Monday, October 25, 2010

Do People Want Rational Arguements?

It's election season in the US and perhaps nowhere in the country is an election nastier and fueled by more money than the Colorado Senate race between incumbent Democrat Michael Bennett and challenger Ken Buck from the "Republican/Tea Party" ranks.  The polls show that the race is a toss-up - Rassumsen has it split 47% for Buck and 45% for Bennett - and money has been pouring into the state from the national parties at a ridiculous pace.  Last Tuesday, for example, over $3.6 million was spent in a single day according to a report.  The TV and radio here in Colorado have been spitting out attack ads against both sides full of half-truths and out-of-context quotes almost non-stop.

Switching gears, the climate science community has been rocked recently by Dr. Judith Curry, head of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science at Georgia Tech and a respected researcher into things like Arctic ice and hurricanes, who has the audacity to engage so-called "climate skeptics" on their own turf - blogs like Climate Audit and Open Air - which some claim legitimizes them.  She has also publicly criticized the IPCC as suffering from groupthink and called for a reform in the way they present and analyze risk.  She sees herself as reaching out to climate skeptics for a more civil discourse, while some accuse her of propping up bad science.

I'm really not interested in discussing the politics of Colorado's Senate race or climate science here - that's not really our thing. What I would like to explore is the question of whether most people even want a rational argument. It often seems like most of the time it is more effective to call names or break off dialog rather than have a measured rational discussion.

I suppose the real question here is how do people react to things that are supported by reason or evidence that contradict what they think should be true?  Maybe it's really a contest between truth and truthiness.
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word - Truthiness
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionMarch to Keep Fear Alive

So what do you think?  Is there any rational discourse to be had or are we all thinking with our guts only?


  1. Nick, it's worse that you realize. Not only do many Americans disapprove of in depth and rational arguments, it can be proven through in depth and rational arguments that this is true (Oh! the irony!). Recently I have been reading a very good book about Venezuela and Hugo Chavez that also addresses the issue of Populism. One of the interesting points I got from the book is that the United States has a high level of measurable populism (measured through surveys and word analysis of political speeches), which is characterized by a shallow political discourse (there is much, much, much more to it but that is one characteristic of populism). This shallowness is reflected in the fact that opponents are demonized through excessive labeling and name calling.

    This type of political discourse is present in all countries, but there are very few countries where there is a noticeably (and statistically measurable) level of populism, and as it turns out the US has one of the highest measurable levels of populism in the world (with very few countries like Venezuela and Bolivia having a higher measurable level of populism). Therefore if you think that the political discourse in the US is "dumbed down" more than in other countries, then you would be correct, and this is true to the point that it is measurable and quantifiable. So we can actually quantify the extent to which Americans "think with their guts" more than people in other countries.

    By the way the book I have been reading is Venezuela's Chavismo and Populism in Comparative Perspective by Kirk Hawkins, who teaches Political Science at BYU. Disclaimer, Kirk is my brother-in-law.

  2. I think logic and references are both good, but also we should take care a bit of what our brain is recording from probability (it is coming in prolongation of instinct and can become instinct, Charles S. Peirce is relating about it) and sometimes gives us the feeling that is true. Also if all these things are valuable, one alone is less efficient.

  3. It's a great question. I have thought so much about this exact topic. I went through a major transformation in my life when I started realizing that consulting my gut (feelings/emotions) might not be the best indicator of what is true.

    Perhaps some will disagree, but I don't think one can even have this discussion without bringing religion into the mix. In many (most?) religions we are taught, even conditioned, to believe that we can KNOW the truth from our heart/gut/emotions etc. Given that most Americans are religious, is it really any surprise that this same logic extends to areas of discourse outside of religion?

    Frankly, I don't see how we can think with our heads and still accept many of the completely unreasonable arguments from so many religions that are simply, and demonstrably wrong. But to express doubt in one's religion is paramount to social suicide in many cases.

    I think there is a place for religion, but I think we are so screwed up when we continue to accept complete BS as valid just because a religious leader says it is, or a book says it is. At some point, for this to end, we have to put religion in the proper role in our lives and stop giving it license to inform our entire worldview.


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