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About Polarization

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About Polarization Empty About Polarization

Post by wodouvhaox Wed Feb 05, 2020 5:42 pm

By Thomas Conti


It is tempting, but very mistaken, to put the problem of strong political partisanship and polarization as a dispute between ideological sides divided only among the classic values of political dispute. An opposition between equality and growth, collective and individual, authority and freedom, tradition and progress, etc. Of course these values and oppositions play an important and seductive role, hence the temptation I mentioned. But even in the face of this important role, it is still wrong to sum up the problem to this.

There are a number of themes that do not directly involve any of these classical values, but empirical studies have shown that they divide the population in such or more radical ways. For example, global warming. The science behind the theme is extremely technical and sophisticated, with most of the population not having enough knowledge to understand the underlying issues. Still, in many places where there is strong political polarization it is easier to know whether a person is "left" or "right" by asking a technical-scientific question about whether they think global warming has human causes than by asking whether they are for or against a universal public health system, or whether they are for or against raising taxes on the rich.

But exacerbated partisanship/polarization goes beyond that. After asking the question about global warming and hearing the answer, it is possible to predict with little margin of error what a person's belief is about a number of other technical-scientific problems that they also lack the background knowledge and have no necessary relationship with each other.

For example, research in the United States shows that if a person thinks that global warming is not real or has no human causes, there is a high probability that he or she will also think that: the death penalty is effective in deterring future crimes, that drug decriminalization will bring more costs than benefits, that nuclear power is safe, that transgenic technology is safe, that vaccines can cause health problems, and that the increased entry of immigrants increases crime. If it has a strong position on global warming having human causes, it also has a much higher probability of understanding that the death penalty does not deter future crime, that drug decriminalization reduces crime and has more benefits than costs, that nuclear power and transgenic technology are unsafe, that vaccines are safe, and that the entry of immigrants does not increase crime but reduces employment and wages.

The evidence that is needed to have a strong opinion on just one of these various issues is completely different from the evidence needed to have a strong position on any of the others. Looking only at the underlying technical-scientific problem, most people would not need to have any strong position on these issues. And someone who had a strong position on, for example, global warming having no human causes could have a strong position that the death penalty doesn't work and have no opinion on transgenic organisms. But what we observe is the opposite: the more radical a person's position on any of these issues, the greater the chance they have of having strong positions on the rest of the package.

For now, the best chance we have to explain this overflowing of beliefs on such disparate topics is precisely the Politically Motivated Reason. In this logic, political identity and the importance attributed to signaling belonging to the group are above considerations of another nature, such as the true/false pole, with evidence/without evidence, etc. Sharing some values and certainties in one field goes slowly and without warning unfolding into certainties in other fields, and the reaction of political opponents will be to assume positions also stronger not to lose space in the hot topics of the moment.

Thus, I think it is important to be clear that when I and other researchers question this logic of political polarization, there is more at stake than the dispute over ethical values that will give preference to this or that public policy. At the limit, there is the risk of a complete subversion of the spirit of research, study and verification of results that is the essence of the work of the researcher and consequently of the professor. Philosophical and scientific questioning can be - and in these over politicized themes, it has already been - buried in favor of the signaling of virtues, confidence in one's own ignorance and systematic policing in those who diverge from one or more of the consensus blindly created by the group.

Notice that there is a great potential for damage from an ill-founded policy in any of these areas that I have cited, who will say of all of them added up and the others that have not been listed here. Worse, it is always possible that new big issues will fall into this logic. In the face of this risk, at least trying to deflate politically motivated reason within ourselves and in public debate is a task of the highest relevance and importance.



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