Politics and Ideology

A week or so ago I wrote an article for Forbes.com attempting to summarize the climate debate.  Despite the fact (or maybe because of the fact) that I was clear about my personal position in the debate, I thought it was a fair outline of the state of the debate.  In retrospect, one reason I thought it was a useful article is because nowhere in it did I use the words "liar", "myth", "conspiracy", "___-funded", or "scam."  I did not hypothesize about either side's motivations or sources of funding or engage in any sort of ad hominem attack.  In short, while I sometimes said people were wrong, I never said they weren't well-intentioned.

Which is why I enjoyed this post from Chris at the Liberty Papers, which used as a starting point my wondering why my opposition could not be treated as well-intentioned, honest disagreement rather than some sort of scheming.

 they are arguing from ideology not from reality. They believe in what HAS to be true, because their ideology says so; not what reality, or experience, proves to be true.

Their ideology is core to their perception of their identity, and their sense both of self worth, and the worth of others. Their judgement and reason are based on it. Everything is filtered through this ideological prism, because it HAS to be, for the health of their own psyche.

For someone whose entire perception of self worth depends on their adherence to an ideological precept (“I am a good/better person because I believe this morally better thing”), then anyone who disagrees with this precept must be stupid, ignorant, defrauded, deluded, or evil.

There is no room for honest disagreement in this. To preserve their self worth, and sense of identity, there can be no doubt, and no acceptance of any possibility of error. There is one true path, which they follow, and anyone who deviates from it is apostate.

If therefore, one cannot dismiss opponents of their ideological precept as stupid, ignorant, defrauded, or deluded (and in the case of clearly intelligent, well informed people, presenting reasoned arguments against your precepts, you obviously cannot); the only thing you can challenge is their motives.

This certainly rings true to an extent.  I guess my thought is that there is no we-they here.  To some extent we all have a share of this tendency.  I find myself, all the time, wanting to immediately accept evidence that confirms my world view and trying to find reasons why I should not have to accept evidence that seems to contradict that view.  I am more or less succesful in fighting this depending on the day of the week.

But what I have no tolerance for is the demonization of opposition as a substitute for fact-based rebuttal, and even better, working to understand what differences in core assumptions lay at the heart of the disagreement.  The healthiest possible discussion is to trace competing arguments back to the point where both sides can say, yes, here's where we diverge.  I would like to think my climate article last week was a good example of doing this.


  1. NL_:

    Confirmation bias is of course far less dangerous when people can make their own decisions and when they are subjected to the benefits and drawbacks of those choices. What makes confirmation bias so important and dangerous is that politics imbues power over others. So systematic errors in filtering information get their importance significantly magnified.

  2. Ted Rado:

    Many years ago, I learned the importance of objective analysis. Without it, we become zealots arguing our opinions rather than facts.

    In engineering work, there are always a variety of ideas about dealing with a problem. Obviously, each proponent likes his idea best. A true professional will subordinate his ego to the common good. The object is to find the best solution to the problem, not to win the personal argument. One's ability to be objective thus becomes a major factor in one's success as an engineer. We are all wrong some of the time. It is no great self-putdown to admit it and go on to find the best solution to the problem.

  3. Roy:

    Sometimes it takes some pretty hard work to produce the collision of ideas that refines an analysis. That work gets even harder when it turns out to require some humility.

    And, interesting, I suggest, it gets even harder still when one is, as a matter of fact, correct and the opposing interactor is not.

  4. Patrick Moffitt:

    Eric Hoffer's quote is applicable:
    "The beginning of thought is in disagreement — not only with others but also with ourselves."

  5. Dimitri Mariutto:

    Kudos! Your article was extremely well thought out, logical and an excellent example showing where sides diverge in the climate change debate. I will pass it on quite often, I do not doubt.

