Monday, May 22, 2006

"If My Enemy Says It, It Must Be Wrong"

The internet is abuzz with the CEI's "pro-carbon-dioxide" advertising spots. The explicit message can be described as follows:
Because carbon dioxide exists in nature, it can't be bad, and indeed must be good because it is a necessary part of the life cycle. Liberal organizations want to label it a pollutant in a scare-tactic that lacks a scientific foundation, and seeks to enact a policy that is bad for business, society, and humanity for their own political gain.

The implicit message strays from the conventional corporate tagline seen above to the following suggestion:
Perhaps we should be burning more fossil fuels, because it's what plants breath in, and so it's good for nature. Additionally, anything that makes life easier in the short term is always better than a personal effort.

To me, the question has never been a political one. I don't understand (at a gut level) how some issues become political issues. Consider climate change. Let's assume, to keep things simple, that evidence exists to support the existence of global warming as a result of human action. Let's also assume that a powerful multinational industry has a vested interest in quashing that evidence to prevent hemoraging of their bottom line. Lobbyists for that industry exert their substantial financial muscle and social contacts on politicians, and win votes and support for their cause. So far, everything seems plausible. Where I lose the thread is the jump from the politician to the voter. How do millions of Americans establish a unified belief in a particular viewpoint (whether good or bad)?

Consider affirmative action, for example. I, though technically a fairly left-wing liberal, oppose it on the grounds that enforcing demographic regularity does not actually reduce (indeed, it seems to increase) race-relations problems. I'm not opposed to laws designed to puish racism, mind you. I favor legislation that makes explicit discrimination illegal. But my distaste for minority quotas in the workplace and in education has run me afoul with certain other liberals in the past, because I'm somehow "breaking rank" and failing to align my ideology with theirs.

There is a way of thinking, common from pole to pole the political spectrum, that the home team's ideas are necessarily right and the opposition is necessarily wrong. It's a mindless sort of existence, because it only requires vague attention to what the party line is rather than serious thought about each issue on its own terms. And this way of thinking is growing more common. The polarization of American politics has driven many voters to extreme positions.

There are certain advantages to this mindset:

1. You're Never Wrong.

2. Things That Go Wrong Are Never Your Fault.

But at the same time, I see some serious problems:

1. You Have The Mindset Of An 8-Year Old.

2. You're More Likely To Vote Than A Skeptic.

Global warming. The causes of cancer. The efficacy of military operations. The equality or inequality of minotiries. These are not moral questions. These are questions that a scientific approach can provide real answers to. The ideological fervor associated with topics like abortion, capital punishment, and torture in prisons is understandable, as those issues revolve around a conflict of moral values. Issues revolving around testable questions should draw their policies from the consensus view of the researchers in those fields. If it works, use it; if it doesn't, toss it.

That politicians ignore the evidence at the behest of lobbies that are all (by definition) trying to get an unfairly large slice of the pie is not surprising. That voters ignore the evidence at the behest of politicians baffles me.


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