The Factual Basis of Political Opinions

“Ideology is a menace.” Paul Collier says in his forthcoming book The Future of Capitalism and I couldn’t agree more: ideology (and by extension morality) “binds and blinds”, as psychology professor Jonathan Haidt describes it, and ideology, especially utopian dreams by dedicated rulers, is what allows – indeed accounts for – the darkest episodes of humanity. There is a strange dissonance among people for whom political positions, ideology and politics are supremely important:

  • They portray their position as if supported by facts and empirical claims about the world (or at least spit out such claims as if they did believe that)
  • At the same time, believing that their “core values” and “ideological convictions” are immune to factual objections (“these are my values; this is my opinion”)

My purpose here is to illustrate that all political positions, at least in part, have their basis in empirically verifiable claims about the world. What political pundits fail to understand is not only that facts rule the world, but that facts also limits the range of positions one can plausible take. You may read the following as an extension of “everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions, but not to his or her own facts”. Let me show you:

  • “I like ice-cream” is an innocent and unobjectionable opinion to have. Innocent because hey, who doesn’t like ice-cream, and unobjectionable because there is no way we can verify whether you actually like ice-cream. We can’t effortlessly observe the reactions in your brain from eating ice-cream or even criticize such a position.
  • “Ice-cream is the best thing in the world”, again unobjectionable, but perhaps not so innocent. Intelligent people may very well disagree over value scales, and it’s possible that for this particular person, ice-cream ranks higher than other potential candidates (pleasure, food, world peace, social harmony, resurrection of dinosaurs etc).
  • “I like ice-cream because it cures cancer”. This statement, however, is neither unobjectionable nor innocent. First, you’re making a causal claim about curing cancer, for which we have facts and a fair amount of evidence weighing on the matter. Secondly, you’re making a value judgment on the kinds of things you like (namely those that cure cancer). Consequently, that would imply that you like other things that cure cancer.

Without being skilled in medicine, I’m pretty sure the evidence is overwhelmingly against this wonderful cancer-treating property of ice-cream, meaning that your causal claim is simply wrong. That also means one that you have to update your position through a) finding a new reason to like ice-cream, thus either invoking some other empirical or causal statement we can verify or revert back to the subjective statements of preferences above, b) renege on your ice-cream position. There are no other alternatives.

Now, replace “ice-cream” above with *minimum wages* and “cancer” with “poverty” or any other politically contested issue of your choice, and the fundamental point here should be obvious: your “opinions” are not simply innocent statements of your unverifiable subjective preferences, but contain some factual basis in them. If political opinions, then, consists of subjective value preferences and statements about the world and/or causal connections between things, you are no longer “entitled to your own opinions”. You may form your preferences any way you like – subject to them being internally consistent – but you cannot hold opinions that are based on incorrect observations or causal derivations about the world.

Let me invoke my national heritage, illustrating the point more clearly from a recent discussion on Swedish television.  The “inflammatory” Jordan Peterson, as part of his world tour, visited Norway and Sweden over the past weekend. On Friday he was a guest at Skavlan, one of the most viewed shows in either country (boasting occasionally of more viewers than the large sport events) and– naturally– discussed feminism and gender differences. After explaining the scientific evidence for biological gender differences*, and the observed tendency for maximally (gender) egalitarian societies to have the largest rather than smallest gender-related outcomes, Peterson concludes:

“there are only two reasons men and women differ. One is cultural, and the other is biological. And if you minimize the cultural differences, you maximize the biological differences… I know – everyone’s shocked when they hear this – this isn’t shocking news, people have known this in the scientific community for at least 25 years.”

After giving the example of diverging gender rates among engineers and nurses he elaborates on equality of opportunity, to which one of the other talk show guests, Annie Lööf (MP and leader of the fourth largest party with 9% of the parliamentary seats) responds with feelings and personal anecdotes. Here’s the relevant segment transcribed (for context and clarity, I slightly amended their statements):

Peterson: “One of the answers is that you maximize people’s free choice. […] If you maximize free choice, then you also maximize differences in choice between people – and so you can’t have both of those [maximal equality of opportunity and minimal differences along gender lines]”

Lööf: “because we are human beings [there will always be differences in choice]; I can’t see why it differs between me and Skavlan for instance; of course it differs in biological things, but not in choices. I think more about how we raise them [children], how we live and that education, culture and attitudes form a human being whether or not they are a girl or a boy.”

Peterson: “Yes, yes. That is what people who think that the differences between people are primarily culturally constructed believe, but it is not what the evidence suggests.”

Lööf: “Ok, we don’t agree on that”.

So here’s the point: this is not a dispute over preferences. Whether or not biology influences (even constitute, to follow Pinker) the choices we make is not an “I like ice-cream” kind of dispute, where you can unobjectionably pick whatever flavor you like and the rest of us simply have to agree or disagree. This is a dispute of facts. Lööf’s positon on gender differences and her desire to politically alter outcomes of people’s choices is explicitly based on her belief that the behaviour of human beings is culturally predicated and thus malleable. If that causal and empirical proposition is incorrect (which Peterson suggests it is), she can no longer readily hold that position. Instead, what does she do? She says: “Ok, we don’t agree”, as if the dispute was over ice-cream!

Political strategizing or virtue signalling aside, this perfectly illustrates the problem of political “opinions”: they espouse ideological positions as the outcome of enlightened or informed fact-based positions, but when those empirical statements are disproved, they revert to being expressions of subjective preference without a consequent diminution of their worth! Conservatives still gladly hum along to Trump’s protectionism, despite overwhelmingly being contradicted in the factual part of their opinion; progressives heedlessly champion rent control, believing that it helps the poor when it overwhelmingly hurts the poor. And both camps act as if the rest of us should pay attention or go out of our way to support them over what, at best, amounts to “I like ice-cream” proposals.

Ideology is a menace, and political “opinions” are the forefront of that ideological menace.

____

*(For a comprehensive overview of the scientific knowledge of psychological differences between men and women, see Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate – or Pinker’s well-viewed TED-talk outline.)

Please keep it civil

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