  6. IGotBupkis, Three Time Winner of the Silver Sow Award:

    >>> I find myself, all the time, wanting to immediately accept evidence that confirms my world view

    "Confirmation bias" is the term for this, and yeah, the fact that there's a term for it says it's hardly unique to you, which I'm sure is a vast relief. ;-D

    What you discuss is one reason I'll take the time to argue against someone, typically a liberal (though it can be conservatives on other hot-button issues like euthanasia and abortion-choice) whose mind I have no chance of changing...

    The goal isn't changing the opponent's mind -- instead, it's:
    a) review of the information I have collected, forcing me to examine it in light of new information or altering viewpoints
    b) practice at pulling up those points readily, useful in a live-action debate
    c) it makes the case to lurking readers whose opinions might be swayed, even if my opposition's can't be
    d) general practice at argumentation and debate technique.

    And, finally, and most importantly:

    e) exposing my own reason/logic chain to external, as well as internal, examination and challenges.

    These more than amply justify arguing even if there's no chance of changing the opponent's view.

  7. hanmeng:

    Yes, it was good and thank you for promoting fact-based discussion. But people being what they are, I'm afraid the demonization of opposition will continue.

  8. Ted Rado:

    The problem is easy to resolve if it is quantifiable. For example, it is easy to show that energy storage (hydraulic or compressed air) is prohibitively expensive. In other cases, such as how much government intrusion is good and/or acceptable, no numbers can be generated to prove one way or the other. It becomes a philosophical issue, where one can debate forever.

    I can accept philisophical differences of view, but arguing where the mathematical solution is available is frustrating. Virtually all the alternative energy stuff falls into the latter category.

  9. Don Anderson:

    Your fact-based climate summary is excellent -- all the more so because you avoided a pre-committed world-view rationale. Great engineers often argue vehemently but do not take it personally, then they settle upon the optimal design or proceedure after the arguments have all been heard. However, ask yourself if you really applied the same cold, balanced logic in your decission to support a third party this November. Which major party squelches the most - and most essential - freedoms? Best vote them out and keep promoting logically to improve the other. Again, working most effectively if fact-based & clean (as you do so well in your Blog).

  10. Mark:

    Although it's a bit of a stretch, you might find some comfort in this op-ed piece from the LA Times two days ago: http://articles.latimes.com/2012/feb/12/opinion/la-oe-briggs-death-penalty-20120212

    In it, the men who were apparently instrumental in stiffening California's death penalty law in 1977 by ballot initiative have reconsidered. Not on ideological grounds, but because of the inescapable (to them) facts that lead them to conclude that it's simply not working. "Facts are stubborn things", they quote.

    Now, the death penalty and climate change are completely different subjects. But here's an example of some folks who did not let ideology blind them. They deeply held a certain viewpoint -- probably still do -- but have concluded that facts (delayed justice, cost, and recurrent suffering by victims) tell them that the intended outcome (swift justice, reduced cost to the system and victims) is not being achieved.

    Whether you agree or disagree with the death penalty, I think it's a courageous stand to take, to stand up and admit, "We were wrong". I can only hope the climate change folks are capable of doing the same.

  11. Chris Byrne:


    Thanks for the cite, I'm glad you liked what you inspired. Just one thing: you forgot to actually link to the post ;-)

  12. DavidR:

    "I remember once hearin' a speech about what it meant to be an officer of the CIA and the man who gave this speech talked about the struggle to control civilization and how we're always fightin' the same fight, and he used the dark ages as an example.

    "And he talked about how on the one side you had the pragmatic king who was greedy and power hungry and basically took advantage of people whenever he could. And on the other side you had the idealistic church forcin' everyone to follow the same rules, believe the same thing, and all that. Neither the king nor the church was ever completely right or wrong, both sides ended up doin' terrible things to get what they wanted, really terrible things.

    "The point of the story was this, that this struggle from the dark ages had been goin' on forever, and the church and the king might take on different philosophies but they would always fight each other, pragmatists and idealists, and at most times, you're better off standin' on the sidelines, lettin' them duke it out.

