Guided by the ‘correctness’ of our opinions

Scott’s article GUIDED BY THE BEAUTY OF OUR WEAPONS is going viral.

He writes:

Yet I have the opposite impression. Somehow a sharply polarized country went through a historically divisive election with essentially no debate taking place.

As shown below, going as far back as 100 years, with the exception of FDR (everyone was united in support of the war effort) and Reagan (an exceptionally talented and inspiring candidate who beat some exceptionally uninspiring opponents), the electorate has pretty much always been evenly divided, give or take 10%:

Anyone in the 90’s who listened to Rush Limbaugh or Fox News knows that politics was as divided then as it is now. In 1993 it was ‘Hillarycare’; now it’s ‘Trumpcare’. It only seems more divisive now because social media puts a megaphone to everything.

What about debate and facts? There is probably a deeper philosophical implication in his post, but it doesn’t matter. People will believe what they want to believe. Some, probably only the minority, are motivated by facts and logic [1]; most are motivated by emotion, signaling, beliefs (idealism and rationalism) and tribalism. People vote red/blue because that’s what they are accustomed to doing, habituated and instilled by parents and peers. We rationalize why the other side is ‘bad’ and why our side is ‘good’. To quote Scott Adams, we create ‘mental movies’ where we’re the star and the script is a recitation of our preexisting beliefs. Not to sound too holier than thou, that’s fine, if you truly believe your opinion is the ‘correct one’, and preferably if you have some empirical evidence and reason to support it.

But with the exception of the hard sciences, it’s nearly impossible to have a ‘correct’ opinion, or even a ‘correct’ fact. This is especially problematic in the social sciences, such as economics, as well as climate science and measuring the efficacy of gun control laws. For example, I can have an opinion that raising the minimum wage hurts economic growth and raises unemployment, backed by studies, but someone else can counter that my opinion is wrong, citing his own studies, but also that the studies that I cite, which I take for granted as ‘facts’, are wrong due to methodological errors. And this goes back and forth, with each side citing their own facts and countering the other’s, and no one is any closer to understanding or resolution.

Does that mean we give up on opinions? No, because some opinions are truly ‘better’ than others (Newton’s opinion on gravity being a particularly ‘good’ one, backed by a multitude of empirical evidence). But in many instances, there is no resolution and engaging in debate is unproductive, regardless of how ‘correct’ your opinion is or may be (as Newton probably realized when he tried to explain the concept of an ‘inverse square law’ to others). That’s why debating politics is mostly a waste of time: even if your opinion is as ‘correct’ as Newtonian gravity, your opponent is unlikely to yield, and even so, is it worth the effort.

This part also stood out, in which Scott praises the civility and courteousness of Trump supporters who commented on his blog:

This was also the response I got when I tried to make an anti-Trump case on this blog. I don’t think there were any sudden conversions, but here were some of the positive comments I got from Trump supporters:

— “This is a compelling case, but I’m still torn.”

— “This contains the most convincing arguments for a Clinton presidency I have ever seen. But, perhaps also unsurprisingly, while it did manage to shift some of my views, it did not succeed in convincing me to change my bottom line.”

— “This article is perhaps the best argument I have seen yet for Hillary. I found myself nodding along with many of the arguments, after this morning swearing that there was nothing that could make me consider voting for Hillary…the problem in the end was that it wasn’t enough.”

— “The first coherent article I’ve read justifying voting for Clinton. I don’t agree with your analysis of the dollar “value” of a vote, but other than that, something to think about.”

— “Well I don’t like Clinton at all, and I found this essay reasonable enough. The argument from continuity is probably the best one for voting Clinton if you don’t particularly love any of her policies or her as a person. Trump is a wild card, I must admit.”

— As an orthodox Catholic, you would probably classify me as part of your conservative audience…I certainly concur with both the variance arguments and that he’s not conservative by policy, life, or temperament, and I will remain open to hearing what you have to say on the topic through November.

— “I’ve only come around to the ‘hold your nose and vote Trump’ camp the past month or so…I won’t say [you] didn’t make me squirm, but I’m holding fast to my decision.”

and also this part:

Another SSC story. I keep trying to keep “culture war”-style political arguments from overrunning the blog and subreddit, and every time I add restrictions a bunch of people complain that this is the only place they can go for that. Think about this for a second. A heavily polarized country of three hundred million people, split pretty evenly into two sides and obsessed with politics, blessed with the strongest free speech laws in the world, and people are complaining that I can’t change my comment policy because this one small blog is the only place they know where they can debate people from the other side.

The appeal of Slate Star Codex, as I discuss in Intellectual Solvent Part 1, is that it’s an island ‘evolved’ discourse and nuance in a sea of emotive low-information discourse. As the passages above show, the ‘high-IQ right’, although they disagree with Scott on the choice of candidate and policy, find common ground in rejection of low-information discourse (shared narratives). Both the ‘high-IQ left’ and the ‘high-IQ right’ agree that purveyors of ‘low information’ make their respective sides look tribalistic and uninformed. Scott is thinking ‘BLM and SJWs are making Hillary look like a sympathizer of domestic terrorism, radical feminism, and Communism’, and smart Trump supporters are thinking ‘Fox News, Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter are making us look like buffoons’.

If you genuinely believe that facts and logic don’t work on people, you shouldn’t be writing articles with potential solutions. You should be jettisoning everything you believe and entering a state of pure Cartesian doubt, where you try to rederive everything from cogito ergo sum.

This part was confusing. As a side note, cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) means that if one can conceive thoughts, they exist, which is related to Cartesian dualism and the mind-body problem of ontology. It’s not really applicable to politics and debate, which is related to epistemology. What Scott is probably referring to is the tendency of some to rationalize certain beliefs as being true, regardless of opposing empirical evidence. For example, someone can insist that Obamacare is a success, and I can show empirical evidence (such as rising premiums and cancellations) that it’s not, but if someone wants to rationalize (in their mind) that Obamacare works, no amount of empirical evidence will matter.

[1] appeals to ‘facts and logic’ are often synonyms for materialism and empiricism, in contrast to idealism and rationalism. Not all materialism is ‘bad’–HBD, for example, is a materialistic concept.