I recently attended a Washington dinner about peace building and constructive dialogue. The organizations involved do great work in using dialoguing to bridge divides in many fields and the keynote was about using these methods to bring people together to help solve the daunting problems facing the U.S.
This made me both hopeful and pessimistic. The U.S. is indeed faced with existential problems set against a gridlocked and dysfunctional political system. Recent national embarrassments about the debt ceiling and sequestration rub this in our faces. The sequestration was in fact designed as a booby trap set up in order avoid a impasse over budget negotiations, and they couldn’t even avoid that. No matter which side of the political spectrum you’re on, the U.S.’s current debt financing is just not sustainable. A sudden rise in interest rates, or a pull back by our creditors would create an economic tsunami that could make 2008 seem like the 90’s. And this is just one of many challenges facing society.
Our political problems are I believe correctly attributed to the sharp partisan divide that is more operationally toxic than in any time in our history.
Discourse has become so bitterly divided that it’s hard to imagine that these people are talking about the same events. The Internet promised a leveling effect, replacing traditional media gatekeepers and hierarchical information dissemination systems with a peer-to-peer hyper-democratic world of universal information freedom and access that could lead to a more enlightened collective conscious. This clearly has not happened… yet.
Staid old media gatekeepers have been supplanted by Internet conglomerate (read Facebook and Google) algorithms that control our newsfeeds and search results. These algorithms give us more of what we like based on previous behavior, creating filter bubbles that both reinforce our beliefs and filter out contrary information.
Thus, to a large extent dialogue between factions is not happening on social media. Filter bubbles help to reinforce ideological tribalism as opposed to facilitating dialectic synthesis. This ideological tribalism has negated compromise and turned just about all politics into a zero sum game where a gain for one side is necessarily a loss for the other. Within this context, the constructive dialogue process and conflict resolution seem to hold out a rare ray of hope. The problem with this is the illusion of balance that is intrinsic in the assumptions of these methods.
The admirable goal of being fair and balanced, embraced by journalists as well as dialogue facilitators has been rendered quaint because one of our most vociferous ideological tribes rejects science, math, and reality in general, and scorns the legitimacy of those that disagree with them. It’s hard to roll up your sleeves, and sit down and dialog with those that mock “the reality based community.”
Take global climate change as an example. It’s is not really a problem unless you’re worried about the polar ice caps melting and global weather changes making vast areas of the planet uninhabitable. If you are concerned about those things, well then….Whether or not global warming is real or not and caused by human activity is also not a topic where there is legitimate debate within the scientific community. “Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities”. Recently National Geographic aired a documentary “Chasing Ice”, which presents concrete visual proof of glacier melting worldwide. If you haven’t seen this, please make it a priority. It is as visually stunning as it is disturbing.
This could well be the biggest challenge facing the world, and the solutions are well within reach, yet they will never happen as long as one branch of the U.S. government is at the mercy of a tribe of zealots that are seemingly immune to evidence.
A similar polemic exists concerning vaccinations, which as it turns out do not in any way cause Autism. But thanks to the good work of the loud and the factually challenged, many people don’t get their children vaccinated because of the false Autism scare and similar shenanigans. This poses a threat to us all because of the epidemiology of infectious diseases, which are kept in check by vaccines.
There’s another area in which the war on reality and its reinforcing filter bubbles are having rather interesting consequences, and that’s electoral politics. The conservative denial of math and polling may well have been more part of the cause of their across the board losses in 2012 than a result.
Many political junkies will remember the vicious attacks against Nate Silver, the brilliant NY Times statistician and author of the incredibly precise FiveThirtyEight blog. In the end, Silver accurately predicted the outcome of the presidential race accurately in all 50 states and his critics were left eating crow.
The war on reality went even deeper than Nate Silver bashing. Republican pollsters weighted their numbers to better fit their own reality bubble. Kudos to Bruce Bartlett for breaking through my filter bubble with this incredible post from RedState.com, Campaign Sources: The Romney Campaign was a Consultant Con Job. The piece details how consultants cooked numbers to hide their incompetence. No matter the cause, it points helps to illustrate the considerable technological disadvantage the Romney camp faced and the consequences it paid:
Another source that closely studied the Obama campaigns GOTV efforts as compared to ORCA [the GOP GOTV technology] said bluntly that “the Obama training manuals made ORCA look like a drunken monkey slapped together a powerpoint” adding that we must duplicate and improve what they accomplished to have any hope for the 2014 & 2016 ground game.
The result of all of these false numbers and inaccurate ground reports is simple: Mitt Romney was ill-prepared for the actual numbers on election day and his false sense of confidence directly translated into how the campaign operated in the closing weeks.
A culture that denies science and math is not going to produce an environment that fosters technological innovation as well as one that does.
As Mark Adonamis, a self-identifying conservative, lamented shortly after the election in Forbes:
Without sounding too much like a concern troll, conservatives who are actually interested in winning elections, and not in offering endless recriminations after they’ve already been lost, urgently need to address the intellectual rot in their midst. If they want to compete and win conservatives need to very quickly re-learn how to deal with reality. The GOP will have every opportunity to win elections down the line unless it continues to wage war on basic and apolitical concepts like quantitative analysis and polling.
Thus the war on reality may contain its own evolutionary cure. Let’s hope it’s the short-term one as opposed to the long term one! Truth is in fact an essential starting point in any endeavor. The perception of reality may be subjective, and true objectivity may be on some levels unattainable, but to quote Mr. Spock, “I am half-Vulcan. Vulcans do not speculate. I speak from pure logic. If I let go of a hammer on a planet that has a positive gravity, I need not see it fall to know that it has in fact fallen.” Similar logic applies to the melting glaciers. You can’t deny this no matter what your ideology says.
The extent to which the Internet reinforces misconceptions and filters out vigorous debates may itself debatable, but the toxic ideological tribalization of America is undeniable. It is my sincere hope that the Internet will increasingly generate dialogues and fulfill its promise of creating a more enlightened collective consciousness. We absolutely need to move beyond our political paralysis to take on the substantial challenges that we all face together.
Live long and prosper.
Originally posted on Truth is Cool