Belmont Club

Dependence Day

This argument between Ted Cruz and Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin over the Iran deal is an interesting contrast in logical styles.  Cruz reasons the deal is bad because it gives Tehran $100 billion that it will use to continue its war against America.  By contrast, Benjamin says that since Obama and all the right thinking people think the deal is good then it must be.  How can you, Ted Cruz, think differently from all these super-smart people?

The debate reflects the age-old conflict between an argument from reason and an argument from authority.  It’s a real contest because while Western civilization pays lip service to “evidence based” policy, in practice most human beings rely on social proof to decide what to believe.

Social proof is a type of conformity. When a person is in a situation where they are unsure of the correct way to behave, they will often look to others for cues concerning the correct behavior.  …  and is driven by the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation.

The search for “social proof” as a determinant of conviction is not wholly crazy. Few of us can say why a pharmaceutical works.  But if the doctor prescribes a pill, we drink it without question. Most of the world is preoccupied with making a living and consequently have a high level of rational ignorance. “Rational ignorance occurs when the cost of educating oneself on an issue exceeds the potential benefit that the knowledge would provide.”  It takes too long for us to figure things out from first principles, so we find a “smart man” and do what he tells us.

Many people spend 15 minutes every four years thinking about foreign policy or politics. Since it would take too much time for them to examine the issues themselves they rely on proxy indicators to inform their choice. Some people have faith in Donald Trump, others in Bernie Sanders. Medea Benjamin happens to believe in Barack Obama.

Ignorance about an issue is said to be “rational” when the cost of educating oneself about the issue sufficiently to make an informed decision can outweigh any potential benefit one could reasonably expect to gain from that decision, and so it would be irrational to waste time doing so. This has consequences for the quality of decisions made by large numbers of people, such as general elections, where the probability of any one vote changing the outcome is very small.

But social proof is not without its dangers. Its main problem is a reliance on trust. Right after viewing the Medea Benjamin clip, you might want to watch the trailer for Marvel’s Age of Ultron.  Here’ a description.

It begins with glorious aerial cinematography of the Italian Alps, with Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver entering a mountaintop castle to meet James Spader’s robotic villain Ultron perched on a throne.

I was designed to save the world,” he tells them, before the action cuts to a sci-fi looking aircraft flying over a US city. “People would look to the sky and see… hope.”

He then adds, ominously: “I’ll take that from them first.”

And just in case we haven’t got it yet, he continues: “There’s only one path to peace… their extinction!”

The trailer is a little cartoonish, but it effectively conveys the point.  Ultron, our savior, has in his infinite wisdom decided to save the village by destroying it.

Social proof is susceptible to betrayal, while reasoning, because it relies on God — or mathematics and the laws of physics if you wish — never lies. Since history is pretty much a catalog of betrayal and obscurantism, it is rational to rely on reason. This conviction once lay at the heart of Western civilization and drove its progress but not any more. We’ve become superstitious savages with smartphones.  We’ve forgotten why reason was adopted as the cornerstone of civilization to start with.

How would a civilized man approach the  question of whether the Iran deal was a good one?  He would ask that you prove it, rationally.

When a mathematical proof is presented, it is not valid to assert that “Barack Obama believes it therefore it must be true”. On a more prosaic level, we all know that software works when it actually does and not when the president says so. Software that exists merely as a claim, no matter how exalted, is vaporware. But what’s truly alarming is that people are buying vaporware and arguing that because it says so on the box, therefore it is.

Why should we care? Because democracy is premised on the idea that in the most basic decisions, the people recognize no King; that voters must reason out the important questions for themselves. The problem is that former takes energy, while the latter merely requires listening to the town crier. The reason cogitation takes more energy than blindly hearkening to the town crier is because it is a much richer information product than blind obedience.

The payoff for relying on reasoning is immense.  Polls do not determine the truth.  Very often the correct answer is in the outlier.  There was a time when nearly everyone believed the earth was flat.  That did not change the fact they were wrong.

In some sense the American War of Independence never ended. The issues that divided it remain alive to this day. Perhaps it will never be settled for mankind, which will always be divided between those who look up at Ultron and see Hope and those who wonder why anyone who broods on a throne should be trusted.

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The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity for $3.99, or why the truth shall make you free
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