Tag Archives: scholarship

When–And Why–Facts Don’t Matter

One of the abiding frustrations of contemporary life is the widespread resistance to facts–people’s rejection of probative evidence that X is true and Y (no matter how desirable) is not.

Perhaps I’ve just been paying closer attention as I’ve aged, but it certainly seems to me that the prevalence of disinformation and outright lies characterizing American political life has become a bigger problem ever since the appearance of Fox News and MAGA Republicanism.

We’re about to enter a two-year period where GOP whack jobs like Jim Jordan conduct fact-free (or at least, fact-distorted) Congressional “investigations” into everything from Hunter Biden’s laptop to Anthony Fauci.  Reports from this year’s Climate Summit remind us that we have yet to make many of the changes necessary to combat climate change–a delay attributable in part to the climate deniers who for years refused to accept what science (and the evidence of their eyes) was telling them. Anti-vaccine lunacy has been responsible for thousands of deaths.

Other examples are too numerous to list.

The problem is, our form of government owes its philosophical basis to the Enlightenment–and if the Enlightenment prioritized anything, it was empiricism–the search for and analysis of falsifiable evidence–as a critical method to understand the world we inhabit.

When public officials occupy different realities, governance becomes impossible.For that matter, if people resist believing what their senses  and investigations are telling them, the entire edifice of civilization crumbles.

In 2017, New Yorker article titled “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds” explored both the importance of separating fact from fiction, and the reasons contemporary humans seem to be incapable of doing so. The article began by describing studies conducted at Stanford that attempted to understand the stubborn staying power of people’s initial impressions. In the experiments, even total refutation of the subjects’ initial beliefs was insufficient to make them change their minds.

The Stanford studies became famous. Coming from a group of academics in the nineteen-seventies, the contention that people can’t think straight was shocking. It isn’t any longer. Thousands of subsequent experiments have confirmed (and elaborated on) this finding. As everyone who’s followed the research—or even occasionally picked up a copy of Psychology Today—knows, any graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now. Still, an essential puzzle remains: How did we come to be this way?

How indeed?

In a book titled “The Enigma of Reason, ” a couple of cognitive scientists tried to answer that question. They pointed out that “reason is an evolved trait, like bipedalism or three-color vision. It emerged on the savannas of Africa, and has to be understood in that context.”

The basic argument is that human beings’ biggest advantage is our ability to coöperate.  Reason, they posit, “developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.”

Think about it. If the capacity for reason developed to allow humans to generate sound judgments, it would be hard to conceive of a more serious design flaw than confirmation bias. After all, an inaccurate view of reality is a significant threat to survival. But here we are, and here–still–is confirmation bias. The authors concluded that it must have some adaptive function related to our “hypersociability,” and that it may actually have evolved to prevent us from getting screwed by other members of our group.

Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments…

Among the many, many issues our forebears didn’t worry about were the deterrent effects of capital punishment and the ideal attributes of a firefighter. Nor did they have to contend with fabricated studies, or fake news, or Twitter. It’s no wonder, then, that today reason often seems to fail us… the environment changed too quickly for natural selection to catch up.”

The article goes on to describe two other books dealing with the ways we contemporary humans encounter–and dismiss– facts. (For one thing, we all believe we understand far more than we actually do–a deficit that becomes clear when we are asked for detailed information.) It’s a fascinating, albeit somewhat depressing, read.

Bottom line: For those of us who want public policies to be based on sound evidence and facts, the literature is not reassuring.



It’s All About Status…

In 2017, Robert P. Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute, published The End of White Christian America. He presented copious evidence that demographic change was eroding the hegemony of the White Protestant males who had exercised social–and often, legal– dominance since the founding of the United States. He also provided evidence that awareness of their impending loss of status explained  most of their political hysteria.

Last week, New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall revisited the issue of status, or more accurately, fear of its loss.

More and more, politics determine which groups are favored and which are denigrated.

Roughly speaking, Trump and the Republican Party have fought to enhance the status of white Christians and white people without college degrees: the white working and middle class. Biden and the Democrats have fought to elevate the standing of previously marginalized groups: women, minorities, the L.G.B.T.Q. community and others.

The ferocity of this politicized status competition can be seen in the anger of white non-college voters over their disparagement by liberal elites, the attempt to flip traditional hierarchies and the emergence of identity politics on both sides of the chasm.

Researchers have begun studying what we have come to recognize as one of the most powerful motivations of human behavior. That research tells us that perceptions of diminished status is a source of rage on both the left and right. Add American divisions over economic insecurity, geography and values, and that rage only deepens.

Status is different from resources and power, although possession of those assets certainly contributes to it. It is based on cultural beliefs rather than material wealth or position.

Edsall quoted a Stanford professor who studies the subject.

Status has always been part of American politics, but right now a variety of social changes have threatened the status of working class and rural whites who used to feel they had a secure, middle status position in American society — not the glitzy top, but respectable, ‘Main Street’ core of America. The reduction of working-class wages and job security, growing demographic diversity, and increasing urbanization of the population have greatly undercut that sense and fueled political reaction.

