Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Internet, The Power of Choice, and Why Framing Isn't the Answer

The internet is the ultimate in reverse tragedy of the commons. We have more news and other information choices than ever before, and yet in reality, many people are exposed to far fewer ideas than previously. Instead of it being through the actions of others, it is self-censorship. Whereas in the past you had to listen to Walter Cronkite, or Dan Rather, whether you liked it or not, now you can pick the commentator or news style of your choice, and watch nothing but that. No more annoying dissenting opinions, no more guests you don't like, or issues you don't care about, or information you'd rather not know. Now it is possible to arrange one's life so that no unwanted information or opinions invade one's concocted little ideology. We now have the freedom, more than ever before, to deal with the world, not as it is, but as we wish it was.

And many people make the choice to do exactly that. And because of their ideological sieve, they get more and more certain of their views, and come to see those who oppose them as not just wrong, but evil. Thus we get the kind of political polarization of society we have now. Look at Bill Clinton. He might be known as the first black president, but he really was something far more important: the first internet president. He also had more scandals than any president in recent memory, and my contention is that the two are related. Bill Clinton faced a microscope with 100,000 lenses, all aimed at him, ready to turn any hint of wrongdoing into a full fledged felony. I predicted at the time that the next president, whoever it would be, would have a similar scandal score, and for the same reason. Say what you will, but with all W's scandals, I'm one for one, and I'll lay the same odds on the next president.

I am in no way suggesting that people be denied these choices. I am merely calling attention to the unanticipated negative consequences of those choices. There are literally people out there who, as long as Rush and O'Reilly say there is no global warming, will deny there is global warming. That's all there is to it. Ditto for evolution, or whether Democrats are weak on defense. And while I'd argue that the Democratic side of this is far less organized and powerful, it is still there. Those who still bow on the alter of the blank slate, who refuse to grant any genetic component to human behavior are such a group, as are those who refuse to watch Fox News, even for a moment.

This is why, in the battle to improve science education and science's influence on public policy, how one frames the argument is a minor consideration. The people we are battling don't care about the argument, because their whole epistemology denies or degrades the value of argument in the first place. Authority, not argument, is the basis of their views, and that is what has to be attacked. Cherry-picking information must be exposed. Editing based on whether something agrees with you has to be called for what it is. It's not what these people think that is the problem, it is HOW they think.

Managing to get people who insulate themselves from reality in this way to agree with you on a particular issue simply because you framed it in a way they found palatable treats a symptom rather than the disease. And yes, treating the disease is going to involve some merciless attacks on religion, because most religions make absurd claims that are supported in this manner. It is absurd to think the earth is 6,000 years old. It is absurd to think the omnipotent, omniscient creator of the universe would come to earth as a bronze-age Jew and allow us to kill him (sorta) before coming back to life after being dead for three (well, almost) days in order to save us from a flaw put in us, ultimately, by Him. It is absurd to pray over a child that could benefit from a visit to a doctor. There is simply no way around it.

This is not about having dissenting opinions. We will always have that, and indeed we should. Heterogeneity of opinion is a strength. But parroting nonsense because Authority X said so, and you want it to be so, isn't having another opinion. That's just repeating someone else's bullshit. And until we are ready to call bullshit on ALL bullshit, cloaked as religion or not, we'll make no real progress. Worrying about how we frame an argument that ultimately allows for the wishful thinking at the core of the problem to remain, is the intellectual equivalent of painting over the cracks in your home's foundation.

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