Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Joys of Politics

As you might have guessed, I've got a lot of opinions on just about everything. But probably my weirdest opinions are reserved for politics. So I was curious about this post on Skepchick, which essentially asks why diehard skeptics can have so many different political views.

I'd comment there, but I would have to register, so no dice. I'll comment here. Plus, it means I don't have to worry about length.

It is odd. If you gather us together and ask our opinion on, say, global warming, we'll come back with responses that agree 99%, and are only a little different about exactly what the results will be/what we should do about it. If we are asked, as a group, what we think about equality, or space travel, or any number of other things, we'll almost always be in almost full agreement.

But if you get us all together to talk about gun control, or universal health care, or just flat-out "which party is best", we're extremely diverse. We're more diverse than any other group I can think of. There are green party skeptics. Ngah?

I think it boils down to what a skeptic is. A skeptic is someone who, in theory, weights proof above their own opinions. If there's a group of us chatting, and one of us brings up an interesting fact that weakens another's position, there's a serious moment of thinking. More often than not, the other guy will say, "Hm, I'll have to think about that," or, even more likely, "I'll have to look into that some more".

Facts are pretty easy to come by on things like equality. There is such a strong correlation between equality and general economic progress that it's almost impossible to deny that the two are connected. There's a strong correlation between nations with good science education and nations that don't suck. You can argue that correlation does not imply causation all you want, but the truth is that, in the absence of absolute proof, correlation is much better than just making up whatever you feel comfortable with.

When we get to politics, the facts are a lot blurrier.

We're going to talk gun control. Are you for or against gun control?

If you chose something, you're wrong. There's no really good evidence of correlation between gun control and violent crime. There's a lot of mediocre evidence in both directions, but all that's clear is that gun control is probably the least important factor, far behind things like freedom of speech or police to population ratios. Anecdotes are common on both sides, but usually they are misaddressed - guns are blamed or lauded even though the real issue was something else, such as poverty or cocaine or being-an-idiot.

Arguing whether gun control is good or bad is like arguing whether we should paint our space hotel gold or green. There's no real reason to choose in either way, and it's not like it matters much. In general, I'm against gun control because it's spending money for no particular gain - the same way I would be in favor of painting the space hotel gold if green paint was ten thousand times more expensive.

There are things that do matter, like universal health care. How can a skeptic believe that universal health care is (the opposite of your opinion)?

Well, again, the facts are very fuzzy. While we like to believe that universal health care is good, there is evidence that it slows medical research and provides a lower overall quality of care per dollar. There is evidence that the evidence I just mentioned is bullcrap. It's very fuzzy because it's difficult to analyze such a foggy situation with so many variables, especially when most of the people doing the analyzing are on a biased payroll.

So we tend to err in the direction of our gut. We like freedom, so we argue that gun control is bad. We like safety, so we argue that gun control is good.

Arguing from the gut is the same thing that nonskeptics do. It's not something we should be doing!

I don't know if universal healthcare is good or bad in the general sense. I do know that if Massachusetts provided universal healthcare, it would suck sucky suck suck sucky sucky suck suck. So, I'm against MA-provided universal health care, because the MA government is a stack of pandering imbeciles fifty meters deep.

I know this because the evidence on MA-provided government services is not fuzzy. Thus far, I haven't seen many MA-funded projects that've done any lasting good, and the vast majority of them have wasted millions (or billions) of dollars for no reason other than to secure some votes and skim a few hundred thousand (or tens of millions) off the top.

In this manner, I blatantly dodge the question. "Do you believe universal health care is good?" Well, no, because in MA, universal anything will drive itself into the ground and explode. But... in a mythical government that doesn't screw things up quite so bad?

Then I have to start addressing the lack of clear data. I have to say, if I'm an honest skeptic, "I don't know."

If a skeptic has a strong opinion that isn't backed up by equally strong data, they're not being a skeptic. So the answer to the original question is that skeptics disagree on things they can't prove. Basically, when we're forced to think like the rest of the world, we don't do any better than they do at figuring out what's best.

4 comments:

Textual Harassment said...

One can certainly rightly say "I like (policy)" while admitting that they are going solely on emotion.

It's those who refuse to give up their opinions, and warp the facts to support them, that get so annoying.

But don't pretend you don't use emotion to make decisions. It makes you sound silly.

Craig Perko said...

I AM silly. Pretending otherwise would be silly...

I make decisions based on emotions all the time, obviously. But it's important to realize that those decisions are not The Best and Things Everyone Should Do.

Important decisions that affect many people should be made with more care than that.

DmL said...

I like the honesty here. If everyone was so we'd not have so many arguments, the US wouldn't be so large a country, and people could go where they felt they ought to.

Matthew Rundle said...

If everyone was honest, I think we'd have a lot more arguments, not fewer. But I'm not sure that that would be a bad thing.

My position is less 'let's agree to disagree about (whatever)' and more 'man, I wish more people would use science to figure out what the deal is about (whatever)', but neither position really clears the way to making things better, the latter is just the idea that things ought to be made better.

I just wish more people would use science to figure out what the deal is about (whatever).