    "But every once in a while, one side or the other decides it might be better just to blow up the whole world just to get its own way and when that happens you can't stand on the sidelines any more. You have to pick a team. So for tonight anyway, we're servin' the king."
    -Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick), "The Closer" (Episode: "Serving the King, Part 2")

  13. stuhlmann:

    If you haven't seen the article at the URL below, I think you'll find it interesting. It discusses a specific case in science's efforts to understand what influences climate, and how this new information gets handled based on political and other biases.


  14. Gil:

    How isn't "catastrophic man-made global warming" a strawman? Data suggests a figure 3 degrees Celsius. That's not catastrophic as a heat wave would probably be hotter. Likewise, if your country would see a 10% gain in crop yields because of AGW then you'd better off but if another country saw a 10% drop then it would be bad but not catastrophic. You might as well be saying "yes there was a lot pollution and environmental degradation because of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century but the positive effects far outweighed the losses hence there's nothing to apologise for".

  15. stan:


    I think you minimize what is a very real difference that this blog post tries to summarize. There are a lot of people who make decisions about politics without believing that these are a reflection of their value as human beings. Chris is pointing out a serious issue that goes well beyond confirmation bias.

    Krauthammer says the difference b/w dems and GOP is that democrats think republicans are evil (not just wrong). I think this is the type of thinking Chris is referencing. To agree with the right on an issue is to join the evil forces of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc, etc. Global warming is part of the left-wing catechism for many. They believe it the same way that Christians believe in the trinity.

  16. NormD:

    You seem kinda naive

    What possible evidence do you have that suggests that a significant percentage of people are interested in truth that conflicts with their currently held views.

    Religious people?
    Union members?
    Department Heads?
    Gang Members?

    Some battles are knife fights. People who do not bring knives and know how to use them lose.

    Rare is the Libertarian who has these skills.

    Are you really going to confront Hitler with a study showing that Jews are not responsible for all problems? Or show Stalin that collectivism does not work? I have the numbers!

  17. Hasdrubal:

    I think a large part of the problem with the rhetoric around global warming science is that the science is used as a proxy for the political debate. The debate has been framed as "if the science is x, we must do y." See, for example, President Obama's promises to run a science based administration.

    Unfortunately, that's not the case. The science of global warming is black and white: Either the hypotheses are correct and the models accurately predict future effects or they don't. That however, is as far as the science CAN go. The follow up step, the "what do we do about it" is a purely political decision. If x happens, we have to choose what to do about it based upon how bad x is and what we have to give up for our response. Those weights are subjective (one cannot compare utility functions across people!) and therefore the preferred policy course will be different based on different personal values. Deciding what to do about global warming, therefore, is all about how important/costly you think the various effects and counters will be. Political decision.

    Using the science as a proxy has probably made it easier to argue for some of the sets of solutions. But it has done a disservice to science. The side that disagrees with the side using science to push their political goals has to disagree with the science, the terms of the argument won't allow them to argue anything else effectively. It's the same problem as science verses religion. Comparing the two is really a non-sequitor.

    So instead of an honest discussion about political values informed by science's best estimates of causes and effects, we get "warmists" and "deniers" and scientists spending as much time campaigning as they do gathering data.

    (On a side note, it seems a lot of scientists themselves don't realize that science can only tell us what is happening, politics has to decide what to do about it. That's why I don't give much more weight to political petitions signed by scientists much more weight than petitions signed by movie stars.)

  18. Dan:

    Great post, Warren, and I agree. It is very difficult for anyone to get past their own ideologies and try to accept facts that may contradict them.

    Zealotry is always the worst-case scenario because it precludes useful debate that may help resolve a problem. I see a lot of it in Congress these days. Maybe there will be less now that an election is approaching.

    Interesting article in NYT today about how Boehner is now ignoring the far right members of the House to get things done, unlike last summer. Not saying I like Boehner or agree with the policies he's shaping (I'm against extending unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut), but I'm hoping that this spirit of compromise can extend to some major agreements between parties to make long-term and significant cuts to the debt, as was being discussed last summer.

