Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Irrationality in Politics

Tyler Cowen over at the Volokh Conspiracy links to a short paper by Michael Huemer titled "Why People Are Irrational about Politics." Most definitely worth a read. He begins by asking why disagreements over politics are so widespread. It may seem a silly question, but he points out that most other subjects (i.e., geology, linguistics, algebra) do not have such deep and persistent disagreements.1 He tries out several possible explanations -- including the difficulty of political issues, the divergence of political values, etc. -- and rejects all of them.

Huemer then concludes that political disagreements arise because most people are irrational in assessing political issues. I couldn't agree more, particularly in the case of almost all people other than myself.

I was particularly struck by this paragraph:
Normally, we think that intelligence and education are aides to acquiring true beliefs. But when an individual has non-epistemic belief preferences, this need not be the case; high intelligence and extensive knowledge of a subject may even worsen an individual’s prospects for obtaining a true belief (see chart below). The reason is that a biased person uses his intelligence and education as tools for rationalizing beliefs. Highly intelligent people can think of rationalizations for their beliefs in situations in which the less intelligent would be forced to give up and concede error, and highly educated people have larger stores of information from which to selectively search for information supporting a desired belief. Thus, it is nearly impossible to change an academic’s mind about anything important, particularly in his own field of study. This is particularly true of philosophers (my own occupation), who are experts at argumentation.
Very provocative. Read the whole thing.

1Except for algebra, Huemer might slightly understate the disagreements that occasionally arise in those subjects -- Wegener's theory of continental drift was controversial for a long time, and Chomsky's theory of deep structure is still controversial, as I understand it. Still, Huemer's point stands.)


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