Election years in the United States typically feel long, and 2012 is shaping up to be a very long election year. Indeed, one could even say it began as soon as the last polls closed on November 4th, 2008. This post was originally intended to be a one-off, however, like so many other posts, as I wrote it, I was constantly saying to myself "If I cover this fact or concept here, I also need to mention that supporting (or contrasting) bit from over there"‒and the whole thing snowballed from there. The original impetus for the stand-alone piece was the blow-up over Rush Limbaugh's juvenile, schoolyard bully-style attacks on the character of Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke following her testimony before Democratic members of a House sub-committee. The subject of her testimony was contraception availability and the impact it has on women's reproductive health. Not surprisingly, as I noted above, instead of challenging the factual claims made in Ms. Fluke's testimony, something far beyond the pathetically limited scope of Limbaugh's intellect (not to mention that of his target demographic), the best he could do was resort to name-calling. The specifics of Ms. Fluke's testimony, Limbaugh's contemptible comments and those of his Right-Wing Authoritarian (RWA)i sheep, will be covered in a later post.
In this post, I throw down the gauntlet and lay out my ground rules for any discussion or debate that purports to deal with the world around us. The gloves are off. I am through coddling social, religious, and political conservatives (and when I encounter people on the left that are equally ignorant, I will be just as intellectually brutal with them too). Let this be fair warning‒from now until I revert back to precisely the same the state of non-being I was in (suffering no discernible harm by the way) for the entire 13.7 billion years from the Big Bang to just prior to my birth‒I will no longer remain silent when confronted by confident assertions made by people who have failed to do their homework. I always take considerable care in fact checking myself, in what I write and in my every day conversations with others. As a culture, we have little sympathy (for the most part) for a kid that blows off their homework in favor of playing video games and then embarrasses the hell out of themselves the next day in class when they try to bluff their way through a classroom discussion of the assigned material. Most grown-ups would consider such embarrassment their "just deserts" that would (hopefully) be a powerful motivator not to get caught with their intellectual pants around their ankles in the future, a valuable lesson in the journey toward maturity.
Paradoxically, upon reaching what can be loosely called "adulthood," the desire to avoid publicly embarrassing oneself or look like an ignoramus seems to undergo a curious inversion in some individuals. In the classrooms of our childhood and adolescence, those that pretended to know things they clearly did not were soon exposed, providing ample reasons to get our facts straight, have our ducks in a row, to dot our i's, cross our t's, and to do our homework. One would think that as adults, we would hold ourselves and others to a higher, not lower, standard of intellectual honesty than we hold children. As adults, we would certainly not want physicians that bluffed their way through medical school treating our loved ones or ourselves. Nor would we want auto mechanics working on our cars that were given passing marks for their ASE certifications and training merely because their instructors felt sorry for them. Lawyers that have not done their homework that dare appear in front of a judge are ruthlessly criticized and will have few clients and should we, as private citizens, ever find ourselves in a courtroom, whether civil or criminal, we have every right to demand that the attorney representing us has done their homework.
If our child were suffering from an unknown illness, we would demand that the treating physician leave no stone unturned or allow no assumption to go unquestioned in identifying the malady and how to treat it. In our daily lives however, when it comes to politics, social policy, etc., whether in conversations with family, friends, co-workers, or in the mass media, it is not the person that is, not to put a too fine a point on it, “talking out their ass” that is shamed and embarrassed, but rather it is the one that dares to call them on it that is vilified. By way of comparison, if you enter into a conversation with someone that has a mania for the minutiae of some subject or activity, whether it be Star Trek or NASCAR, they will soon know whether you are merely a dabbling dilettante or if you "know your stuff." If they determine that you are a mere pretender, few will hesitate to dismiss you as a "wannabe" or its equivalent.
