Thursday, October 31, 2013

Ideology vs science

Michael Shermer is a well-known skeptic, but he's also a libertarian. That seems like an odd combination to me (though it's really not that unusual), and his column in Scientific American demonstrates why:
My libertarian beliefs have not always served me well. Like most people who hold strong ideological convictions, I find that, too often, my beliefs trump the scientific facts. ...

Take gun control. I always accepted the libertarian position of minimum regulation in the sale and use of firearms because I placed guns under the beneficial rubric of minimal restrictions on individuals. Then I read the science on guns and homicides, suicides and accidental shootings (summarized in my May column) and realized that the freedom for me to swing my arms ends at your nose. The libertarian belief in the rule of law and a potent police and military to protect our rights won't work if the citizens of a nation are better armed but have no training and few restraints. Although the data to convince me that we need some gun-control measures were there all along, I had ignored them because they didn't fit my creed. In several recent debates with economist John R. Lott, Jr., author of More Guns, Less Crime, I saw a reflection of my former self in the cherry picking and data mining of studies to suit ideological convictions. We all do it, and when the science is complicated, the confirmation bias (a type of motivated reasoning) that directs the mind to seek and find confirming facts and ignore disconfirming evidence kicks in.

My libertarianism also once clouded my analysis of climate change. I was a longtime skeptic, mainly because it seemed to me that liberals were exaggerating the case for global warming as a kind of secular millenarianism—an environmental apocalypse requiring drastic government action to save us from doomsday through countless regulations that would handcuff the economy and restrain capitalism, which I hold to be the greatest enemy of poverty. Then I went to the primary scientific literature on climate and discovered that there is convergent evidence from multiple lines of inquiry that global warming is real and human-caused: temperatures increasing, glaciers melting, Arctic ice vanishing, Antarctic ice cap shrinking, sea-level rise corresponding with the amount of melting ice and thermal expansion, carbon dioxide touching the level of 400 parts per million (the highest in at least 800,000 years and the fastest increase ever), and the confirmed prediction that if anthropogenic global warming is real the stratosphere and upper troposphere should cool while the lower troposphere should warm, which is the case.

The clash between scientific facts and ideologies was on display at the 2013 FreedomFest conference in Las Vegas—the largest gathering of libertarians in the world—where I participated in two debates, one on gun control and the other on climate change. I love FreedomFest because it supercharges my belief engine. But this year I was so discouraged by the rampant denial of science that I wanted to turn in my libertarian membership card.

I wish he would. You see, this is the problem with ideologies in general. It's admirable that Michael Shermer was able to overcome his belief system, but why have an ideology in the first place? As is often the case, he adopted libertarianism in college (when we tend to be particularly susceptible to such things), and hanging around with other true believers "supercharges (his) belief engine."

But how does that fit with skepticism, where the idea is to apportion your belief to the evidence? I don't mean to pick on libertarianism, necessarily, although I've never actually met a moderate libertarian. (They all seem to follow their beloved philosophy to its most absurd conclusion.)

But whether you're a libertarian or a capitalist or a socialist or a communist,... any ideology immediately predisposes you to believe whatever fits that belief system. When you look at a policy issue, for example, you shouldn't care whether it's 'capitalist' or 'socialist,' because that doesn't matter. You want to look at the policy itself.

Shermer was against gun control because of his libertarianism, but isn't that backwards? Shouldn't you decide on individual aspects of gun control first, and then,... well, it doesn't even matter if that's 'libertarian' or not, does it?

Obviously, there are no rights which are absolute. We all support freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but they're not absolute. You can't falsely yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater. And you can't cut the hearts out of human sacrifices - even volunteers - whether it's your religion or not.

Shermer describes libertarianism as "socially liberal and fiscally conservative." That sounds nice, but what does it even mean? What about protecting our environment? There is nothing more conservative than conservation (as Aldo Leopold famously said, "To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering"), but that's not considered 'conservative' in America, certainly not these days.

And regarding global warming, how is it considered 'conservative' to change the very atmosphere of our planet without knowing for sure that it won't cause problems?

"Fiscally conservative"? Why was it 'conservative' to start two wars without - for the first time in our history - raising taxes to actually pay for them? Why is it 'conservative' to cut taxes on the rich, especially given that our budget deficits skyrocketed. (But no, according to conservatives, this was supposed to "pay for itself.")

OK, you may claim that those things aren't really conservative. I've heard some libertarians argue that. But that's a useless debate. It's the "no true Scotsman" fallacy. Besides, we don't need those ideological labels at all. Ideologies are faith-based, pretty much by definition, don't you think? (And libertarianism in particular, I'd say. But I don't want to get into that now.)

I don't mean political parties. Political parties are more-or-less practical groupings of individuals working together in a democracy. Well, we're social animals. Groups are how we do things. But political parties change. The Democratic Party isn't the same as it was when the South was solidly Democratic (and neither is the Republican Party, unfortunately).

If you're strongly partisan, you may indeed look at policies through the prism of benefit for 'your side,' and I won't claim that that's right. But it's still not an ideology, even when both parties might currently be associated with particular ideologies.

(If you're wondering, I don't consider atheism to be an ideology, either. It's just a label for a very simple concept. If you don't positively believe in a god, you're an atheist. But that doesn't imply anything at all about what you do believe.)

Skepticism is apportioning your belief to the evidence. Ideology doesn't help with that, and usually hinders it.

Shermer says that he went to the "primary scientific literature on climate," and OK, that's fine. But what if he'd decided that 98% of climatologists were wrong? After all, Michael Shermer isn't a climatologist himself. And none of us can be an expert in everything. But if you understand the scientific method, then you should know enough to accept the scientific consensus, if there is one.

I meet creationists all the time who think they know enough about evolution to conclude that pretty much 100% of biologists are wrong. Usually, they don't seem to have even a grade school level of knowledge about evolution. Heck, I'm not a biologist myself, and even I can often see that. But they think they know enough to reject the scientific consensus.

So the fact that Shermer changed his mind after looking at the "primary scientific literature on climate" is admirable,... but it misses the point. It simply isn't possible, even if you're a scientist yourself, to learn enough about every scientific field to judge the consensuses of scientists in their own field of expertise.

I'm not talking about individual scientists, who can be just as wrong as anyone else (though far less likely in their own field on average). And I'm not talking about any question in science where there isn't yet a consensus. But it shouldn't be necessary to overcome your ideological biases to accept an overwhelming scientific consensus. (And yes, this is fully consistent with skepticism.)

Michael Shermer is right that we should choose science over ideology. But note that he still chooses ideology by default. It's admirable that he's changed his mind when it comes to these two particular issues. But it's not so admirable that he still calls himself a libertarian, still clings to a belief system he adopted in college, still sees most of the world through the lens of his ideology.

Yes, we should choose science over ideology, but I'm not sure that we should ever choose ideology.

Note: My thanks to Jim Harris for the link, though it took me awhile to get to it. :)

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