Thoughts about depolarizing contentious arguments

Traders and investors rely on data. They need criteria for weighing the benefit of buying or selling. They use hard numbers: predictive analysis, historical trend patterns, algorithmic modeling, etc. At the same time, inescapable ‘tacit’ variables informing their decision: personal tolerance for risk, goals of their portfolio or clients, and so on. The choice to buy or sell at any given moment is data-driven, yes, but it ultimately rests on a human logic of value.

Consider another example: a scientist working on an empirical question is principally concerned with an objective understanding of the phenomenon in front of them. They are looking for evidence that is falsifiable and testing measurable outcomes against a null hypothesis. But why are they studying this question? Why do they investigate macrophages instead of the atmosphere? What motivates them to get out of bed in the morning and go to work? Are they driven to find a cure for a disease? A pursuit of knowledge to further the wellbeing of humanity? Compelled by personal devotion to a career path? Boredom? Obsessive compulsive curiosity?

Whatever the reason might be, it is a human reason.

The point? There could be a billion explanations why the investor and the scientist do what they do. But no matter how devoted they might be to the principles of data, evidence, objectivity, and the refutability of hypothesis, their devotion is no less a human devotion. To the extent that a commitment to evidenced-based decision-making reflects a commitment to a normative idea, it could be described as equally ‘ideological’ as any other human commitment to a normative idea. Everyone is presumably motivated by something, lest they be automatons or robots.

Describing evidence-based decision-making as an ‘ideology’ does not deter me from my commitment to it. In fact, I am ready and happy to take up the debate in defense of evidence at any opportunity. But my commitment to ideas like ‘truth,’ ‘fact,’ and ‘evidence,’ does not endow me with a special warrant to walk around and accuse everyone else of being ‘ideological’ — as if I am a rare, enlightened creature that has somehow transcended all human limits of comprehension. No, if I define ‘ideology’ as a system of beliefs and ideals, then my commitment to evidence and fact is as ‘ideological’ as any other belief out there.

Describing another person as an ‘ideologue’ seems like a rather hypocritical strategy of rhetoric. Is not every debate is a match between at least two or more ideologues? The concept of truth itself is an ideological proposition. Pretending that logic and evidence are illimitable artifacts that live somewhere beyond the realm of the species defining them is to only call science ‘divine’ by another name. To say, “I don’t have an agenda; I only follow the evidence,” is another way of saying, “My agenda is to follow the evidence as I understand the evidence.”

Pragmatic honesty demands that I acknowledge that a) my commitment to evidence is a normative human idea, b) which intrinsically comes with an agenda when confronted with decision-points or conflicting viewpoints, and c) runs concurrent with my inherently limited understanding of the data at play (conclusive evidence is only ‘conclusive’ to the extent that I conclude the absence and nonexistence of all further evidence).

How would I engage with the public sphere of debate differently if I could hold these thoughts at front-of-mind?

One Reply to “Thoughts about depolarizing contentious arguments”

  1. James,
    I think it is good to notice that reasoning is perfused with human interests, preferences, history, and agendas—even our own. The epistemological challenge of this level of self and process awareness (i.e., post-modernism(1)) is to be humble without sliding down the slippery slope into a relativism where all that’s left is propaganda and power. To make this even more pointed and urgent, see Chapter 4 of Chris Hayes’ _Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy_. Our public discourse has slipped free from respect for those who study and focus (i.e., become experts) for a whole suite of reasons that Hayes lists. So where to now? Can we shake off the pernicious post-consensus/post-fact proof by power situation or shall we sit (or stand and scream) as watch the slow motion train wreck. It is worth wondering how bad the impacts of climate change will have to be to generate a consensus that can overcome short term interests (enforced and reinforced by consistent propaganda)? – Jeremy

    (1) see _The Social Construction of What?_ by Ian Hacking

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