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Jake Freivald

July 2012

Paranoia and Delusion

This is an open letter to Jay Lake, based on a blog post he had written. When I mentioned on Facebook that I disagreed with it, he asked me why.

I posted it here because I don’t have another good place to blog about this kind of thing. Since the common ground between Jay and me is fiction — I published one of his stories a while back — I don’t think it’s too out of place.

Jay, please take this response in the way it’s intended: As a serious but congenial attempt to relate your worldview to mine. I haven’t completely left my snark at the door, but I’m going for humor more than serious jabs.

When I responded to Brad Torgersen’s response to you, I said that your post was “solid, though I disagreed with it.” It was solid in that, while reading it, I got that sinking sense of “am I with all the crazy people?”

Yes, there are crazy people who believe the same things that I do. I can accept that, actually — people get the right ideas for the wrong reasons all the time. But you said, “Many of the things conservatives say and do don’t arise from honest differences of opinion about the world and how it works and should be run. This isn’t about divergent views of policy or preference of philosophy”, and that’s something I can’t accept.

Most of the things I personally do and say arise precisely from “honest differences of opinion about the world” etc. I am able to engage in coversation with liberals because I acknowledge that, although some of their ideas seem ridiculous to me, they arise mostly because of serious differences in axioms, not because of “lies”.

Your post gets its force from its claim that “the modern conservative position has become unreasonable, in a most literal sense, founded on a combination of willful ignorance and deliberate intellectual dishonesty.” This is contrasted with “liberal-progressives [who] get it wrong a lot of the time as well.” You don’t bark at them, you say, “because there simply isn’t the wholesale denial of reality in that wing of American politics and culture that there is on the Right.”

In short, you imply that conservatives are, as a group, crazy or liars, while liberals, as a group, are (at a minimum) not unreasonable and have science/truth/wisdom/whatever on their side.

My aim is to do two things.

1) I want to show that this implication is false, partly because the data you point out doesn’t require conservatives to be crazy or liars (even if they’re totally, abjectly wrong), and partly because the data you provide show that liberals tend not to be better than conservatives with respect to science and reason.

Note that the latter part of that is not a tu quoque; I’m not justifying false beliefs. I’m just trying to soften your superiority complex about liberals, progressives, and the Democratic party.

2) Along the way I want to show how, perhaps, “the things that conservatives say and do can arise from honest differences of opinion about the world and how it works and should be run.”

Evolution denial

You say, “58 percent of Republicans believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years. (To be clear, so do 41% of Democrats, but the resulting social agenda has little sway within the Democratic party or liberal-progressive politics.)” Note that the same poll shows that 39% of independents are creationists as well.

I think your disclaimer gives away the game. You’re saying that, although groups A and B both hold the same religious beliefs — which, you argue, lead to paranoia and delusion — the group with the bad beliefs is led to their bad beliefs by their religion, while the one with the good beliefs is not influenced by their religion.

Maybe liberal creationists become paranoid about Republicans, but — since Republicans really are out to get you — it’s okay. :)

Seriously, though, this is not only inconsistent, but demonstrably false. I know seven-day creationists who believe that we have a God-ordained responsibility to take care of the less fortunate, and therefore support an expansive welfare state, single-payer heathcare, and open immigration laws. They believe those things specifically because they believe in a special creation, i.e., that God created Man on the seventh day as the pinnacle of creation.

If Republican beliefs are unreasonable specifically because of the irrational and paranoid nature of their religious beliefs, I don’t see how you can say that Democrats and independents are immune from that charge.

Fortunately for both of us, I don’t think these religious beliefs lead where you think they do.

You said: “In order to hold the majority Republican view on evolution, you have to believe that 99% of the biologists, geologists, chemists, physicists, science teachers and science journalists are all engaged in a century-long conspiracy to cover up and obscure the Biblical truth with falsified evidence and slanted classroom instruction and biased journalism. You have to be willing to disregard the absolutely overwhelming web of interlocking physical evidence that supports the theory of evolution. In order to hold that worldview, you have to train yourself to habits of thought that are literally paranoid and delusional.”

I don’t know how many bible-thumping seven-day creationists you’ve talked to — I am not one — but there are more options than that.

Some creationists are willing to believe in evolution within and even among species, but not as the origin of life. They can accept nearly 100% of modern biology, chemistry, and physics.

Some creationists dig deeply into science (carbon dating, etc.) to disprove the things that evolutionists say. You can say that their conclusions or their application of science is wrong, but they’re still appealing to science. In other words, they may be wrong, but that doesn’t make them paranoid.

Some creationists believe that God made the world complete with fossils in place as a test to everyone’s faith. In that case, the sole conspirator is God.

Some creationists don’t know enough, but look at the supposed conflict between the Bible story and the evolution story and feel that evolutionists have been misguided. They don’t really know how, and don’t really care. That doesn’t require a conspiracy to cover up anything. You can believe that popular opinions are wrong without believing that the people who promote them are malicious.

I’m sure there are others that I’m not considering, but it seems clear to me that your data don’t support your conclusion.

