Archive for June, 2014

Magic Thinking and Personal Interest

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

We’ve talked about confirmation bias in the past and how we are all susceptible. Confirmation bias is when we accept those things that support our particular view of the world and reject those things which call that view into question. A version of this is Moral Intuition. That’s when we respond to a particular issue emotionally and then use our rational brain to create arguments supporting what we have already decided must be true because it aligns with our moral foundations.

These biases lead to Magic Thinking. That is when we invent or accept views completely unsupported by science or fact because this particular view is consistent with our world view.

Here’s an example of Magic Thinking.

God makes political choices
This is a simple one to work through. God, as described in the Bible, is all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfect. He created us in His image and likeness which means in His eyes we are perfect too. He supplies our every need. So why would this God involve Himself in politics at all? It is akin to praying that God influence the outcome of a sporting event. Why would He bother? It is our responsibility to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling”. Then Paul goes on to say, “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” Events unfold to further God’s will, not to satisfy our own particular personal plan. That will is His desire for us to increase in grace and in our understanding of Him. So the unfolding of God’s plan is generally the path that does the most good and blesses everyone. There are no losers in God’s plan. Winning is strictly a human concept. It is Magic Thinking to expect a prayer for victory to be answered. A much more effective prayer is one that humbly seeks direction and alignment with the plan that is already in place for us.

Magic Thinking is dangerous for our democracy because it transforms important issues from facts to belief. Beliefs are highly emotional subjects. So any attempt to debate them is divisive. That’s because beliefs by their nature are personal. So when you question a belief, you are also calling into question the intelligence and honesty of the person holding that belief.

Some who seek to manipulate the public in order to advance their own agendas put a lot of effort into transforming political positions into beliefs.

Here are some other examples.

Climate Change
From a scientific perspective, there is wide agreement that the climate is changing and that the change is PRIMARILY caused by human activity. That doesn’t mean that all scientists agree on everything. There are certainly a small number of climate scientists who have dissenting views. It also doesn’t mean that the scientific models are perfect. They aren’t because our planet is a complex system. But those models continue to improve as climate scientists better understand how our planet is responding to the increased heat being retained by our atmosphere.

Magic Thinking claims that climate change is some sort of liberal conspiracy. The politics of personal interest is the best way to disprove that. Self interest in the scientific community is strongly biased toward disproving accepted theories. That’s how scientists make a name for themselves in their peer community. The scientific method REWARDS the person who is able to demonstrate that a popular theory is flawed. That reward is shared with those who can duplicate the experiments which support the new theory. In other words, a dissenting view supported by good research is always welcome in the scientific community.

There is also no proof that scientists who disagree with the generally accepted theories about climate change suffer financially. In fact, it is much the opposite. Those small number of dissenters from the majority view are richly rewarded for their positions by the powerful interests who oppose actions restricting the use of fossil fuels.

The politics of personal interest also provide a simple explanation for conservative opposition to any government actions to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The majority of the money financing conservative politicians who deny climate change comes from organizations linked to the Koch Brothers. Their wealth is based on fossil fuels. Their personal interests are opposed to any restrictions on the use of fossil fuels.

They have successfully deployed the same techniques originally developed by the Tobacco Industry to create doubt and confuse science and belief. If anything, it is testimony to the ethics of the scientific community that most climatologists have resisted the temptations of participating in the lucrative practice of junk science.

Free Markets
The Magic Thinking here is that free markets can regulate themselves. So any failure for free markets to operate successfully is attributed to too much government intervention rather than companies that have become too big to fail.

The reality is that while it is certainly possible for government to overreach, there is no evidence that free markets can effectively operate without regulation.

The politics of personal interest are a reliable measure of where this argument came from too. Who stands to benefit the most from a deregulation? Those entities that had been previously regulated, their management, and their stock holders. Who back the conservative politicians who promoted the agenda of deregulation? The same group.

One need look no further than China for examples of how industries behave in economies where there are no regulations. The environment is polluted. Workplaces kill workers. Products kill customers.

