Tag Archives: logic

When Facts Became Irrelevant

A couple of weeks ago, a reader tipped me off to an article in a science journal, highlighting a study that traced the decline of public rationality. It was profoundly depressing

Scientists from Wageningen University and Research (WUR) and Indiana University have discovered that the increasing irrelevance of factual truth in public discourse is part of a groundswell trend that started decades ago.

While the current “post-truth era” has taken many by surprise, the study shows that over the past forty years, public interest has undergone an accelerating shift from the collective to the individual, and from rationality toward emotion.

The researchers analyzed language from millions of books, and found that words  we associate with logic and reasoning, such as “determine” and “conclusion,”  began a steady rise around 1850; at the same time, words expressing emotion, like “feel” and “believe” began to decline. That pattern , however, reversed over the past 40 years. At the same time, the research found a shift from what they termed  “a collectivistic to an individualistic focus” as reflected by the ratio of singular to plural pronouns such as “I”/”we.”

Interpreting this synchronous sea-change in book language remains challenging,” says co-author Johan Bollen of Indiana University. “However, as we show, the nature of this reversal occurs in fiction as well as non-fiction. Moreover, we observe the same pattern of change between sentiment and rationality flag words in New York Times articles, suggesting that it is not an artifact of the book corpora we analyzed.”

Determining that a shift occurred, while a complicated research problem, is obviously much less complicated than figuring out why it occurred.  One intriguing (and concerning) factor was the finding that the shift from rationality to sentiment in book language accelerated around 2007, a date that coincides with the rise of social media.

At that point, the researchers found that– across languages– the frequency of fact-related words dropped and emotion-laden language surged, and there was a similar shift from collectivistic to individualistic language.

I suppose the two language changes–from collective to individual and from rational to emotional–could be coincidental, but I doubt it. When the focus of one’s life moves from community to individual, from “us” to “me,” the importance of exterior reality ebbs and the significance of interiority expands.

The ancient Greeks talked about a “golden mean” between extremes. They were onto something.

I’m a civil libertarian and a longtime advocate for individual rights, but I understand that concern for protecting the “unalienable rights” of the individual cannot and should not erase concern for the common good. (For that matter, self-interest properly understood actually requires a concern for the health of the community in which one lives.)

In so many ways, contemporary humans–and certainly, contemporary Americans–are encountering the considerable downside of a lopsided emphasis on individualism. The research cited in the article found an erosion in the use of reason and logic, and an increased emphasis on the individual; the”freedom lovers” who endanger others and slow recovery from the pandemic by refusing to be vaccinated are a perfect example of both.

The health of the broader community–not just public health, important as that is, but measures of justice, fairness,  appropriate and honorable governance–is ultimately the guarantor of individual wellbeing. We’ve evidently lost that insight, and with it, an appreciation for the importance of objective reality.

 

 

Sauce for the Goose

Yesterday’s post about the effort to expose the “reasoning” behind Senate Bill 371 got me thinking about equal treatment and its notable absence from other brilliant proposals currently wending their way through Indiana’s legislative process. (As you may recall, SB 371 “protects” women who want prescriptions for abortion pills, and the proposed amendment would similarly have “protected” men wanting pills for erectile dysfunction.)

For example, what would a more balanced approach mean for the bill requiring drug testing of welfare recipients?

So far, the arguments against that measure have been boring–the typical logical, evidence-based objections that routinely fail to persuade our lawmakers. The Indiana Coalition for Human Services, for example, has pointed out that Florida implemented such a program and found it to be ineffective and costly (only 2% tested positive). Others have noted that the available tests are not well-suited for a “pass/fail” situation. Legislative Services estimates the first-year cost to be 1.2 million, much more than is likely to be saved. Etcetera.

Wrong arguments! Logic has rarely prevailed at the Statehouse, and cost-effectiveness is not a concept embraced by our elected culture and class warriors.

So I say, pile on! Not only should TANF recipients be tested, so should all the other welfare moochers who are enriching themselves at taxpayers’ expense. Let’s start with corporate welfare, with the beneficiaries of crony capitalism–the coal-gasification boondoggle,the business enterprises that have persuaded lawmakers to grant them favorable tax treatment, the owners of sports teams we subsidize, and those like ACS that are making big bucks providing services like parking meters–taking a major chunk of the money that the city would otherwise have available for public purposes.

Perhaps we could require drug testing as a condition of getting an education voucher. And let’s not forget all the elected officials–10,400 of them, thanks to Indiana’s archaic township system–who are suckling at the public you-know-what. In fact, we should test everyone paid with tax dollars–teachers, police officers, firefighters, clerks in the City-County Building…Surely, those of us whose tax dollars pay their salaries are entitled to know whether our money is going to substance abusers.

Proponents of drug testing for welfare recipients justify that proposal by pointing to the expenditure of tax dollars. By that logic, we should test everyone we are supporting or enriching with public funds.

What’s sauce for the goose ought to be sauce for the gander.