Sunday, February 21, 2010

When You Know You're Right

I had a Sociology professor in college who described the breakdown between liberals and conservatives like this.

Liberals think things are broken, and want to fix it by finding new ways of doing things. Conservatives think things are broken, and want to fix it by going back to the way we used to do things.

Since I'm paraphrasing, poorly, there's an assumption that goes along with this statement which my clumsy version has failed to capture. The best way I can describe it is, conservatives tend to find an innate value in continuity -- something that's remained unchanged for a long time is thought to be better precisely because it has remained unchanged for a long time. Liberals, obviously, would fall on the other side of this distinction, finding little or no innate value in old habits just because they are old.

There's a lot more depth to the political spectrum, of course, and most individuals will fall relatively far from any particular party definition when you examine things on a personal level. But overall, I've found it to be fairly reliable as a rough guide. It's spread over a pretty broad range, everything from the lamentations of, "This isn't the America I grew up in," to the more recent blind faith that our health care system MUST be the best in the world. In some circles it's characterized as "fear of change", but I don't think that's accurate. It's convenient, certainly, to paint your cultural opponents as cowards, but it glosses over a more complex mindset without really understanding it.

I'm way over on the opposite end, of course. My gut feeling is there's basically nothing out there that couldn't be improved with some data mining and a willingness to try something new. In some ways I think this is connected with an engineering mindset. When you work in a field that has a lot of data available, you get used to finding out things you didn't know. More importantly, you get used to finding out that things aren't what you expected. It turns out humans are remarkably bad at making guesses about a large number of things, and the only way to see what's actually happening is to go in and measure it, and more than likely the measurements you find are going to make it glaringly obvious that you've been doing things in a totally wrong and broken fashion for years. Once that happens a couple dozen times, you learn not to trust things that haven't been measured pretty recently.

Applying this back to politics, then, it seems that in some cases the liberal/conservative split is largely between those who are willing to look at some measurements and those who aren't. In the health care debate, there's an overwhelming number of hard facts that show how truly broken our system is. Between the percentage of bankruptcies caused by medical expenses, the growth rate of health care costs in relation to earnings, our national medical expenditure per capita when compared to other first world countries, as well as our life expectancy, obesity rates, and infant mortality, all point to a system that badly needs to be fixed. It's not something you can effectively debate on facts, but plenty of people are willing to debate it on emotional grounds. And some of them -- not all, but some, including several of the good people at Fox -- seem to be completely convinced that our system is superior, even though it's an utterly unsupportable claim.

I think that's where the innate value of existence comes in for the conservative mindset. It doesn't matter that similar systems exist in numerous countries comparable to ours, it hasn't existed HERE, and we can't try it without throwing away the old system. And we can't throw away the old system, because it's working. If we give up on it, we're giving up on tradition, and the time-tested arrangement that got us here, today, in one piece.

Without being too blunt, I have to say it seems clear that this attitude is wrong, and likely damaging. There are people who oppose the current health care bill for completely valid and well-substantiated reasons, of course, but those who oppose it out of some odd certainty that the new system will be inferior to the old without any actual proof -- without even bothering to understand the arguments on either side -- don't really do anything but randomize the conversation. Their certainty absent concrete facts is being inserted into the discussion with nearly the same credence as that based on numbers, despite the fact that personal opinion is incredibly unreliable for determining the nature of reality.

At the risk of taking the exact attitude the opening quote describes, I can't help feeling that there's a growing trend in opposition to the idea that facts are actually immutable. It seems there used to be at least a decent amount of respect for a proven fact, or for analysis drawn from large amounts of data. Today, there are a disturbing number of people who seem incapable of distinguishing between facts and opinion, and an even larger number who don't feel that their own opinion should be informed by fact. That's on both sides of the aisle, by the way -- although it's harder to criticize because I agree with them, there are plenty of those in the liberal voting bloc who supported the "right" party and policies for insubstantial reasons.

The thing that keeps me hopeful is the fact that this type of thing should only become more apparent as access to information grows. When anyone can look up any set of facts, along with commentary, criticism, and counterarguments nearly instantly, more people have a chance to turn to fact-based behavior. That's if the trend of opinion-as-fact being reinforced by the virtual community of the Internet doesn't outpace it, which is anything but certain. It's also assuming that everything goes one way or the other in unison. At this point it seems like there's a distinct possibility that the two could continue to diverge, in a sort of information-age Eloi and Morlock dynamic.

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