The politics of misinformation

Sat Feb 09, 2013 3:31 pm by Inferno

Having just written my 1337th post on the LoR forum, I thought I’d write up my first blog post.

A very short background on me: I studied “History and Political science” as well as “Geography and Economics” for 2.5 years at the University of Vienna, without obtaining a degree. I am now almost finished with my “Geography and Economics” and “English as a foreign language” degree, BSc.

So much for that. Now with the U.S. elections just behind us and many upcoming European elections, I wanted to look at one question that’s always baffled me: Why is there so much misinformation in trivial politics? Is there a huge conspiracy, do politicians want to keep us dumb? And why do politicians implement so many bad and unnecessary laws? Why don’t they listen to good advice?

I’ll start with an example from the U.S., as seen in PZ Myers talk “A despairing perspective on American education“. At 14:29 in that video, he talks about the I35W Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis collapsing in 2007. The bridge was constantly classified as “structurally deficient”, but apart from a plan to retrofit the bridge, nothing was done. In 2007, it collapsed and a new bridge was built in 2008. This could have been avoided if the bridge had been replaced 17 years prior to the incident, in the year of my birth, 1990.

There’s one obvious question: Why didn’t politicians react to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDoT)? In the end, the replacement bridge cost them 234$ million, plus the cost from people not being able to commute (400,000$-1$ million per day), plus the rescue operations and finally the lawsuits. Bad decisions, based on sufficient information, cost the state at least twice as much as a completely new bridge would have cost.

Now I can’t give an answer as to why the politicians in charge did nothing, but this is, after all, just an example to highlight my point: Politicians make bad decisions even though there is enough data to come to the (obviously?) correct conclusion.
Closer to home, politicians have just tried to revamp the education system in Austria. The idea was a good one: Competency-based learning. It’s basically learning how to think instead of learning only facts. With that came a centralized baccalaureate, similar to the SAT’s in the U.S. That’s not a bad idea, because people want (and sometimes need) to be compared more or less objectively. (I’ll go into that in a later blog post.) That sounds excellent!

So why am I ranting? Well, obviously something didn’t go as planned. Do you want to venture a guess as to what went wrong? Yep, that’s right! Politicians (centre left party) made the wrong call, even though the answer should have been obvious. The whole scheme was set in motion in 2004, but back in 2008, when I was still at the other Uni, my Geography Professor always had one day where she would go to schools all around the country and teach teachers about… competency-based learning. Basically, the teachers didn’t even know what or how they were supposed to be teaching! That’s a shocker, to say the least. How can you expect a school child, even an 18-year-old, to pass a standardized test when they’ve been taught something completely different during their years at school?

I’ll offer a possible solution for this example, and then move back to the U.S. Being the centre left party, the SPÖ (Social Democratic Party of Austria) is in favour of giving the same education to all children, if possible for free. However, their political goals, admirable as they might be, conflicted with reality and with science. (One of their aims was a comprehensive school, which is no better than elite schools. That’s what people though, for various reasons, but it’s not true.) Anyway…

Now let’s get back to the U.S. There are similar problems in education, with not enough money being spent on Schools and so on. There are many avenues I could explore, but I’ll take the most obvious one: Why do Republicans push educational laws that are demonstrably stupid and impeding the education of the next generation?

We already know that women mostly voted for Obama (55% to 45%), that young people mostly voted for Obama (60% to 36%), that higher-income people tend to vote for Romney and so on. We also know that of the top 10 states in education (percentage with a degree), 10/10 voted for Obama. Of the ten worst educated states, nine voted for Romney. Now I dare you to tell me that’s a coincidence.

Top 10 best vs Top 10 worst educated states, and how they voted

This goes back to what PZ said in his talk: Republicans tend to favour bad education policies because they would be voted out of office if not for the uneducated.

Avid readers might now howl in protest and say something like: “That’s a generalization! I’m educated/uneducated and I voted for Romney/Obama!”

Yes, of course. I have to make some generalizations, otherwise this post isn’t going anywhere. To analyse this phenomenon in depth and to do it proper justice, I’d have to write at least a book about it. I’m still confident that the overall message would remain the same. The next few paragraphs contain generalizations so sweeping that even I cringe, but like I said… text length and time and all…

So the (very short) answer to the questions I posed is this: Extremist (both left and right wing) parties as well as moderately right wing/conservative parties tend to have bad education policies because their ideas are not compatible with reality, their voters would stop voting for them if they were educated.

Now some might think of me as a left-wing hippy, so let me take the wind out of your sails right away: Left wing parties have an equally bad reason to favour bad politics. In my Austrian example, bad policies were implemented because of ideological reasons, even though they were contrary to what science said and even though they could not be implemented in the time span allotted. I think that’s true for most parties: Decisions are made to get re-elected, which includes staying true to your ideology, however wrong it may be.

Even more avid readers than the above might now raise their hands and say: “But that doesn’t answer your question at all. Why don’t they simply drop their idiotic policies in exchange for some good ones? Why don’t people change their votes after a party has done them a disservice?”

And this, dear reader, is where my (partially rational) mind can’t quite follow any more. Why don’t they? It should be so simple. Is it possible that it’s got something to do with what I alluded in the topic “How to debate/argue – tips and tricks” as well as what is stated outright in the “Psychology of Belief” series, namely that people are so set in their ways that we can’t change them? At least, we can’t change them without a lot of effort involved.

There’s a positive and a negative message to all this.
The negative: If we don’t turn this around, our grandchildren might end up in a world run down by the likes of our current-day Republicans.
The positive: Change is on the way. The number of Skeptics (people who need evidence to be swayed, who possibly even think scientifically), not pseudo-skeptics like the Euro-Skeptic movement, is growing. Maybe if the next few Presidents all over the world could be Skeptics… Ah, I can dream, can’t I?

So what’s the conclusion to this post? Be skeptical, in all areas of life. Be it politics, science, medicine, the supernatural… Skepticism is a good thing and there’s too little of it in the world today. I’ll end with a quote and something to think about:

“Trying to figure out how something works on that deep level, the first ninety-nine explanations you come up with are wrong. The hundredth is right. So you have to learn how to admit you’re wrong, over and over and over again. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s so hard that most people can’t do science. Always questioning yourself, always taking another look at things you’ve always taken for granted, […] and every time you change your mind, you change yourself.” –Sauce

My guess is, that’s why politicians don’t change their views: Because they’d have to admit that they’re wrong. And that’s one thing they can’t admit, under pain of expulsion. If a politician ever admits (s)he’s wrong, they’ll soon be kicked from the party. So the next time you vote, look out for two things:
1) If a politician says that they know the answer, vote for the other party.
2) If a politician can admit they’re wrong, vote for that one.

Or don’t, that’s up to you.

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