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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Ideology and Evidence

In another post, I mentioned that independent commissions were clearing the UEA climate scientists of charges that they had "faked data." When Bob Murphy saw the commissions had been commissioned by the House of Commons, he responded, "Are you kidding me?" These were government folks, and nothing they do could possibly be independent or honest.

Now, I want to suggest this response is a member of a family of similar positions:

X: Well, Phizer set up an independent study that found their new drug was not dangerous.
Marxist: Are you kidding me? They're capitalists!

X: Of course, the Catholic Church did seriously examine Galileo's claims.
Positivist: Are you kidding me? Those guys were priests!

X: You know that Einstein felt he had proved relativity quite adequately?
Nazi: Are you kidding me? Einstein was a Jew!
(STRONG WARNING TO NETWITS: I am NOT saying "Bob is as bad as a Nazi." I am sketching a family resemblance, and some members of a family are much worse than their siblings!)

These are all species of Gnostic ideology, all of which share the feature that "the cast of characters appearing in the Gnostic’s dream world can be divided, neatly and without remainder, into the adherents of the party of light and the demonic members of the party of darkness."

Now, those who agree with Bob are likely to respond, "But we are right -- the people in government really are the party of darkness!" Of course, the Marxist appearing above will make an exactly analogous claim: "The capitalists really are the party of darkness!" And so on. And, I suggest, they are all being perfectly honest, and are quite sure the evidence is on their side -- even though they might be aware of the evidence the others think make their own cases slam dunks.

How can this be? The reason is that a large portion of what goes into the ideology-learning process is learning how to filter the evidence according to the ideology one is learning. For example, Paul Krugman, in learning Keynesian ideology, learned how to filter everything through a Keynesian framework. He can't read a letter from two highly esteemed economists who happen to disagree with him without seeing it as rubbish. All data whatsoever confirms his Keynesian view: if an economy recovers from a slump, it was stimulus; if one fails to recover despite stimulus, the problem was not enough stimulus. This is not because he is dishonest, but because he is bewitched: he has bought into an ideology that seemingly makes everything simple and comprehensible, and gives him an easy answer to every problem, and filters out everything that would normally act as negative feedback about his position.

And that, as Eric Voegelin pointed out, is why it is almost impossible to have a rational discussion with someone in the grip of an ideology: they are viewing a mental construct of their own instead of the real world, so anyone addressing reality will be talking past them. They are looking at a theoretical world, but, as the late, great Sudha Shenoy once said to me, "Reality is not theoretical; it is historical." And history is made up of complex contingencies they don't mechanically yield up easy answers to any and every problem that arises.

21 comments:

  1. "But not everyone is capable of enduring that tension, tempting them to adopt the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. Instead of enduring the difficult life of the spirit in a fallen world, it is easier to dream that a fix for that fallen state will occur during one’s own life, perhaps even in the immediate future."

    The Gnostics did not anticipate the imminent arrival of an earthly golden age. On the contrary, they believed that the physical world was inherently and incurably evil.

    A person who believes that an earthly utopia is at hand is by definition not a Gnostic.

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  2. You are right psh, and others have pointed out that Voegelin's "Gnostics" had little to do with historical Gnostics and I believe even he came to regret choosing that term. But choose it he did, and his usage has stuck for this purpose. So whenever I write "gnostic" read it as "gnostic as Voegelin used the term."

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  3. I would just ask that people please go look at my post to see the context. I was actually aghast that Gene thought he had enough evidence to mock anyone who still thought the CRU guys were dishonest. Note also that "These were government folks, and nothing they do could possibly be independent or honest" are Gene's words, not my actual words.

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  4. Ah crapola! Bob posted a nice reply in his own defense here, which I meant to accept and respond to. But I'm posting from an iPhone right now, and my big fat finger was interpreted as landing on "reject" rather than accept, something I apparently can't undo. So Bob, should you have your post saved, please resubmit. If not, I will try to respond in a way that included your complaints as best I can

    My apologies!

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  5. Briefly, Bob:

    1) Anyone should know you did not write the "disputed sentence" since I did not put it in quotes

    2) I think we actually agree on the state of the evidence! I was "mocking" those who assert as an uncontroversial truth, "the evidence was faked." If THEY wrote, "there is some possibility these guys faked evidence, but the case is murky," then I would not object!

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  6. Hmm I did lose a long (original) reply, and then took it as a sign that I was supposed to be the bigger man and just post the little one above. :)

    But no I don't have that first one anymore.

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  7. It's not that the term "gnostic" is inappropriate as such for this use, it's that it's overly broad.

    Your definition fits Manichean dualism to a tee, but Manichean dualism is only one variety of gnosticism. The essential element of gnosticism is not dualism, but the notion that direct knowledge/experience of "the divine" is possible and desirable.

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  8. Let me see if I got this right. Bob Murphy is an ideologue and so are libertarians. Marxists are of course ideologues.

    But what about those nice and honest politicians? They are not ideologues? There's nothing ideological about, say, the politics of 'climate change'?

    And what about conservatives? Isn't conservatism an ideology too?

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  9. "Your definition fits Manichean dualism to a tee, but Manichean dualism is only one variety of gnosticism."

