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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?