News & Politics

Backwards "Reasoning" is Destroying Politics

How sound bites and wedge issues allow a rightwing minority to dictate national policy.

What! Cognitive research daringly posits our highest intelligence evolved in effect to serve the hardly democratic, Karl Rove credo that put W. in the White House, twice! That our vaunted human reason didn't specialize in problem-solving, nor elevating us from the jungle but this mundane result -- to win arguments? Forget truth, goodness, and the exceptional American way -- let alone the democratic affirmation that rational wisdom is enshrined in majority rule. Okay, I extrapolate to politics, but not by much.

Evolution aside, this explanation clarifies how politics devolved into theatre and stage-managing, how sound bites and wedge issues allow a rightwing minority to dictate national policy. Item: gerrymandered GOP House dominance, up to their ears in contradictions on taxes, deficits, job creation, the role of government, and imperialistic war-making. Politicized "reason" (and language amplified by media) now browbeats a critical mass into shouting the most palpable nonsense -- vs. inspiring critical masses to realize middle-class status is getting stripped clean.

Hey, can progressives join this scheme -- funding entertaining, deranged Michele Bachmanns, think tanks pumping out partisan research, or a leftwing media to gull the gullible? Oh. We believe in education and enlightenment, even rationality, evidence, and wobbly evolution. To our horror, the modern era dramatizes what happens when reason, science and logic are depreciated -- Tea Party suckers (or worse extremists) fall prey to lower impulses -- fear, faith alone, prejudice, passions, instincts, or rapturous fundamentalism.

If true, this new psychology turns logic upside down, turning reason into just another "compulsion" that defines public opinion and remains open to the highest bidder. Conclusive proof aside (absent in the superficial NY Times sketch), this research suggests that rationality, the glory of secular humanism, did not evolve to defeat stupidity or superstition, even the vagaries of organized religion. Them's fighting words I'd think to the moral philosophers filling this site, though an idea helpful to charismatic columnists, politicians, lawyers, preachers, and teachers in the business to persuade.

Reason Seen More as Weapon Than Path to Truth

By Patricia Cohen

. . . Rationality, by this yardstick . . . is nothing more or less than a servant of the hard-wired compulsion to triumph in the debating arena. According to this view, bias, lack of logic and other supposed flaws that pollute the stream of reason are instead social adaptations that enable one group to persuade (and defeat) another. Certitude works, however sharply it may depart from the truth.

"Reasoning doesn't have this function of helping us to get better beliefs and make better decisions," said Hugo Mercier, who is a co-author of the journal article, with Dan Sperber. "It was a purely social phenomenon. It evolved to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us." Truth and accuracy were beside the point.

This thesis raises more questions than it answers: did reason (elevating cause and effect, logic, methodology, continuities and patterns) not precede complex language (required for argument), which seems self-evident. When did brains conquer brawn -- not yet, by some standards? Would parsing facts occur to our half-dressed forebears? Did some early hominid fudge to convince the muscular, tribal idiot next door to share his wife and treasure? Wouldn't high attentiveness to pressing reality (hunting, warfare, threats) be critical to our survival, vs. making the group believe your spiel?

If reason serves a "hard-wired compulsion," then our species remains at its core irrational, prey to winning verbal battles above all. Finally, why aren't other smart, sentient mammals, capable of problem-solving and tool use, thus awarded full status, as in souls? If reason didn't make better decisions about life and death struggles, what did, and how fast -- drugs, trance states, lightning flashes, mythology, or prophets talking with burning bushes on mountain tops?

Undermining secular humanism

The notion that our aggressive, self-centered species applied reason to dominate is no great surprise, testament to clever elites who rise to rule. Nor, for one trained in classical rhetoric, is the notion that argument (as in oratory) aims to persuade, whether done by heroic champions "on our side" or ruthless agents who deceive for their "higher ends." But early man must have trusted verisimilitude when survival depended on tracking reality, while avoiding lies -- that is a saber-toothed tiger, not a phantom, Iraq never had WMDs, and low taxes do not spur job growth.

Okay, team, if not reason -- and confidence in evidence, logic, methodology, with adaptive feedback to correct errors -- what distinguishes us flat-earthers who thought us the center of everything, let alone today's God-is-on-my-side types who know, thanks to divine messaging, one man-made book is literally, perfectly true, despite countless editions and translations. If secular humanists can't trust reason, imperfect as it is, what separates us from brutes, rocks, rock stars and Republicans pandering for president? Or allows us to brag about civilization, even dare harbor the glimmer of hope against disruptive Tea Party idiocy? No, no, I must refudiate such folly or despair.

Evolving, Debating Cavemen?

Maybe the shrewdest cave-dweller influenced the strongman chief, like PR witch doctors do today. Our species obviously survived, likely by taking out competition. But that was far more about out-breeding, interbreeding and bigger clubs, not thought experiments or late-night cave orations. Further, how many of our much later geniuses won "their arguments" when first presented. Au contraire. Being smart, from Socrates through Galileo to Freud, was not fun for the original thinker.

Take Darwin, viewed as a loathsome, monkey-loving insurgent who insulted Victorian stuffiness by insisting hairy cousins whooped it up in trees. His nearly universal "law" of evolutionary biology, opposed still by current Neanderthals, needed a century of scientific verification. Few majorities anywhere (nor Nobel Prize Committees) honored Freud for elevating sexuality, internal conflicts, or unconscious motivations as he sparked a revolution (despite now discredited dead ends). Einstein's revolutionary theories relied on later experiments to validate counter-intuitive hypotheses (relativity, rethinking the "absolutes" of space and time). Climate change warnings appeared decades ago, and still the richest, greatest polluter on earth has no coherent plan to deflect devastation, with only the ultimate magnitude unknown.

Pen Mightier than Sword?

As a writer, with others here, I harbor the delusion the pen is occasionally mightier than the sword. Certainly not my pen -- or anyone's as predatory swords, not reason, dominate our foreign policy. I'd like to envision rationality and majority rule overlapping once again, that is, before the Rapture; that someday we'll boast a leader who's smart, courageous, and principled, not just a high wire balancing act. If power doesn't respect our reality-based top brains at critical moments, our nostalgic fondness for reason, truth and justice will become a dusty memory.

If reason mainly serves "winning arguments," we are doomed as both "confirmation bias" (embracing evidence to confirm entrenched beliefs) and the "backfire effect" (doubling down insupportable positions when challenged) rule our thinking. One wonders how many zealots would forego defiance of evolution if species survival hung in the balance? How many fundamentalists would confuse the upcoming flooding from melting ice-caps, justifiably termed "Biblical," for a watery Rapture? Judging alone by America's massive denials and Bachmann know-nothingism that manically defies reason, I can't help concluding (pace Einstein) that God spends entirely too much time playing dice with the universe.

Robert Becker is a freelance writer and blogger at TheSmirkingChimp.com