Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Few Reminders

You should read Ezra Klein's fascinating post, "The political psychology of Mitch McConnell—and the rest of us."

Liberals—myself included—have complained about what has become known as the conservative media's echo chamber and its byproduct, epistemic closure.

Conservatives have complained about liberal groupthink.

As it turns out, there may be some truth to all of the complaints. All of us tend to suffer from what psychologists call motivated skepticism. Klein writes,
When we're faced with information or ideas that accord with our preexisting beliefs about the world, we accept them easily. When the ideas and information cut against our beliefs, however, we interrogate them harshly, subjecting them to endless scrutiny and a long search for contrary evidence which, when found, we accept uncritically.
Motivated skepticism could be partially responsible for groupthink and epistemic closure.

What does this have to do with Mitch McConnell? You may have heard that he recently said, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." Since McConnell obviously wishes to help both the country and his own party, Klein asks, "Can McConnell bring himself to support a policy that will help the economy if it also helps President Obama?" Even if McConnell believes that what he supports is best for the country, it might be the case that a policy supported by the opposition is better for the country, but McConnell is disinclined to support it, given his preexisting beliefs. Klein writes:
No one in American politics believes they're acting against the interests of the country. What's difficult, however, is the evidence suggesting that political actors are primarily acting against the interests of their opponents. This is particularly true for minority parties, who often find themselves reacting to the majority's proposal, while the majority is often reacting to external conditions. President Bush's critics—myself included—found it very difficult to credit the success of the surge, even after the evidence that it was working began piling up. And in the Obama years, Republicans have turned sharply against stimulus proposals and health-care bill that are not all that different from what they themselves have supported at other times.
None of this is to say that there aren't legitimate and difficult policy questions that need to be hashed out. The White House may be wrong. McConnell may be right. But when McConnell suggests that his main interest is defeating Obama, it suggests that partisanship, and not policy analysis, is in the cognitive driver's seat.
I remember being skeptical about the prospects of the surge. And while the surge probably wasn't solely responsible for turning things around in Iraq, surely it contributed. One of the problems I had with the clusterf*ck in Iraq was Rumsfeld's insistence that it be done with a force that was much smaller than what the Pentagon recommended. If a larger force was what was needed in the first place, then why I was skeptical about increasing the size of the force that was already there?

The threat of motivated skepticism gives all of us, Republicans and Democrats alike, reason to value consistency in our own beliefs. It also gives all of us reason to take extra care to allow facts and evidence to guide policy decisions. If TARP was a good idea, then it doesn't matter that George Bush was responsible for it. (By the way, the CBO just updated its estimate of the ultimate cost of TARP: the $700 billion program is now expected to cost taxpayers only $25 billion.) And if extending unemployment benefits is a good idea, as many economists claim, then it doesn't matter that Democrats are in favor of it.

Finally, if an elected official is opposed to a policy that the evidence suggests is in the national interest, we can't jump to the conclusion that the official in question is an evildoer intentionally seeking to do harm to the country.

All of us—myself included—need these reminders once in a while.

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It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. ---W.K. Clifford

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear. ---Thomas Jefferson