Dec 06 2018

Against Ideology

The skeptical movement has always struggled with some unavoidable ironies. We are like a group for people who don’t like to join groups. We actively tell our audience not to trust us (don’t trust any single source – verify with logic and evidence). Our belief is that you really should not have beliefs, only tentative conclusions. Essentially, our ideology is anti-ideology.

This is because scientific skepticism is not about any set of beliefs or conclusions. It is all about process, just like science itself – question, observe, analyze, repeat.

This approach is both empowering and freeing. One of the most common observations I hear from those who, after consuming skeptical media for a time, abandon some prior belief system or ideology, is that they feel as if a huge weight has been lifted from their shoulders. They feel free from the oppressive burden of having to support one side or ideology, even against evidence and reason. Now they are free to think whatever they want, whatever is supported by the evidence. They don’t have to carry water for their “team”.

At the same time, this is one of the greatest challenges for skeptical thinking, because it seems to run upstream against a strong current of human nature. We are tribal, we pick a side and defend it, especially if it gets wrapped up in our identity or world-view.

All of the recent hand-wringing about fake news and a post-fact world is largely about an increase in this partisanship. People use motivated reasoning to defend their ideology against the intrusion of reality, and hyper-partisanship leads to hyper-motivated reasoning. It’s also about echochambers – ideological bubbles of information that reinforce our tribe and demonize all others. These echochambers are essentially institutionalized motivated reasoning, prepackaged misinformation and rationalizations.

The end-game of all this is the conspiracy theory, which is the final retreat of the ideological scoundrel. A grand conspiracy theory is an all-consuming narrative that makes sense of the complex world through a paranoid lens, which explains away all disconfirming information as part of a conspiracy. Anything can be interpreted as consistent with the conspiracy, and if you point this out, that’s because you are part of the conspiracy, or at least a “sheeple” who is too blind or naive to see the Truth. It is a mental trap designed to prevent escape.

If there is a ray of light in all this, it’s that we are starting to see some backlash born of increased awareness of motivated reasoning, echochambers, and conspiracy thinking. A recent essay by Jerry Taylor explains why he abandoned the libertarian ideological label:

I have abandoned that libertarian project, however, because I have come to abandon ideology. This essay is an invitation for you to do likewise — to walk out of the “clean and well-lit prison of one idea.” Ideology encourages dodgy reasoning due to what psychologists call “motivated cognition,” which is the act of deciding what you want to believe and using your reasoning power, with all its might, to get you there. Worse, it encourages fanaticism, disregard for social outcomes, and invites irresolvable philosophical disputes. It also threatens social pluralism — which is to say, it threatens freedom.

This was picked up by conservative Max Boot, writing for the Washington Post. He recently wrote a column in which he admits he was wrong about climate change. He is a conservative never-Trumper, who now feels separated from a transformed Republican party (from his perspective – we don’t need to get into a political debate about this). Now, freed from having to defend team Republican, we was able to look at the science and see it for what it is – there is an overwhelming consensus that anthropogenic climate change is real and a problem.

He writes:

One gets the sense, as my Post colleague Jennifer Rubin wrote, that if progressives championed the theory of gravity, conservatives would denounce it. In fact, public-opinion research suggests that many Republicans would be likely to support climate-change solutions if they were proposed by Republican leaders — and conversely many Democrats would be likely to oppose them even if they would have backed the very same policies when put forward by Democrats. We’ve already seen the parties flip positions on Russia because of Trump. That is the danger of ideology, and why I strive for an empirical, non-ideological approach instead, even if that leaves me in a political no-man’s land where I am sniped at by both sides.

Boot and Taylor now champion having no ideology, but rather taking moderate positions based on individual logic and evidence. That has been my approach for a long time. I eschew any ideological label. The only “ism” label I accept is skepticism, again because it is the anti-ideology ideology.

What Boot and Taylor, hopefully to be joined by many others, have realized is that ideology is an intellectual straight-jacket. It is far better to simply come to individual tentative conclusions based on currently available evidence and valid logic, and to be willing to change in the face of new information or better arguments.

The same is true of Mark Lynas. He was constrained by his green environmentalist ideology. He was anti-GMO because his tribe was anti-GMO as part of their world-view (complete with conspiracy theories). But he noticed a disconnect between his approach to global warming and GMOs and had the intellectual honesty to step back and look at the evidence regarding GMOs as objectively as he could. The result was that he saw reality on this issue for the first time – the science on the safety of GMOs is, if anything, stronger than for global warming. He saw his ideological prison for the first time, and abandoned it.

It is a supreme mistake to attach any self-identifying label to any belief, to tie your identity or sense of self-worth to a belief or any empirical conclusion. Because then facts become personal, a logical argument becomes an attack, and those who disagree with you become the enemy. It is freeing to be rid of all this, and you can see the joy from Boot and Taylor in their words, as they realize their new freedom. They are free from a self-imposed prison.

The door has always been unlocked an open – they just had to walk out.

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