    YEs, Tom, but the main point here is that this is not MY usage -- it's Voegelin's, and I'm just following it because, whether historically accurate or not, it's caught on.

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  10. "But what about those nice and honest politicians?"

    Who ever said anything about politicians being 'nice and honest'?

    "They are not ideologues? There's nothing ideological about, say, the politics of 'climate change'?"

    Could be. Just like truck drivers could be ideologues. Need specifics.

    "And what about conservatives? Isn't conservatism an ideology too?"

    Again, in some people's hands, yes. For, say, Oakeshott, it was a 'disposition', not an ideology. I'd be inclined to say the same about Kirk. For Cato the Younger, conservatism had become an ideology.

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  11. Well, I don't have many specifics, but I'd argue that the job description of a truck driver is mainly to drive trucks, whereas the job description of a politician is to be an ideologue =]

    You can dismiss libertarians because they are ideologues - but shouldn't politicians receive the same treatment? Not to mention the powerful incentives that operate on politicians.

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  12. Gene,

    You're using Voegelin's terminology because it's "caught on?"

    Bah, humbug. Never heard of the guy before you brought him up (or if I did, he apparently didn't impress me much).

    You, I've heard of (and Google already has you with half as many hits as him, and you haven't been dead for 25 years after a long career yet!).

    Don't blame Voegelin. If you're going to use a word, own it ;-)

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  13. Many politicians may BE ideologues, xx, but that is certainly not their "job description." For instance, ideological politics was unknown in the Roman Republic until it began to fall apart.

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  14. Well, Tom, it has "caught on" in the same sense I might be inclined to use "praxeology" for the contemplation of human action, even though I find it awkward and it has only "caught on" with a certain group of people. In any case, the fact that a word has caught on is a VERY good reason to use it -- in fact, every word in this sentence I have used not because I approved it but because it has caught on!

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  15. First a bit of a joke.

    "X: Of course, the Catholic Church did seriously examine Galileo's claims.
    Positivist: Are you kidding me? Those guys were priests!"

    You don't have to a positivist to suspect what priest's say.

    I wrote a Freeman article about ideology. I don't think it is a simple matter. But there are ways of getting inside of another person's ideology and showing inconsistencies and problems. But you need patience to do this.

    More generally, however, I don't accept that reality is history. (I am not sure what Sudha Shenoy meant.) We should all agree that looking at the world is through the prism of abstractions. The only issue is whether we can have one big abstraction (theory) that consistently explains it all. I don't think so -- even when "all" is simply the economy (itself an abstraction). But some do better than others.

    I think it is right and not a logical fallacy of the ad hominem
    variety to suspect evidence coming from some form of governmentally commissioned source. It is not so much a question of ideology to me as it is the self-serving dishonesty of Power.

    Mario Rizzo

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  16. Gene, nice post. BTW, I like your new formatting, plus the homage to Silas at the top.

    A few comments, if I may:

    1. "they are viewing a mental construct of their own instead of the real world"

    Yes, but doesn't the fact that we think with our brains necessarily mean that EACH OF US views mental constructs of own, instead viewing "the real world" as it is outside of our heads?

    2. "learning how to filter the evidence according to the ideology one is learning."

    This learning may in part be deliberate, but most of it is built-in to how our brains function and is reflexive and unavoidable. There's too much stimulus reaching us that we can consciously consider it all, so our brains filter information. A natural conservation of protecting these mental maps mean we may not even notice information inconsistent with our existing map, and it's very easy to brush such stuff away when it reaches a conscious level. Changing one's mind it hard work!

    3. This also is connected with our penchant to form groups ("factions" as you put it in another post) and choose sides, as I have remarked a number of times, most recently here:

    http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2010/02/15/snicker-snack-we-hold-these-truths-to-be-self-evident-that-i-m-right-and-they-are-evil-cunning-amp-stupid-and-out-to-destroy-all-that-is-good-and-holy.aspx

    Regards,

    Tom

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  17. "Yes, but doesn't the fact that we think with our brains necessarily mean that EACH OF US views mental constructs of own, instead viewing "the real world" as it is outside of our heads?"

    Does the fact we drive with a car mean we can't feel what the real streets are like?

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  18. My point, Gene, is that as our brains, sense organs and experiences all differ, so too necessarily do our perceptions of "reality" differ.

    Our abilities to communicate, empathize, mimic and anticipate all make possible for us to share our realities, but there are, indeed, physical limits.

    Inuit, Apaches and thirsty tenderfoot Gringos walking all perceive the path differently.

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  19. BTW, I completely agree with the point you made that Bob's response on the climate commissions may be a member of a family of similar positions, but the fact that Bob, you or I may have differing views isn't so much a result that we are (or are not, as you would have it) in the grip of differing ideologies, but that we are in the grip of different brains.

    PS: Thanks for allowing me to comment, by the way.

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  20. OK, Tom, but I don't see why that would make much more difference than the fact we all have different legs makes to how we walk, which is not much. (Barring extreme deformities, of course.)

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  21. Gene, I agree that our view of reality can be seriously skewed by ideologies, but don't you see that we all, inescapably, have different views of reality (and that our brains subconsciously filter our perceptions)?

    We are all prejudiced, try as hard as we might not to be.

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