As citizens in a democracy, one of our most consequential acts is going to the polls. The intellectual effort, the due diligence, the conscientiousness with which we educate ourselves concerning the facts of the issues before deciding who or what to vote for, are every bit as essential to the continued health of our representative democratic republic as the rigorous studies of a physician or surgeon are to the health of their patients. Paradoxically, our political discourse, at the level of individuals and in society as a whole, is rife with examples of people holding opinions that have no basis in actual facts. In the words of a 19th century humoristii, "It ain't so much the things we don't know that get us into trouble. It's the things we know that just ain't so." In my office, there is an older co-worker that has one of those 8 ½ by 11 inch line drawings, like countless others in circulation in offices throughout the country when photocopying and fax machines were still a novelty. The picture depicts the face of an "old lady" holding a coffee mug, telling folks "Don't believe everything you think." I think that little "poster" should be placed outside every voting booth in the country. As Altemeyer observed in The Authoritarians2, based on subject responses to other survey instruments, he was able to predict that certain people will reliably fail a simple test of inductive reasoning. What the results showed is that as long as those that actually failed the test thought the conclusion was true, they were utterly oblivious to the faulty reasoning used to arrive at the conclusion (or they thought it did not matter). This is why many mathematics teachers require their students to show their work and why some give partial credit‒because the point is to learn the complex steps involved in solving certain kinds of math problems. Once a student has the steps down, then they can concentrate on the silly mistakes we all make, like forgetting a negative sign or some such. The importance of being able make a logically consistent argument, and, not co-incidentally, know what a poorly constructed argument looks like, are a primary reason that Euclidean geometry is still taught in high schools. It may sound a bit lame or lacking in a certain "rigor," but a university I once attended even allowed students to take a course in formal logic to satisfy a core math requirement–because the goal was to teach logical thinking.
As a relatively uncontroversial (hopefully) example that illustrates the interplay between opinions and facts, and which I will later apply to more controversial ideas, is from the history of the Second World War. There have been those that maintain that Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was in possession of what we would today call "actionable intelligence" of an impending attack on U.S. forces in the Pacific. In one sense, it did not require a genius to predict that the United States cutting off exports to a resource-poor and ruthlessly expansionist Japan would not go over well and that open conflict would be the likely result. Given that the principals involved are now dead, as a practical exercise it would hard to interrogate those that were in a position to know. Regardless of how "impractical" it may be to ascertain, 70 years after the fact, who in FDR's administration knew what, if anything, and when, or if, they knew it. The only thing that, even in principle, could ever possibly decide the matter would be evidence. How one feels about the New Deal, the Lend Lease program, FDR, any other aspect of the politics of the time, is irrelevant.
The most contentious and divisive topics in the areas of public policy arise largely because of differing ideas of the real purpose of laws and government institutions in a society. Right-Wing Authoritarians (RWAs) are able to get away with many of the things they do in setting public policy because, as individuals and as a group, their feet are seldom held to the fire and pressed for their true motivations for supporting the policies they do. When I say "holding their feet to the fire" I mean something like the climatic scene in A Few Good Men3, where Lt. Kaffee relentlessly presses the self-righteous Col. Jessup until he tells the truth‒that he ordered the "Code Red," convinced the whole while that he had done nothing wrong.
The idea of "doing one's homework" when forming our beliefs and opinions is part of the more general (and very rare) virtue of intellectual honesty. Intellectual honesty not only requires that we be willing to defend our opinions and beliefs, but that we are also obliged to honestly acknowledge the motivations and assumptions underlying them. It seems that on some level, RWAs seem to instinctively know that to come right out and say the actual reasons why they take the positions they do regarding certain subjects will expose them to public ridicule. Aside from the ravings of anti-vaccination nut-jobs, most folks, RWA's included, recognize that promoting public health through vaccination programs, fluoridation of water, etc., is a legitimate area of concern for governments‒until the public health concern in question has any connection, however tenuous or remote, to sex. In developed, liberal democracies throughout the world, it is generally acknowledged that unwanted teenage pregnancies and the unchecked spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) have significant economic, social, and public health costs and are no less a legitimate public health concern than preventing flu pandemics. There would be near-universal outrage if a government were to mandate the use of a particular treatment for a specific disease for any other reason than that it actually works.
