Political irrationality


This week, in honour of the Canadian federal election coming up May 2, I’m revisiting a column from a few years ago that seems apropos.

It’s all about political irrationality, and if you read that phrase and immediately assume it’s referring to the obvious irrationality of the political beliefs of those who plan to vote for candidates belonging to that stupid/evil/corrupt other party, well, think again: by making that assumption, you’re actually the one demonstrating political irrationality.

Political 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,” posted on his website, the associate professor of philosophy notes that political disagreements are also unusually widespread (any two people will probably disagree politically about something-or-other) and unusually long-lived.

There are four theories why:

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

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

Then there’s Heumer’s favorite, the irrationality theory, which says that political opinions are simply not arrived at rationally.

Neither miscalculation nor ignorance explain the certainty people display regarding their political beliefs, Heumer says. Someone who has reasoned out a complicated mathematical problem tends to be tentative about her answer, especially if she lacks mathematical knowledge and especially if someone else got a different answer. But people tend to be completely sure their political “answers” are correct, and the fact others apparently reasoned their way to an entirely different “answer” doesn’t affect their certainty in the slightest.

The divergent values theory, meanwhile, doesn’t explain why political differences seem impervious 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 should be something that can be factually determined – but people on either side of the debate hold their beliefs so strongly they can’t even agree on the facts.

Heumer says people’s political beliefs, even when irrational, are actually chosen for rational reasons: the psychological rewards of holding certain beliefs, rational or not, outweigh the slight harm that results from holding false beliefs.

Thus, people choose to hold a certain political belief to fit into a social group, maintain their self-image, or simply because that belief meshes well with their other beliefs. They convince themselves their belief is entirely rational by giving supporting evidence more weight than contradictory evidence, focusing on arguments that support their beliefs and ignoring those that don’t, collecting evidence only from sources they already agree with, and relying on subjective, speculative and anecdotal claims.

For Heumer, political irrationality is “the greatest social problem humanity faces,” because it prevents us from finding solutions to other problems, such as war, poverty and environmental degradation. But 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 they realize other people’s beliefs may also be irrational, they can learn to be wary of the information others present them with, understanding that it may be false, misleading or incomplete.

Heumer also offers tips for discussing politics rationally. First, he says, don’t make the discussion personal – avoid insulting the other person or groups with which he might identify. Second, he suggests, both sides should identify the facts on which they’re basing their claims. You may be arguing in an absence of knowledge, and can then agree to suspend judgment while you gather more information.

Finally, Heumer says, it’s important to be fair-minded, acknowledging the parts of your argument based on incomplete evidence, being willing to bring forth and address evidence that undermines your position, and acknowledging fair points made by the other person.

Of course, this is not the way our “professional” political debaters (politicians, pundits, newspaper columnists and bloggers) usually conduct arguments.

But don’t you want to be better than them?

(The photo: Saskatchewan Legislative Building, Regina, Saskatchewan.)


Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/2011/04/political-irrationality/

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