme Court and it will not matter what the Constitution says about the separation of church and state – the Supreme Court will simply interpret those restrictions out of existence and clear the road for an American theocracy. Once McCain becomes President, all of your Constitutional arguments for the separation of church and state will be nothing more than so much toilet paper for the religious right.

We know that McCain himself has a moral character that embraces lies and devious distractions, a character that does not care enough about America to keep it out of the hands of those people that McCain himself has selected as his successors.

Because of the events of the past two weeks in particular, I see so much harm and destruction coming to America as a result of a McCain victory, that I find it essential to state clearly and without equivocation that for the sake of the country, and for the sake of the world, that man must not become President.

The bandwagon fallacy is a fallacy in the sense that the truth of the premises (a lot of people believe X) does not guarantee the truth of the conclusion (X). However, as a matter of practical efficiency it is not stupid to use this line of reasoning – particularly for cases where the personal payoff for applying the light of reason is very low.

The most potent force that many of the people around you will have with respect to deciding who to vote for is the attitudes of those around them. If you want to influence their attitudes in a particular direction, then you need to let others know what it is you believe.

It’s time to make some noise.

It’s time to encourage as many people as you can to join in the noise.


Anonymous said...

Yeah its very very important not only for the USA but for the whole world .For our children and any future we might hope will exist.

This bandwagon fallacy is all very fine . But money for things such as continued wars is not never ending , and needs to be spent with wisdom .
Those who believe in god need to ask themselves if he would be likely to help them if its not .

The whole world is watching these elections .May whats best for us all come to pass .

anton said...

It has to be more beneficial than alternative uses of those same resources.

This a perfect analysis of how the "election" process works. It is also an explanation of why Atheist attempts at creating a cohesive group is failing. If our resources of time, energy and mental processes are taken into consideration, most Atheists will opt for "let the other guys do it" as they have simplified the provision of our societal needs such as weddings, picnics, pot luck dinners. etc. Atheists then gather at restaurants, if at all, because all they require is "picking up the tab".

How much more effective would most of your messages be if you had a live audience of several thousand. And your messages were repeated to other gatherings. What if your messages, vjacks messages, my messages etc. had willing audiences of hundreds of thousands. We would be effective. If the Pope puts out a message, he has thousands and thousands of priests who faithfully carry his message to the masses.

We can make a lot of sense but few are listening. Few, if any, can see us!