DAILY EVOLVER EPISODE 90
We started this week with a couple of quick items: first a comment on Brendan Eich, who was pushed out as the CEO of Mozilla (makers of the Firefox browser) because in 2008 he supported Proposition 8, the California voter initiative that banned the state from granting gay marriage.
A quick poll on Tuesday evening’s call showed that the vast majority of the callers thought Mozilla’s actions were wrong. I’m not so sure I agree. I guess I’m for a world without shaming, but till then I’m happy that instead of being shamed for being gay, people are now (in some circles at least) being shamed for being anti-gay. Once again, evolution is beautiful but not always pretty.
The second quick item regards economic corruption. I often make the point that what we see in developed countries as “corruption” — powerful people colluding for mutual profit — describes 100% of the economy at pre-modern altitudes. Yet by the time we get to modernity this kind of corruption is criminalized (though, of course, far from eradicated).
But what about post-modern corruption; is there anything new and different emerging? I think we can see a perfect example in Flash Boys, a new book by Michael Lewis that exposes the practice of high speed stock trading, where savvy traders set up shop right next to a stock exchange in order get the millisecond advantage gained by proximity in electronic transactions.
I think Time Magazine sums it up well: “More than ever, the economic injustices of the world are made possible by the unequal distribution of information.”
DOES POLITICS MAKE US STUPID?
In our first major story, we look at an essay published by Ezra Klein, How politics makes us stupid, in which he reported on a study done at Yale University by Law professor Dan Kahan who set out to answer a question that I think most of us have asked, particularly when we’re in a heated political disagreement: “Why don’t facts win arguments?”
The researchers started by creating a neutral control experiment: first, they asked people to interpret a data set of four numbers that revealed the efficacy of a skin cream in relieving a rash. The data, presented in quadrant grid, showed the number of people whose rash got better and worse while using the cream, and the number of those whose rash got better and worse while not using the cream. So was the cream effective? As might be expected, the better peoples’ math skills were the better they did at the problem.
Next the researchers presented a highly politicized problem: does a ban on concealed handguns increase or reduce crime? Using data sets similar to the skin rash question, (some showing a gun ban cutting crime and some showing a ban increasing it) peoples’ math skills no longer determined how well they did at solving the problem. Ideology did. Liberals and conservatives were both able to solve the problem — but only when it fit their ideology. In fact the better they were at math the better they were able to use the data to support their pre-established political positions. Those with strong math skills were almost twice as likely than those with weak skills to get the problem right when it fit their worldview.
As Klein points out: “People weren’t reasoning to get the right answer; they were reasoning to get the answer that they wanted to be right.”
This partisan filter is at work throughout all political discourse and flies in the face of the conventional understanding of why we have political disagreements, which Klein calls the More Information Hypothesis, “the belief that many of our most bitter political battles are mere misunderstandings.” He writes:
The cause of these misunderstandings? Too little information — be it about climate change, or taxes, or Iraq, or the budget deficit. If only the citizenry were more informed, the thinking goes, then there wouldn’t be all this fighting.
It’s a seductive model. It suggests our fellow countrymen aren’t wrong so much as they’re misguided, or ignorant, or — most appealingly — misled by scoundrels from the other party.
But the More Information Hypothesis isn’t just wrong. It’s backwards. Cutting-edge research shows that the more information partisans get, the deeper their disagreements become.
So what causes this counterfactualism? Dan Kahan, the Yale researcher, calls it Identity Protection Cognition, “a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups.” In other words, we don’t want to risk the disapproval of other people in our political tribe (the lower left quadrant) by challenging the group’s base beliefs and orthodoxies. This makes sense but it doesn’t explain how the individuals in the group get their beliefs in the first place — and hold them in the face of contrary evidence. I think integral theory offers a better explanation: beliefs flow from the altitude of consciousness development (the upper left quadrant) of the believer.
Here’s why consciousness development is a much better predictor of why we hold political beliefs independent of evidence:
Amber traditionalists (home of hard-core conservatives) and green postmodernists (home of hard-core liberals), for instance, not only think different things…they think different-LY. They have different receptors and filters for facts. They use different kinds of logic to process the facts, drawing different conclusions and making different meaning. Kahan’s experiments at Yale show this explicitly and it is one of the reasons that political dispositions are so uniform and predictable (for instance people who are pro-gun are also usually anti-abortion and vice versa).
