The irrationality of political beliefs

People are irrational about politics, says this fascinating paper by Michael Huemer, and that’s why there is such enormous polarization in political belief (among people who care about politics at all, that is). Such polarization is dangerous, he points out, because it prevents us from finding solutions to problems.

He offers some suggestions, which I’ve reprinted below, adding just the comment that while they all make great sense to me, they would pretty much close down a large portion of the politically oriented blogosphere (particularly the first one about avoiding insulting remarks in the course of political discussions):

I have witnessed few political conversions, so the most I can offer is speculation as to how one might occur. One point that is pretty clear is that, if a person is to be reasoned into a change of position, he must not see the argument as a personal contest. For this reason, we must avoid insulting remarks in the course of political discussions—whether directed at the individuals actually present or at others with whom they might identify.

A second suggestion is that one should first attempt to move an interlocutor to suspense of judgement, rather than to the position opposite to his own. One might try to accomplish this by first identifying empirical claims that his position depends upon. After securing agreement on what the relevant empirical issues are, one might attempt to secure agreement on what sort of evidence would be needed to resolve those issues. In most cases, one could then point out that neither party to the discussion actually has that sort of evidence. The rationale behind this procedure is that the question, “What sort of evidence is relevant to X?” is usually easier to answer than the question “Is X true?” For example: suppose you are arguing with someone about why America has a high rate of violent crime. He proposes that it is because of violence on television and movies. This is an empirical claim. How would we find out if it was true? Here are some suggestions: time series data about the amount of violence (for instance, the number of murders per hour of entertainment) portrayed on television over a period of many years; violent crime rates over the same time period; similar data for other countries; psychological studies of actual violent criminals that drew some conclusions about why they committed their crimes; data on the statistical correlation between owning a television set and crime; data on the statistical correlation between number of hours of television individuals watch and their risk of committing crimes. These are just a few examples—other kinds of evidence may also be relevant. Nevertheless, the important point is that, in most cases, neither party to the debate has any data of this kind. Upon realizing this, both parties should agree to suspend judgement on whether and how much television violence contributes to crime.

My third and final suggestion is to display fair-mindedness, which may induce an interlocutor to trust one and to attempt to display similar fair-mindedness. One displays fair-mindedness by (a) qualifying one’s claims appropriately, i.e., acknowledging possible limitations of one’s arguments and not making stronger claims than the evidence will warrant; (b) bringing forward evidence one knows of that goes against one’s favored position; (c) acknowledging correct points made by the interlocutor.

I don’t know whether these suggestions would be successful. They seem to conflict with accepted practice among those whom we might consider the experts in political debate; on the other hand, accepted practice seems to be highly unsuccessful at producing agreement (though it does appear successful at producing polarization, i.e., increasing the confidence of those who already hold a particular position).

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