Saturday, May 28, 2016

We Deserve the Lies

This election season is the most bizarre that I have ever seen.  The electorate seems to care more about the message (jobs won't be leaving the US anymore, free tuition for all, there is no drought in California, ...) than on sound policy that will get us to where we want to be.  The few details that are given by the populist candidates show a gross misunderstanding of how things work, and is proof that they will be ineffective leaders with potentially disastrous consequences.  Yet the moths continue to be attracted to the flame as untruths fill the airwaves and internet.

I blame the stupidity of the electorate as the source of the problem, and part of me feels that the people deserve the candidate that they elect.  This reaction comes form the gut, which we know is not the ideal source of sane information.  I therefore decided to write an op-ed piece that spells out the facts without emotion.  It appeared in print 12 hours after I submitted it to the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.

For those of you who don't get the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, the opinion piece is reproduced below.

The presidential candidates are being unduly criticized for lying. The fault is not in our politicians, but within us.  We want to hear lies that confirm our dearly-held ideologies.  The pleasure centers of our brains burn brightly when our ideologies are reinforced, and turn cold in response to nasty facts that contradict what we wish to believe.  As a result, we reward candidates who lie to us with our votes.

Lies uttered by ideological adversaries are easily discerned as such, but objectivity is lost in proclamations from ideological bedfellows, fortifying the ideologue’s certainty.  No wonder that the electorate is so polarized and government deadlocked.

The overwhelming evidence for human-caused climate change is extinguished in the deniers’ minds when Sarah Palin smugly asserts that she doesn’t believe it.  Hell with them 97% of climate scientists who are convinced by the data.  Hell with consilience.  The deniers know better, delightfully wringing their hands as they cherry-pick for scraps of data that validate their faith.

Those who believe that vaccines cause autism don’t want to hear about the lack of evidence for their convictions.  They prefer testimonials to facts, confuse correlation with causation, and scour the internet in search of “evidence” that supports their ideology rather than the medical research.  Protesters against genetically modified foods are not dissuaded by the dearth of supporting facts.  Instead, they write it off as a corporate conspiracy.  Alien abduction zealots, on the other hand, point to a government cover-up.  The list goes on.   This pathology cuts across party affiliations.

The defense against self-deception is the scientific method; but, even science has come under attack when it conflicts with the ideologue’s cherished beliefs.  Science is implicitly humble, admitting that truth is difficult to come by.  This tiny perceived flaw is attacked by the ideologue who equates his or her gaping ignorance with the small uncertainty of science -- no matter how tiny -- proclaiming that “science is uncertain, so my belief in biblical creation, denial of evolution, and conviction in a 6,000-year-old earth is as valid as the science that conflicts with this view.”  The fact that we can never be 100% certain does not make all beliefs equal.

Reality, rather than wishful thinking, drives complex technologies and social institutions on which we depend.  Solutions to problems require a deep understanding of how things work, which guides a nuanced course of action that is not amenable to soundbites and campaign slogans.  Often, the optimum response is counterintuitive and defies common sense.  Ideology coopts reason and leads to actions that run counter to our priorities.  If we are truly interested in solving societal ills, we should set aside subjective passions and act upon objective evidence.

The next time you become irate by the lies, take a look in the mirror.  The politicians will continue to lie to us as long as we continue to lie to ourselves.  It’s time for us to make an effort to be honest with ourselves and to apply some scientific thinking in our lives.  Only then can we come together and begin to solve the horrendous problems that lie ahead.