Truth will tear us apart

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“Follow the science!” is the cry of some who think they love reason. They despise “science-deniers” and the politicians who manipulate them. Others wail that “common sense is no longer common” and ridicule the power-hungry poindexters and the fools manipulated by them. Partisans of science and partisans of common sense see themselves as opposites. But Taylor Dotson, a professor of social science at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, argues that they are more alike than they seem. Both believe in an irrefutable truth, evident to all but the stupid or corrupt, that can settle our political differences. In his provocative new book, The Divide, Dotson warns against this sweet-sounding “ideal of Truth,” which promises to heal our divisions but turns us into bitter fanatics instead.

The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude Is Destroying Democracy, by Taylor Dotson. MIT Press, 240 pp., $25.

That’s truth with a capital “T.” Dotson doesn’t think that “all perspectives are equally right,” but he does think we overestimate what we can know for sure and what such knowledge can do to soothe savage partisans. Consider the “follow the science” crowd. Good scientific institutions, Dotson explains, acknowledge that “scientists suffer the same cognitive limitations and biases as the rest of us.” Norms such as peer review, which pushes zealous researchers to “temper or note the limitations of their claims,” help scientists generate, collectively, reliable enough results. But those who swear devotion to science at political rallies are usually devotees of “scientism,” the “profoundly unscientific” belief that science generates “simple, indisputable facts” that determine correct policy.

Scientism, Dotson argues, has at least three consequences, all bad for democracy. First, for those who think their views follow from “the science,” policy disagreements arise from their opponents’ ignorance. Stubbornness in the face of efforts to inform arises from stupidity or perversity. One doesn’t engage in democratic bargaining with idiots or heretics — one overpowers them. Second, the view that our beliefs are certified by “the science” discourages critical reflection. One can imagine a good liberal seething about his or her fellow citizens’ irrationality about vaccines as he or she furiously scrubs an avocado with disinfectant wipes. Third, when we expect science to resolve our disputes, “consideration of people’s differing values, needs, and interests is crowded out.” Devising a minimum wage policy, for example, would seem to require weighing “business owners’ desires for autonomy or interests in keeping costs down” against the “demands of workers for a wage high enough to support a decent life.” The expert consensus among economists tells us little about how we should manage this conflict of interest.

For Dotson, both scientism and the populist appeal to common sense are “truth narratives” that “promote a fanatical approach to politics.” People can’t help preferring their own views or wanting to be certain about what they believe. We long for an indisputable truth to set us free from being “stuck in a society with other people who believe things that seem outrageous.” But this is a false hope, and the longing for its fulfillment promotes the “intolerance of disagreement” that “really drives fanatical politics.” Impatient with incremental measures, incurious about testing one’s own views, and dismissive of the priorities of opponents, such politics are unlikely to produce intelligent decisions or win trust.

The best alternative, according to Dotson, is “democratic pluralism,” which assumes that even experts lack the “cognitive capacity” and “experience” to “fully understand complex problems.” Rational- and legitimate-enough outcomes can emerge from the push and pull of “diverse groups of political partisans: activists, citizens groups, industry lobbyists, experts, and decision-makers,” each bringing knowledge, experience, passions, and interests to the table. Successful democratic pluralism, however, requires abandoning the fanatical politics of certainty. Democratic pluralism encourages “admitting uncertainty,” even giving “skeptics” a role in “periodic policy revaluations.” It encourages a measure of respect for people’s experiences, as, for example, in “participatory budgeting,” in which “ordinary citizens,” who may collectively know much about city services that bureaucrats and experts don’t, “negotiate and vote on municipal expenditures.” And it encourages the acceptance of political disagreement, which entails thinking about how to persuade and, where possible, accommodate others. Even if one is sure of one’s high ground, democratic pluralism echoes proverbial road wisdom: Don’t be dead right.

Dotson knows that haranguing people to think and talk differently won’t do much good. As he sees it, nearly every aspect of our lives — our schools, our workplaces, our politics, our media — conspires to suggest that deliberation amid deep disagreement is impractical, fruitless, or dangerous. “Americans have little patience or desire for political discussion and democratic participation,” he writes, because “they have grown up having little substantive experience with it.” So deep are the institutional and cultural changes required to support democratic pluralism that societies must be “redesigned,” albeit gradually and cautiously. Dotson knows this will give readers pause but doubts that we can otherwise “resolve our most enduring and contentious conflicts.”

To attempt such a long-odds cure, one must think that Dotson’s diagnosis is sound — that belief in a “myth of Truth” renders us compromise-loathing fanatics. But his evidence on this score is thin. It’s true, for instance, that a multinational survey shows 49% support for the proposition that rule by experts would be a fine way to govern. But direct democracy, at 66%, and representative democracy, at 78%, do much better. Similarly, it’s true that a 1998 Gallup poll backs up Dotson’s worry that most Americans think “what some people call compromise is really just selling out one’s principles.” But Gallup polling since 2010 suggests that healthy majorities of Americans prefer that their politicians “compromise” to “get things done” rather than “stick to their beliefs even if little gets done.”

Dotson also defines fanaticism down. A small-time newspaper editor calling for a Ku Klux Klan revival, a futurist intransigently attached to self-driving cars, and a scholar who “attempts to construct universalistic ‘reason-based’ notions of the good society” are all faces of fanaticism. What does Dotson think of people who “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”? He doesn’t say, but if that’s a fanatical truth narrative, long live fanatical truth narratives.

Late in The Divide, Dotson observes that our coldness toward democratic participation may not reflect our “authentic selves.” Yet our democratic deficits are so entrenched that Dotson is “tempted to write off many contemporary adults as lost causes.” Perhaps “the next generation” can be raised in a “democratic civil religion.” He doesn’t say how reformers will get around benighted parents to reach the young. The Divide does a great service by reminding us that living with people who hold views we hate is the norm, not the exception in politics. The longing to escape that situation is a longing to escape politics altogether. Yet Dotson offers a democratic pluralism that may or may not inspire the next generation and appeals to “authentic selves” against the preferences of the selves we’ve got. He may be a bit of an escape artist himself.

Jonathan Marks, a professor of politics at Ursinus College, is the author of Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education.

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