Ending The War on Facts (And Why You Should Remember to Vote)

Now, I know there are some polls out there…But guys like us, we don’t pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in ‘reality.’ And reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
-Stephen Colbert

I’ve never been much for political labels.

People tell me I’m a liberal, and sometimes I believe them, because I like to ride a bicycle to work, and because I think The New Yorker is the best-written magazine in America.

But despite those preferences, and my long-standing advocacy of living wage laws, I’ve also been known to take several positions that are more closely associated with conservatism. For instance:

Yes, I believe in the unrestricted freedom of speech – but I also believe in strong laws protecting copyright and intellectual property. I am a son of two public school teachers who believes that America owes so much of its standard of living to public and private sector unions – but I also support initiatives that seek to reward teachers based on performance, and to center educational goals around testing milestones.

Both of these once-conservative positions have now essentially become mainstream. So much so, that the most ideological liberals I know have largely accepted these policies, because — well —  on the average, they tend to be pretty reasonable people, who are open to new ideas and to compelling evidence that challenges their worldview.

Unfortunately, it’s become increasingly difficult to say the same about today’s new breed of radical conservatives. And that’s one of the many reasons I’ll be voting for President Barack Obama on Tuesday November 6th.

When Did Our Debate Change From Competing Priorities To Competing Facts?

As the new wave of radical American conservatism grows ever more stubborn, ever more closed-minded and anti-intellectual, it almost seems like the mere acceptance of evidence and reason have become the sole defining traits of 21st century “liberalism,” whatever that term may have once meant in the past.

Whether or not you like the policies or those who identify as liberals or think that they get all the facts right, you’ve got to admit you’d probably never hear one of today’s liberals say something like “we won’t let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.” But there it was, straight out of the Romney campaign.

Of course, liberal Democrats didn’t always have a monopoly on empiricism and reason. There was a time when “progressive conservatives” like Churchill and Eisenhower promoted both advancement and tradition, equality and opportunity. In New York, we had “liberal Republicans” like Javits and LaGuardia and they earned broad support and are remembered fondly to this day.

President Richard Nixon, who presided over the creation of NPR and the EPA, who helped end the draft and the war in Vietnam and opened relations with China, was much like President Obama in some ways: He was a pragmatic centrist who presided over one of the most polarized congresses in decades. He may not have had quite the scruples that President Obama has shown so far, but certainly no one called that kind of conservatism wholly radical and unreasonable.

The fact that the Democratic party has now overwhelmingly become the party of expertise and evidence-based decision making is an unfortunate one. I believe that makes for a terrible national debate.

I’m not alone in this. The anti-empirical stance of radical conservatives has gotten so far out of hand that now, studies show just 6% of scientists, 13% of college professors and 4% of journalists feel comfortable calling themselves “Republicans.”

This is a new development. The scientific community was once evenly split between the two parties. And although college professors have historically been a little more progressive than the national average (trust me, that will happen to you, too, if you’re forced to actively consider all points of view all the time) it was never quite like this.

But it doesn’t end there: even economists – the most conservative of all the social scientists – have recently taken to voting almost 3:1 in favor of Democrats according to a 2003 poll. In this election, that number is expected to rise again, and for good reason. Only one party platform this year passes the sniff-test of simple arithmetic.

This is the legacy of the unbalanced anti-intellectualism of the new conservative movement, and this needs to change. I want my choice between parties back.

Do Facts Have a Liberal Bias?

I have trouble buying the notion that science, education, journalism and economics are all deeply corrupt institutions, filled to the gills with blindly ideological liberals who are out to cook the numbers in support of their own deeply held dogma.

There’s plenty of evidence against that charge, and there’s plenty more to suggest that those who are the quickest to detect “liberal bias” among them  are actually those who are the most resistant to new ideas themselves.

So yes: Studies show that the more likely you are to cry bias, the more likely it is that you’re actually the biased one yourself.

The other possibility, of course, is that the people who are attracted to the pursuit, discovery and exposure of empirical truths are more likely to end up favoring what are today considered “liberal” policies as a result of their focus on empiricism. There is evidence to support this idea:

[Kerry] Emanuel is a proud, lifelong Republican. Or at least, he was until recently, when he voted for Barack Obama, the first time he’s ever backed a Democrat. In 2008, Emanuel says, he was a “single issue” voter concerned about science and climate change. “I don’t like it when ideology trumps reason, and I see that the Republicans are guilty of that in spades at the moment,” he says.

“I’ve been toying with the idea of officially switching to independent status,” he adds.

Kerry Emanuel’s political journey isn’t unique. Rather, it reflects a broader shift in the relationship between the U.S. political parties and America’s scientific and technical experts, over the past several decades.

