Wednesday, 7 December 2011

I, Heathen

"Ugh. I understand the historical reasons behind why the Aborigines typically vote blue, but to me it seems as incongruous as a working American mom supporting the GOP. There's a logical disconnect when one thinks about who is actually acting in one's interests."
Jenna Cody - in the comments section to this item at Turton's place. I picked that quote out because it captures two very important points of epistemology and social psychology.

1) The first point, the epistemological one, is that Cody's comments offer an illustration of confirmation bias. Rather than interpreting the incongruity between other people's behaviour and her understanding of their interests as evidence that her understanding of their interests might be mistaken, she instead supposes that this incongruity arises from the failure of other people's intellect rather than her own. Now you might think Cody's opinion is extremely arrogant (and it is), and you might think it fails Occam's Razor (and it does), but it also seems to involve the presupposition that other people's "interests" are seperable from the people themselves. To grant that assumption is to deny the agency of the person in selecting values, and is the necessary first step toward justifying political tyranny since it then becomes possible to argue that such and such a policy is "for the good" of those oppressed by it. Cody is herself every bit as patronizing as she supposes the KMT government is toward the Aborigines.

2) The second point, on social psychology, is that the effect of confirmation bias is to protect the believer (and by extension, those with whom she shares this belief) from the exposure of their beliefs to error. Since beliefs inform evaluations and priorities for action, overturning them can be significantly painful since they are typically inter-related in a hierarchical fashion and underpin our relationships and associations with others. A mistaken belief can persist in the mind of the believer simply because it has become "too big to fail", i.e. overturning it would lead to a collapse of the broader belief structure that would be psychologically difficult to deal with*.

Of course, the social psychology of confirmation bias occurs on an institutional scale also as when the individuals comprising that institution all share similar opinions. The fact that genuine spending cuts (carrying, of course, the implication of privatization) to State socialized welfare, health and education services is still considered taboo or otherwise "unrealistic" among U.S. Democrats in spite of the ongoing fiscal crisis is a current example of this. Look at how people on the Left seem to be desperate to try to pin the blame for the U.S. fiscal crisis on the defense department (20% of the Federal budget), rather than the social programs (60% of the Federal budget).

The Republican primary debates offer another example. Not a single candidate, other than Ron Paul and the excluded Gary Johnson, have had anything substantial to say about monetary reform (although that may simply be because they don't understand the subject).

I would have responded to Cody's remark (and Turton's), but I have been made unwelcome at Turton's blog (and elsewhere) precisely for my criticism and skepticism.

*I went through this as a postgraduate at Edinburgh.

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