Wednesday, September 05, 2012


Spotted on Facebook this morning:
You can't have discussions with people who are untethered from reality. You come with facts and they have faith.
True. And ironic.

Where's the irony?

It's from someone who believes that the stimulus worked, and that Obama's been a great President, that Obamacare's going to improve health care while reducing its cost, and that the cause of the financial crisis was too much free market and not enough government.  And that's ironic, from my point of view, because I think those are faith-based positions, not reality-based.

I've written before about the difficulties that arise when people who need to cooperate cannot come to agreement on the reality of the situation in which they find themselves.
Differing incomplete perceptions of reality result in different analyses.
That remains true, and, unfortunately, it seems to be the case for many of the issues facing the American electorate right now. And it seems to me that those on the left are more disconnected from reality than those on the right. (Obviously, I think I'm right; they think they are.) And there are many little examples. Twice in the last three weeks, there have been posts of indignation and outrage on Facebook from anti-gunners about things that the NRA has (supposedly) done. One was an article from the Onion, and another was some ridiculous site claiming that the Florida governor supported a law that would allow gun-owners to shoot people at the polls that they suspected weren't legal voters. Both stories were utter nonsense, that the slightest amount of critical thinking would have allowed one to perceive as such, but there are those with so little understanding of gun rights advocates that they are willing to believe nonsense of their political opposition.

Or take abortion.  (Please!)  At least a couple of times a month, there are dozens, or hundreds, of "likes" of pictures which say things like, "my uterus is none of the government's business" or "hands off my ovaries."  I want to scream, "no one gives a damn about your ovaries" but that wouldn't be productive.  Of course, those comments aren't productive in the first place.  They impute to pro-life citizens motives that are absurd and unreasonable, while ignoring the true motives.  There may be no way to reconcile the extreme pro-life and extreme pro-choice positions, but assertions such as those don't even address them, and shut off any chance of finding common ground.

So this person marshalls the "facts" that he sees, and assume that they are, in fact, "facts."  Unfortunately, they aren't.  Oh, sure, there are some, and we can dig down and find some facts that we'd all agree on, if we dig far enough, but "facts" don't actually explain everything.  Statistics are helpful, but they don't actually speak for themselves.  Statistics, like history, need to be interpreted.  Times and dates are knowable, actions often are, motives are more obscure, secondary effects are harder to see, and counter-factuals are impossible to know.  Did the stimulus help or hurt?  We can look at the same data and draw different conclusions.
  • Some people say that the stimulus stopped the job loss, strengthened the financial stability of the states, and therefore the country, and prevented a second great depression; that the cash for clunkers program spurred demand and that the auto industry bailout saved thousands of jobs.  

  • Others say that the stimulus exploded the debt, largely supported Democratic constituencies, prevented or delayed states from making necessary structural changes to public sector employment contracts, and is acting as a drag on the economy, resulting in both higher unemployment than the Obama administration predicted, and the slowest growth rates out of a significant recession since the Great Depression.
Who is right?  It's unknowable.  What you believe depends entirely on your world view.  But at least some of the people who believe the former position is correct also believe that those who hold the latter position are "untethered from reality."

On this one point, we are 100% in agreement - the different world-views make it very difficult to have a productive conversation. 

I know what I believe, and I know the epistemology of my beliefs.  I look at everything that's happened since 2000, I look back in history to the 20s and 30s, to the Soviet Union and Communist Cuba and Communist North Korea and Great Britain's socialism, to Adam Smith and Karl Marx and Bastiat and Hayek and Keynes and Maslow and Rand, and it's clear to me that the stimulus was a bad idea, and it made the economy worse.  It's clear to me that Barack Obama had no qualifications for the office, he's been a poor administrator but a consequential President due to the overwhelming Democratic majorities in Congress during his first two years.  It's clear to me that the spiraling deficit began to get out of control in 2007 when the Democrats took control of the Congress and George W. Bush utterly failed to push back against their spending demands.  It's clear to me that Social Security and Medicare are unsustainable in their current forms and need to be modified significantly. 

Am I right?  I think I am.  I'm confident in these beliefs.

But I can't prove it.  All of the "facts" are susceptible to alternate explanation.  In my understanding of the world, that's the situation.

It's easy to go out to the Treasury website and find the budget numbers for the last 10 years, it's easy to go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and find the various unemployment rates for the last 10 years.  And we can all agree that, in most cases, the numbers are what they are.  But why are the numbers what they are?  What do they correlate to?  And of course, even if they correlate, does that imply causation?  Was the financial crisis caused by unfettered free market trading in derivatives?  Or by the government's interference in the mortgage markets, pushing banks to make bad loans?  Or some combination of the two?

And how would you go about proving it to someone who disagreed?

In the end, we all bring our world-view to the discussion.  There's no way around that.  In the end, we can look at the same facts, and one thinks the stimulus made the situation better and the other thinks the stimulus made the situation worse.  Since we don't know what would have happened without the stimulus, we do not - we cannot - know which position is correct.  There are facts, but each and every one of us also brings faith.  And failure to recognize that, failing to recognize our own articles of faith, our own biases, makes the discussion impossible.

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