Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Hilzoy v. Rod Dreher

Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings says:
There is, by now, a whole genre of mea culpas written by people who support Iraq. Some are more thoughtful than others. But some are, to me, frankly puzzling. Because what the writer uses to explain his mistake is not some simple factual error, but a whole cast of mind that I would have thought would be even more embarrassing than getting even a large policy question badly wrong.
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As a sort of warm-up exercise, consider Rod Dreher's account of the changes the war in Iraq caused in his political views: [Long quotes from Rod that you'll have to click through to read.]

* * *

Isn't it astonishing that any adult would confess to this -- to having formed his opinions on the basis of speeches rather than policies, and to have "scorned", "blithely", people he ought to have tried to learn something from, on the basis of -- what, exactly? Apparently, nothing more than the fact that they struck him as whiny defeatists. Isn't it even more astonishing that someone who actually writes about politics (along with culture) for a living would admit to this? To me, it's like hearing a doctor say that it was only his own illness that finally made him pay attention to those germ thingies he had earlier dismissed as too small to worry about, and realize that people who whined about annoying things like hospital hygeine and safe drinking water weren't just fussy anal-retentives.
Disclaimer: Rod Dreher is a good personal friend of mine. So feel free to take what I say with a grain of salt.

My response: I think Rod's mea culpa is surprising not because he says that his own decisionmaking process in the past was irrational, but because most political commentators lack his self-awareness.

Studies have shown that the most well-educated people are, paradoxically, most susceptible to viewing the world through the lens of partisanship. For example:

"A clear bottom line: political knowledge does not correct for partisan bias in perception of 'objective' conditions, nor does it mitigate the bias. Instead, and unfortunately, it enhances the bias; party identication colors the perceptions of the most politically informed citizens far more than the relatively less informed citizens." Danielle Shani. 2006. "Knowing Your Colors: Can Knowledge Correct for Partisan Bias in Political Perceptions?" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago.

"In this paper we report the results of two experiments showing that citizens are prone to overly accommodate supportive evidence while dismissing out of hand evidence that challenges their prior attitudes. On reading a balanced set of pro and con arguments about affirmative action or gun control, we find that rather than moderating or simply maintaining their original attitudes, citizens – especially those who feel the strongest about the issue and are the most sophisticated – strengthen their attitudes in ways not warranted by the evidence." Charles S. Taber and Milton Lodge. Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs." [This was published at: American Journal of Political Science 50(3): 755-69.]

In other words, it's the most clever people who are best at dressing up their emotional and partisan beliefs in high-minded reasoning, the best at cherry-picking the evidence to support their cause, the best at poking holes in any contrary evidence. That's what makes Rod's essay (linked above) interesting: Unlike most people, he was able to figure out how his political reasoning had been affected by those factors.


Blogger "Q" the Enchanter said...

Wow. Well, I'm a bit of a Nietzschean on justification, so I'm prepared to accept the idea that political "reasoning" (and in fact all our modes of reasoning) might be in large part epiphenomenal in the way you describe. But I don't see that Dreher comes within even a shoe bomb's toss to recognizing this general possibility in his mea culpa. He admits he got hosed, and he effectively says he's changed his mind about things (despite some obvious belief perseverance) because of the facts on the ground -- "the waste, the folly, the stupidity of this war."

9:57 PM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

OK, maybe that was a little too cynical; in fact, I edited out the bit on "epiphenomenal" very soon after posting (you're quick on the draw!).

Anyway, all I'm saying is that we're all biased (including me), and it's hardly "astonishing" (rather, it's utterly routine) for a clever person to have all kinds of biases. And given that the cleverest people tend to be best at hiding their biases behind neutral reasoning, the hard thing here is for a clever person to be able to figure out a way in which he was biased, and then to be honest enough to admit it.

9:38 AM  
Blogger "Q" the Enchanter said...

"Quick on the draw," maybe, but slow with the rejoinder. Well, better late than never...

Two things. First, there I biases and there are biases. E.g., it's one kind of bias to prefer a candidate because you like her party, and another to prefer that candidate because you like her hair color. Obviously, Hilzoy thinks Dreher's politically developmental biases are deviant in the manner of the second example. Maybe Hilzoy's wrong, but I think that's her argument anyway.

Second, it really doesn't seem to me that Dreher at all appreciates the role that these newly-uncovered biases of his might systematically have played in the formation of his political beliefs. He admits to being a "fool," yes, but a fool only about the war in Iraq. He makes some gestures in the direction of greater skepticism toward government, but exhibits no recognition that his biases might generally undermine the warrant he thinks he has for his substantive political beliefs.

9:58 AM  

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