  19. Ted Rado:


    I don't agree that "what we do about it" is a political decision. It is primarily an engineering problem. If going with wind and hydro storage causes us all to have a $2000/mo or more electric bill, it is not a viable option. Political considerations can certainly impact the decision whether to go with option A or option B, provided that these are technically and economically viable options. If all options result in economic catastrophe, then politics do not matter. We can't do any of them.

    Much of the global warming debate assumes that there is a viable alternative energy option. While this is true for electricity (nuclear energy), is is definitely not true for motor fuels. Thus we have NO OPTION but to continue with petroleum based fuels. Hoping that massive USG expenditures will overcome the laws of thermdynamics is wishful thinking and a huge waste of money.

  20. Mark2:

    Some of the posts here are about folks blindly clinging to views they hold without consideration of other points of view, and how stubborn these folks are.

    Unfortunately except in a very few cases facts are not cut and dry, and therefore people have to rely on their own personal belief system to reconcile.

    Someone brought up Abortion above, well you can say as a Conservative, I am just being a jerk because I don't agree that babies should be aborted from stage X to stage Y in development, and I must be a religious fanatic, ect.

    But if you look honestly at the case, both sides can have a point, It is just my world view and life experience which dictates my ultimate position.

    For instance, I BELIEVE that the initial embryo is a life, and not just a clump of cells. I have also experienced a baby born at 25 weeks who is doing quite well and know most states allow this baby to be easily aborted at up to 26 weeks. So I have seen a clump of cells come to life. There is nothing you can falsify about this belief of mine, and you can not in good faith cast aspersions on me for holding this belief. If you present an opinion to the contrary - its just a lump of cells, there is no consciousness, etc, those facts may be true in your belief system, but there is no reason for me to consider it, and incorporate it into mine. They are after all your beliefs.

  21. Sam L.:

    But as the man said, they MUST believe it because it is right to believe it, all the best people believe it, and by golly they know they are right and are of the best people, and to admit anything else would completely destroy them.

    And then again, a lot of it is just power politics.

  22. Gil:

    Well, Ted Rado, if slavery is profitable then it would be a crime to end it as it means lower productivity and higher prices for everyone hence we should wait until slavery is unprofitable and then phase it out? So if it decided that global warming will cause higher yields on existing farms as well bring new land into viability outweighing the damage that will be done then Greenies haven't a legal leg to stand on?

  23. Michael:


    For what it is worth - I think it was one of your best pieces. It made extremely clear what always seems to be true in controversial issues - the tendency for the two sides to talk past each other rather than engage in a dialogue. And usually that is because each side is actually talking about different issues but don't realize it.

  24. ruralcounsel:

    If this were a reasoned debate, and not a war between segments of society, it would be nice if things were fact based. But it isn't, and as in war, being able to impact the opposition morale, through trickery and misdirection, has always been an acceptable tactic. If the true AGW proponents win, they reconfigure the world economy to suit themselves. If they can't do it through AGW agit-prop, they'll just look for a different approach. It isn't about the approach, it's about the outcome. What the troops in the trenches think is almost immaterial to the string pullers.

    Your mistake is in presuming the nature of the disagreement.

  25. Ted Rado:


    I think you missed my point. If there is no alternative to what you are doing, you must continue doing it. Everything that has been proposed or studied re alternative energy is nonsense. The only viable thing is more nuclear energy, and that produceds electricity, not motor fuel.

    Yes, almost anything is theoretically possible. You can make gasoline out of CO2. You can use nuclear energy to electrolyze water to make hydrogen. Etc, etc. However, all of these are horribly expensive and impractical. Unless there is some huge breakthrough a la nuclear energy, we have no option but to use fossil fuels, move north, or reduce our standard of living to pre-Civil War days. Some magic bullet is not in the offing, despite the USG throwing piles of money at it.

    Nobody wants to pollute the air. That is not the question. Your analogy to slavery is incorrect as there was a viable alternative. Such is not the case with fossil fuels.

  26. Gil:

    I believe my analogy was fair as I don't believe White guys had Black people shipped halfway around the world just for laughs rather because they believed it was the best way to have a productive economy