The Magic Thinking is on the part of individuals who have been convinced by these larger monied interests that deregulation benefits them. Just ask the people in Charleston, West Virginia where “business friendly” state regulations allowed a toxic chemical storage facility to be built upstream from their drinking water intake pipes. Magic Thinking in this case is the Libertarian view that the marketplace will punish bad corporate behavior. The facts are that at least in our version of capitalism, short term profits always trump long term unfunded liabilities (externalities).

What happens instead is that the offending company profits from their bad behavior. Those profits flow to company management and shareholders. When the externalities finally catch up with the company, the real costs of production are revealed. The cost of the damage done to either the environment, the workers, or the customers far outweighs the assets of the company. The company declares bankruptcy and taxpayers are often left holding the bill. Lawyers may make a little money attempting to recover some costs from those who profited, but most of those profits are long gone and will never be recovered.

Immigration
Just like climate change, this country is facing an undeniable demographic reality. Our population is aging. If we fail to embrace immigration, we will suffer the same bleak economic outlook that Japan has been struggling with the past decade. Combine that with the major demographic shifts in the electorate that were the foundation for Obama’s two Presidential victories and Republicans are facing a stark choice. Either embrace immigration reform or die as a relevant national party.

The Magic Thinking is that conservative Republicans can continue to be a force in the House because of gerrymandering and the lower voter turnouts during off year elections. As long as they can retain that majority, they don’t need the White House or the Senate. They can do this by suppressing the vote, preventing immigrants from becoming citizens, playing wedge politics with their base, and outspending the opposition.

The reality is that conservatives are simply going to run out angry white voters. When they do, it will be hell to pay for the tactics that they employed to hold onto the power that they had.

Abortion
The facts are the no one can say when life begins. We can recognize when something is living, but there is no agreement when something starts living.

The rest of the facts are that Roe V. Wade did not decide when life begins. It also had nothing to do with personhood. It was decided based on the rights of the mother. Her rights take precedence until the point in time that the fetus can survive independently. There is NOTHING that the current right to life movement can do to change that perspective short of a constitutional amendment.

Magic Thinking, however, suggests that the Justices make a bad decision. They simply didn’t have the facts that we have today. If we just get some different justices on the bench, the decision will get reversed. It’s not going to happen.

The politics of self interest call into immediate question why this issue continues to fester for decades after this decision was made. The people who benefit from this continued controversy are the advocacy groups (for both sides) and the politicians who are able to raise money by aligning themselves with one group or the other. It is not unlike divorce lawyers to make their money asserting the rights of their client, when they know full well that judges are loath to give one parent sole custody of the children, support an inequitable property split, limit child support, or these days provide alimony. If both parties in a divorce were told what the likely settlement would be, they would start to work out the details on their own rather than invest money in lawyers attempting to “win”. The same is true here. No one will win. It will instead be a trench war that will only stop when the next generation refuses to continue to fund special interest groups.

The Poor
Poverty is a complicated subject. The facts are that programs like Social Security and Medicaid have dramatically reduced poverty among the elderly. We already dug into the economic costs of poverty and the benefits to reducing it.

The Magic Thinking, however, is that poverty is the fault of the poor. They must have made a bad decision somewhere in their lives for them to end up in the position that they now find themselves. As a result, any attempt to help them escape poverty does nothing to resolve the more fundamental character weakness that got them in this condition to begin with.

Ayn Rand has written the “Bible” for this particular form of Magic Thinking. The challenge is that those who advocate this gospel of “personal responsibility” and “greed is good” are also dealing in belief rather than fact.

Conclusion
Magic Thinking masks the politics of personal interest. Those special interests are well versed in the tactics required to transform political points of view into beliefs. Once a political position becomes part of an individuals belief system, they are no longer open to a fact based discussion. Those who embrace these beliefs will only accept the facts that support their beliefs. They will reject the facts that call those beliefs into question. They will defend their positions using the stock arguments of Moral Intuitionism. Those include media bias, conspiracy theories, flawed polling, and junk science.

The result is an increasingly polarized electorate, gridlocked government, and crumbling economic and physical infrastructure. The only times that we are able to make any changes are during the first two years of any new administration when the majority party can actually pass parts of their agenda by imposing their will on the minority.

This is no way to run a country.