People convinced that their status is low tend to gravitate to “anti-establishment” and radical candidates on both the Left and Right. Those fearing loss of status are different. One Harvard researcher explains that people  drawn to right-wing populist positions and politicians, such as Trump, usually “sit several rungs up the socioeconomic ladder in terms of their income or occupation.”

My conjecture is that it is people in this kind of social position who are most susceptible to what Barbara Ehrenreich called a “fear of falling” — namely, anxiety, in the face of an economic or cultural shock, that they might fall further down the social ladder,” a phenomenon often described as “last place aversion.

Apparently, the more socially marginalized people are, the more likely they are to feel alienated from the country’s political system — and the more likely they are to support  radical parties.

Radical politicians on the left evoke the virtues of working people, whereas those on the right emphasize themes of national greatness, which have special appeal for people who rely on claims to national membership for a social status they otherwise lack. The “take back control” and “make America great again” slogans of the Brexit and Trump campaigns were perfectly pitched for such purposes.

Other researchers emphasize that populism and fear of losing status are not the same thing. Populist movements stress group cohesion and equality; dominance, they point out, leads to self-promotion and support for steep hierarchies. That said, the research confirms that it is almost exclusively right-wing political actors who actively campaign on the status issue. 

The research confirms that it is fear of losing status, not actual status, that is the key political motivator.

I was particularly struck by this observation from a researcher at Duke:

Those who cannot adopt or compete in the dominant status order — closely associated with the acquisition of knowledge and the mastery of complex cultural performances — make opposition to this order a badge of pride and recognition. 

Dismissing journalists as “enemies of the people,” denying the reality of climate change, and refusing to wear masks and engage in social distancing are all part and parcel of this opposition to “elitists.” 

Edsall’s column has much more detail on the research. It explains a lot of America’s current polarization. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell us what we can or should do about it.


ALEC and Indiana’s Voucher Program

A friend recently sent me a rather eye-opening article by three Ball State University researchers. It appeared in an academic journal aimed at school superintendents: The AASA Journal of Scholarship and Practice. (No link available.)

The title was provocative: Hoosier Lawmaker? Vouchers, ALEC Legislative Puppets, and Indiana’s Abdication of Democracy. Few scholarly articles have titles quite that…combative, but the data was compelling (and the four pages of references were impressive).

Indiana has the nation’s largest voucher program, a result the article attributes to the excessive influence of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) in the state. ALEC is a corporate lobbying organization, and its educational task forces are funded by the Charles Koch Foundation, the DeVos Foundation, the Friedman Foundation, Koch Industries, Sylvan Learning and several others; it’s fair to say–as the authors do– that the intensely ideological organization believes “competition is the only legitimate organizing principle for human activity.”

Some 25% of Indiana legislators are members of ALEC, which has been “a legislative force working silently behind the scenes in the Indiana Statehouse.”

The article traces the growth of Indiana’s school voucher program through its abandonment of initial enrollment caps, and the jettisoning of the early rule that children would not be eligible for vouchers unless they’d attended a public school for at least one year. Today, 55% of children using vouchers never attended a public school, and children who enroll in private preschools that accept vouchers are “automatically enrolled” in Indiana’s “choice scholarship” program.

The program is no longer limited to poor children, either: 31% of voucher families could afford private school tuition without state subsidies.

State support for vouchers in 2016-2017 totaled 146.1 million dollars. Between 2011 and 2017, Indiana has spent 520 million dollars on vouchers–and those are dollars that would otherwise have supported public schools. (To add insult to injury, the General Assembly has not required financial reporting by voucher schools–although public schools must disclose their finances.)

In the U.S., 80% of children in private schools are in religious schools; in Indiana, that number is 98%.

So much for the law and the money and the overwhelming influence of ALEC and religion: how are voucher schools performing?

Not very well.

Research shows “persistent, statistically-significant negative impacts” in math, and no improvement over public schools in reading. According to the report, almost 25% of these schools earned F grades from the state in 2015-16, compared to 5% of public schools ; every single online school got an F.

Then there’s segregation. Indiana’s voucher program has “become increasingly affluent and white,” which shouldn’t surprise us, since these schools “set their own admission standards and can reject students for any reason.”

There is much more–none of it reassuring.

Indiana’s voucher program is driven by the libertarian ideology of ALEC and the religious zealotry of Mike Pence and (later) Betsy DeVos–not by considered policymaking by school boards elected to make those policies. The program is draining resources from  schools that serve all children, and redirecting those resources to religious institutions that may or may not be teaching real science and accurate American history.

My biggest problem with these programs is in their underlying assumption that education is just another consumer good–a set of skills to make one’s child competitive in the marketplace. Certainly, schools should provide those skills, but in the U.S., public education is also, in Benjamin Barber’s felicitous phrase, “constitutive of a public.” It is an essential element of democracy, especially in a country as diverse as ours.

Our democratic institutions and norms are currently under unprecedented attack from a feckless Congress and a lunatic in the White House–this is no time to shortchange the public schools, no time to abandon e pluribus unum for profit-making ventures offering tribal truths and substandard educations.