Increasingly, the parties are divided over expertise–with much more of it residing among liberals and Democrats, and with liberals and Democrats much more aligned with the views of scientists and scholars. More fundamentally, the parties are increasingly divided over reality itself: over what is actually true, not only about hard science but also social science and simple policy facts such as the contents of the health-care bill.

The Democratic Party has thus become the chosen party of what you might call “empirical professionals.” How did this happen? Part of the answer is surely obvious: In recent decades, the Republican Party’s rightward shift alienated many academics, scientists, and intellectuals.

Indeed, that’s how Kerry Emanuel accounts for his own political transformation. In the early 1970s, as an undergraduate at MIT, he remembers feeling surrounded by the “liberal excesses” then prevalent in the “People’s Republic” of Cambridge, Massachusetts…But now Emanuel sees the situation as reversed: The extremes are on the Tea Party right, the Democrats are centrists and pragmatists, and Emanuel–really always a moderate–finds not so much that he has moved but that his party has. [The American Prospect]

Science, by design, is unable to shift to the left or the right. That’s what makes it science. Facts have no political bearing of their own. We can only shift our politics toward them or away from them. And as a nation, too many of us have done the latter.

A Better Question: Does Today’s Political Pandering Have a Conservative Bias?

Politicians, of course, do have the ability to shift away from practical solutions to evade challenges to their ideology and to make grabs at power. And that’s precisely what’s happened in our country.

Today’s economists for instance, have reached the consensus that the stimulus created jobs, that federal borrowing now while interest rates are low is a pretty reasonable idea, and that higher taxes for the wealthy will be necessary to balance the budget in the long term. But you wouldn’t know that from watching the news:

In reality, there’s remarkable consensus among mainstream economists, including those from the left and right, on most major macroeconomic issues. The debate in Washington about economic policy is phony. It’s manufactured. And it’s entirely political.

Let’s start with Obama’s stimulus. The standard Republican talking point is that it failed, meaning it didn’t reduce unemployment. Yet in a survey of leading economists conducted by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, 92 percent agreed that the stimulus succeeded in reducing the jobless rate. On the harder question of whether the benefit exceeded the cost, more than half thought it did, one in three was uncertain, and fewer than one in six disagreed.

Or consider the widely despised bank bailouts. Populist politicians on both sides have taken to pounding the table against them (in many cases, only after voting for them). But while the public may not like them, there’s a striking consensus that they helped: The same survey found no economists willing to dispute the idea that the bailouts lowered unemployment.

How about the oft-cited Republican claim that tax cuts will boost the economy so much that they will pay for themselves? It’s an idea born as a sketch on a restaurant napkin by conservative economist Art Laffer. Perhaps when the top tax rate was 91 percent, the idea was plausible. Today, it’s a fantasy. The Booth poll couldn’t find a single economist who believed that cutting taxes today will lead to higher government revenue — even if we lower only the top tax rate. [Bloomberg Businessweek]

Of course, none of that matters to many of the people who call themselves conservative today. To them, it feels like there’s currently a legitimate debate over economic policy, facts be damned.

Likewise, it doesn’t matter much if President Obama has a US birth certificate or attended the same Christian church for 20 years. He feels like a Kenyan and Muslim. And so he is!

“What? There’s overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming and evolution and whether rape can cause pregnancy? Who cares! That’s not how it feels. What about my emotional truth?”

I’ll tell you something about emotional truth: That’s what art is for. Go play some guitar.

And I’ll tell you something else about emotional truth: Turn on the TV and look at the aftermath of hurricane Sandy. That sh*t is real in so many ways.

On Election Day, Vote Science.

Trust Me ScienceYou’ve heard all these arguments already, far too many times during this election season.

It’s time to end them. On Tuesday November 6th, vote science. Vote evidence. Vote for real, meaningful debate, and vote for sensible economic policy that’s actually been vetted by the overwhelming majority of economists. That’s what I’ll be doing.

In the absence of outlets like Fox News and MSNBC, consensus builds around good ideas. And when we have healthy, fact-centered debates, it leads to increases in agreement, not increases in division.

The one heartening thing for me is that when you poll interested voters on the issues instead of polling them on the rhetoric and the candidates, the platform of reason and empiricism wins out. Today’s socially responsible, knowledge-driven Democratic platform is ahead even in Kentucky, Wyoming and Tennessee, even when you blind quiz high-information voters on the issues instead of the candidates. I only wish that we had two worthwhile platforms to choose from.

To those radical conservatives who believe that the whole lot of professionals who spend their lives discovering, uncovering, and presenting facts come to the table with a deep-seated and nefarious ideological bias, I’d suggest that the real problem today may not be liberals, or facts, or even bias at all. The real problem just might be you.

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