Rob Cobb

Experimental politics

Apr 17, 2014blogdiamondback

This post is from Apr 17, 2014. My views have probably changed since then. If it's about technology, any code is probably broken by this point.

This post originally appeared as a column in The Diamondback

The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.

George Washington, First Inaugural Address, 1789

Alexis de Tocqueville is credited with the moniker the great American experiment for the United States. The idea of testing policies was around much earlier, but shone particularly brightly in the words and deeds of our Founding Fathers. Embedded in our federated republic is a system for testing innovative policy, seeing what works and making decisions based on evidence. Our judicial and legislative procedures revolve around hypotheses and evidence.

Yet when it comes to politics, people rarely change their minds.

New evidence comes out all the time on every subject imaginable. This new information should have a real effect on our beliefs; if we learn something but don’t change our beliefs, we did not actually learn anything.

Changing our minds is hard, especially when the change relates to a fundamental perspective or worldview, as our political beliefs do. Admitting a belief was mistaken might be seen as a weakness, especially in the political sphere.

Voters demand “principled” leadership; leaders should not change their minds in the face of new evidence. When we punish flip-flopping and indecisiveness, leaders cannot afford to wait for evidence or update their opinions in light of new data.

Political polarization is not a new idea. People cluster around ideologies. The stories they hear match the stories of their lives, and when they look for new data, they look for familiar stories that reinforce their beliefs. On the right, the stories are about envious, elitist leftists siphoning money from those who work hard to earn it and giving it to lazy do-nothings. On the left, we hear about backward, bigoted racists too dumb to realize they are in the pockets of big, evil corporations. The stories have their own histories and more nuances than I can get into, and perhaps both have a hint of truth.

Whichever story fits the ones you have heard, clinging to an ideological narrative makes for bad science. It closes our minds to the possibility that those on the other side might have a point. Selectively ignoring data will lead to bad policy. I’ve done it. You have probably done it. Politicians do it all the time.

Americans have different opinions and different values; diversity makes this country great. Yet on most fundamental issues, there is more common ground than is reflected in campaigns and in the media. Americans want a prosperous economy, a fair shot for every citizen, safety from crime and violence, working infrastructure and reassurance that they won’t get cheated.

The best way to get there is not by holding on to principles but by approaching each issue with a mind open to the facts, relying on the experimental power of our system and trusting that what is shown to work really does work. We should assume that we are going to be wrong often, and if we are not changing our minds, that is a bad sign.

OK, so what do we do about it?

First and probably most important, we must get better at recognizing when we are filtering data to fit our preconceived ideas, and quit it. This takes a huge amount of work. I (coming mostly from the left) have been practicing for a while, and I still often find myself ignoring sensible ideas and real evidence presented from the conservative side of an argument. We can’t impose this on our friends, either; we have to get better at looking at evidence objectively for ourselves.

Second, we can advocate evidence-based decision-making processes in politics. Decide not to pressure your representatives to stick permanently to strict values. Ask them to consider evidence, and make that the most important qualification for a candidate. Ask them to listen to their constituents and to look at the science.

If not for me, do it for George Washington.



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