If a society, or a government that claims to act in the name of its citizens, is serious about reducing the human suffering, misery, and deaths caused by smallpox, the only legitimate criteria is: do the vaccines in question actually work as advertised? If anyone were to propose an alternative, we would require that the alternative is more effective, period. Before spending tax dollars on an ad campaign to educate consumers to properly handle and cook meat in an effort to reduce food-borne illnesses, we would demand that the precautions advocated are actually effective. Proposed solutions to societal ills that seem to have little to do with whether or not the solutions in question are actually effective in fixing or mitigating the problem, should set off all sorts of alarms in the minds of all intelligent, thoughtful, and honest human beings. In my next essay, I will expose the moral pretensions of RWAs by looking at one of the hot button issues of the upcoming election
iDr. Robert Altemeyer has been researching the authoritarian personality since the mid-1960's. When the horrors of Hitler's "Final Solution" started to dawn on the rest of humanity, many sought to understand how people‒otherwise decent, normal, educated folks‒can so totally surrender themselves to a charismatic leader with a brutal ideology. Novelists like George Orwell and Kurt Vonnegut explored these questions through their fiction. While some “social scientists” indulged in various forms of moral relativism (I will spare the reader a rant against “post modernism”) other social scientists felt it essential to understand what combination of individual and societal factors make it possible for the citizens in a modern nation, solidly a part of the "Western Tradition," to go along with the Holocaust, indifferent to the enormity of what was done.
Serious social scientists like Phillip Zimbardo (The Stanford Prison Experiment) and Stanley Milgram (The Milgram Experiment) explored situations and contexts in which people surrender to “authorities” and can be goaded to commit moral atrocities they would not if left to their own volition. Altemeyer 's contribution was in identifying two distinctive types of “authoritarian” personalities. Obviously there were “Authoritarian leaders,” e.g. Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco (Spain)‒they are easy to spot. All by themselves they are merely a frustrated demagogue, to be dangerous, they need followers‒lots of them. This was why much of the research into the "authoritarian personality" following the Second World War focused on authoritarian followers.
In Altemeyer's research, he defines "Right-Wing Authoritarians" to be (in part) those that submit to established authorities and rigidly adhere to conventional ways. "Left-Wing Authoritarians" would be those that submit to those that would overthrow the established, traditional authorities‒think 1960's hippie radicals‒a rare breed in the United States today. Keep in mind that while on the conventional "left-right" political spectrum, Soviet or Chinese-style Communism (note the capitalization‒when you see it I wish to make a distinction between socialism/communism and a specific instantiation of it the same way that we would describe the United States as being a democratic republic) is deemed to be the far left end of the spectrum, but for someone living under such a system, that Communism is the established authority. A zealous supporter of conventional ways and the "party line," whether in the United States or in Soviet Russia, would be a Right-Wing Authoritarian (RWA) follower.
iiAmong late 19th century American humorists, Mark Twain (1835-1910) is the most famous. However, on the quotation sites I consulted, no instances attributing the quote to Twain provided a title of the containing work. Geoff Colvin in this book Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, quotes a contemporary of Twain's, Josh Billings (his real name was Henry W. Shaw, 1818-1885) as: "It ain't so much the things we don't know that get us into trouble. It's the things we know that just ain't so." Elsewhere, Billings is quoted as (at: http://www.qotd.org/search/search.html?aid=3945&page=4): "It ain't what folks know that's the problem, it's what they know that ain't so."
The 1876 book, The Complete Works of Josh Billings, p. 286 contains the following quote: "I honestly beleave it iz better tew know nothing than two know what ain't so."[sic] The careful citing of sources seen today was not all that common in the 19th century‒except perhaps in scientific circles. Attempts to correct the "loose" spelling (by modern standards, not for the times it was composed) of Billings' phrasing neatly accounts for the many variations in phrasing of the sentiment expressed as later writers “cleaned up” Billings' very astute observation to make it less jarring to more modern readers.
1. Colvin, G. Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. (Penguin: 2010).
2. Altemeyer, B. The Authoritarians. (2006). at <http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/>
3. Reiner, R. A Few Good Men. Film. (1992).