This phenomenon pervades our political discourse right up to its apogee: the United States Supreme Court. I’ve always been amazed that professional judges, who are presumed free of prejudice and for whom justice is blind of all but the facts of the case, can so consistently come up with such predictably differing conclusions. But it is indeed the way of things, and more frequently with the current John Roberts court where 22% of all cases are decided by a 5 to 4 majority, broken down by party loyalty (the average of 5 to 4 decisions from 1800 – 1940 was 2%).
William Faulk, writing in the last issue of the magazine The Week, says “the Roberts court has issued bitterly polarized, 5-4 rulings on its most controversial cases – including gun control, voting rights, affirmative action, campaign finance law, Obamacare, and gay marriage.”
Describing the justices arguing about the recent case where the retail chain Hobby Lobby challenged the contraception mandate in Obamacare, he writes: “The conservative, Catholic male justices recently expressed open sympathy for the Christian-owned company, while the female liberal justices focused on women employees who might be denied contraceptive coverage. It sounded more like a debate on MSNBC or FOX News than a judicial proceeding.
“We humble citizens are thus left to wonder: are the good justices dispassionately weighing each case on its constitutional merits, or are they mere ideologues who start off with the desired result and work backward?”
It’s enough to give you a rash.
DOES THE PAST EVER DIE?
In an essay in last week’s Time magazine about the Russia/Ukraine situation, conservative political thinker Robert D. Kaplan makes the case that “in geopolitics there is no modern world and the past never dies.” I could feel another rash coming on until I read his argument. Although I disagree with some of his broader conclusion (details on the call) I also see that, as is often the case, conservative thinking reveals an important piece of the truth that is often missed by liberals. Under the title Geopolitics and the New World Order, Kaplan writes:
This isn’t what the 21st century was supposed to look like. The visceral reaction of many pundits, academics and Obama administration officials to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s virtual annexation of Crimea has been disbelief bordering on disorientation. As Secretary of State John Kerry said, ‘it’s really 19th century behavior in the 21st century.” Well, the “19th century,” as Kerry calls it, lives on and always will. Forget about the world being flat. Forget technology as the great democratizer. Forget the niceties of international law. Territory and the bonds of blood that go with it are central to what makes us human.
Well, yes and no.
Territory and bonds of blood are more central to what makes us human the lower we are on the altitudes of development.
As we evolve in consciousness and culture they matter less and less, till at post-modernity things like bonds of blood are almost irrelevant. I remember what a college classmate of mine from Bosnia said about what surprised her most about America: “here nobody cares what my grandfather did to your grandfather.”
Where Kaplan is right, of course, is that most of the people of the world — Ken Wilber often cites 70% or so — are living and thinking at pre-modern altitudes of development. And for them their grandfathers’ behaviors are still alive and online. This is a fact that is sometimes lost on those of us who, raised in the comfort and security of liberal democracies, fail to grasp the motivations of people living at traditional and warrior (red altitude) stages of development. As Kaplan points out, “a large number of people on this planet, to whom the comfort and stability of a middle-class life is utterly unknown, find war and a barracks existence a step up rather than a step down.”
He quotes Martin van Creveld, author of the book The Transformation of War and a military historian at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem: “Fighting in many ways is not a means but an end. Throughout history, for every person who has expressed his horror of war there is another who found in it the most marvelous of all the experiences that are vouchsafed to man, even to the point that he later spent a lifetime boring his descendants by recounting his exploits.”
Kaplan goes on to write: “The post-Cold War era was supposed to be about economics, interdependence and universal values trumping the instincts of nationalism and nationalism’s related obsession with the domination of geographic space. But Putin’s actions betray a singular truth, one that the U.S. should remember as it looks outward and around the globe: international relations are still about who can do what to whom.”
Conservatives are usually better than liberals at understanding the minds of pre-modern people (they’re evolutionarily closer, after all), so even when they get the big picture wrong, they bring a perspective that integral thinkers are wise to consider.
Till next week, keep it intergral!
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