The irrationality of political beliefs

Monday was Family Day in Saskatchewan, and probably more than one family that got together that day set a dinner-time rule: “Don’t talk about politics.”

Political disagreements, unlike run-of-the-mill disagreements, tend to turn hot very quickly. And that’s just one way they’re unusual, says Michael Huemer of the University of Colorado in Boulder. In “Why People Are Irrational About Politics” the associate professor of philosophy notes that political disagreements are also unusually widespread (pick any two people and they’ll probably disagree politically about something-or-other) and unusually long-lived.

Heumer lists four theories that attempt to explain why.

The miscalculation theory says political issues are so difficult that people make mistakes in reasoning them out and then disagree with others who have either not made mistakes or have made different mistakes.

The ignorance theory says political issues are divisive because we either don’t have enough information, or different people have different information.

The divergent-values theory says political issues are divisive because they tend to be based on fundamental moral values, which vary widely.

But Heumer likes the irrationality theory, which says that political opinions are simply not arrived at rationally.

The miscalculation and ignorance theories don’t explain why people are so sure they’re right, politically, Heumer says. People who have reasoned out a complicated mathematical problem tend to be tentative about the answer they got, especially if they lack mathematical knowledge and especially if they’re confronted with someone else who got a different answer. But in political matters, we tend to be completely sure of ourselves and are unaffected by the fact others who supposedly also reasoned out their beliefs got a diametrically opposed “answer.”

The divergent values theory, meanwhile, doesn’t explain why political differences are rarely overcome by an appeal to facts. Heumer’s example: socialists blame capitalism for Third World poverty, while capitalists believe capitalism is the solution for Third World poverty. The effects of capitalism or socialism on Third World poverty can be factually determined, and facts have nothing to do with moral values. Yet people on both sides hold to their beliefs so strongly they can’t even agree on the facts.

Although their beliefs may be irrational, Heumer says, people choose to hold irrational beliefs for rational reasons: they find the psychological rewards of holding certain beliefs, rational or not, outweigh the slight harm they might suffer from holding false beliefs.

They may choose to hold a certain political belief to fit into a particular social group, to maintain their self-image, or because that belief meshes well with past beliefs. To rationalize their irrational belief, they give supporting evidence more weight than contradictory evidence, focus on arguments that support their beliefs to the exclusion of those that don’t, collect evidence only from sources they already agree with, and rely on subjective, speculative and anecdotal claims.

Heumer sees political irrationality as “the greatest social problem humanity faces,” because it prevents us from finding the best (or sometimes any) solutions to other problems, such as war, poverty and environmental degradation.

He hopes that if people realize their beliefs may be irrational, they can adjust their confidence in those beliefs, particularly in areas they’re likely to be biased about. And if people realize that others are also irrational in their beliefs, they may be more wary of the information others present them with, understanding that it may be false, misleading or incomplete.

Heumer also offers some tips for discussing politics rationally. First, he says, don’t make the discussion personal–in other words, avoid insulting the other person or some group with which he might identify.

Second, he suggests, both of you should identify the facts on which you’re basing your claims. You may both discover you’re arguing in an absence of knowledge, and can then agree to suspend judgment (and the argument) while you gather more information.

Finally, Heumer says, both you and the person you’re arguing with need to display fair-mindedness. For example, you should acknowledge which parts of your argument are based on incomplete evidence, you should be willing to bring forward evidence you’ve uncovered that does not bolster your position, and you should be willing to acknowledge good points made by the other person.

Of course, this is not the way our “professional” political debaters (politicians, pundits, columnists and bloggers) currently conduct arguments. But the status quo is hardly producing a lot of agreement, is it?

At the very least, Heumer’s suggestions might allow politics back into the realm of polite discussion.

Even on Family Day.

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    • Edward Willett on February 20, 2007 at 1:11 pm
    • Reply

    Yes, that sounds about right.

    • jaz on February 20, 2007 at 11:26 am
    • Reply

    A large part of the problem is that many current “professional” political debaters seem to have nudged political banter into a kind of ugly mass entertainment where we gather around not be educated or to gain insight into complex problems but to watch others be humiliated or insulted.

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