Global Warming

I will start by noting that Republicans seem especially resistant to arguments from authority when the authority demands highly regulated, big-government, multinational action. Democrats (it seems to me) resist arguments from authority when the authority demands policies that decentralize and deregulate power. This is one of those honest differences in our premises or outlook. Hold that thought while we explore the data.

I ignored the partisan and condescending page you linked to and moved to the actual poll data (link in PDF). The first thing to note is that, in the section “Personal Weather Observations”, it says, “More Americans than ever are pointing to experiences with warmer temperatures as the main reason that they believe global warming is occurring.” 24% are listed under “Warmer Temps. Observed” and another 24% under “Weather Changes Observed”.

This is important for four reasons:

First, it’s literally impossible to notice a global temperature change in your local weather. As we are told repeatedly on cold January mornings (but rarely get told on hot July afternoons), “weather isn’t climate”. Half of the global warming believers in this poll relied on personal observations of local weather to make the judgment that the global climate is changing.

Second, even if it weren’t impossible, the global temperature increase we’re talking about is about a degree centigrade per century. They either don’t know how much warming we’re talking about, or they’re claiming they can detect fraction-of-a-degree changes over a matter of decades. If the former, they’re uninformed; if the latter, they’re nuts.

Third, the global temperature has remained roughly the same over the time period that the poll data spans. Even if you ignore the previous two problems, the people who claim to notice increased temperatures are making a false judgment based on their observations.

Fourth, even if they’re basing their beliefs on global weather changes that are supposed to come about because of global warming, those weather changes aren’t happening in any decisive way, either. For instance, “the historical tropical storm count record does not provide compelling evidence for a substantial greenhouse warming induced long-term increase” and “In recent decades, economic damage from tropical cyclones (TCs) around the world has increased dramatically. Scientific literature published to date finds that the increase in losses can be explained entirely by societal changes (such as increasing wealth, structures, population, etc) in locations prone to tropical cyclone landfalls, rather than by changes in annual storm frequency or intensity.”

To summarize, half of the people who believe in global warming are some combination of uninformed, unscientific, wrong, and crazy. And, as you point out, those people are disproportionally Democrats.

To be fair, the same can be said of those who deny that the globe is warming: The poll shows that a third of those who disbelieve in global temperature increases say it’s because they’re not experiencing them personally. So, to be clear, I’m not asking you to think that that side is more rational. There’s plenty of screwed-up-ness to go around, and I don’t want sheep to influence policy any more than I want paranoids to do so.

I just want you to see the facts about how most people are making their judgements. Once you do, I believe you’ll realize that it’s not intellectually honest to bash conservatives for erring on this issue when much of “your team” gets the right answers for all the wrong reasons.

Unlike the evolution denial scenario, your comment that “you have to believe that 99% of climate scientists, atmospheric physicists, meteorologists, geographers, and science journalists as well as governments, research authorities and colleges and universities the world over are all engaged in a decades-long conspiracy to cover up and obscure the truth with falsified evidence and slanted classroom instruction and biased journalism” has some merit.

The most amusing liberal, for me, is the one who distrusts government when we’re talking about GWB launching the 9/11 attacks, but absolutely trusts government when we’re talking about climate change. What exactly makes us place our trust in government?

I can tell you that I don’t like the way some supposedly scientific efforts seem to demand big-government intervention. I particularly don’t like it when I see scientists cherry-pick evidence and manufacture some of their own: we’re supposed to ignore the fact that grapes once grew well in Britain and people used to farm Greenland, yet applaud Michael Mann for a hockey stick graph that involved statistical anomalies. And of course, there’s the East Anglian University Climate Research Unit scandal to show that the scientific process can be subject to groupthink, ego, and human competitiveness.

Yes, all of those points can be argued. But the first thing to do is realize that people aren’t insane for noting that they’re arguable.

And they’re also not insane for observing that it’s bizarre to say on the one hand that “It’s too late, the seas are going to rise no matter what” and “we have to cripple your economies to prevent the seas from rising” on the other.

With so many reasons not to believe the experts, it’s not surprising that some people miss the fact that the globe is warming a little bit. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a serious public skeptic deny that fact, but I know individuals who didn’t realize it. The real argument is about everything else.

Now, none of this requires paranoia or conspiracy theories (except where the conspiracies seem too obvious to ignore, such as the CRU situation). Simple human nature — ego, money, and groupthink — suffice to explain to the skeptic why he should be skeptical of climate scientists, the press, and so on. They are also sufficient to show the skeptic why many laymen believe that the globe is warming. No conspiracy: just a lot of virulent memes.

There are, of course, some who believe in the conspiracies, but I think they’re negligible. 20% of people will say yes to the most absurd questions. It would be interesting to see how these groups break out by party, and to compare that to, say, 9/11 Truthers.

I should note that the survey doesn’t appear to measure people who have more nuanced views of global warming. I know a lot of intelligent conservatives who know that the globe has warmed by a degree or so over the past century, but who aren’t convinced that it’s man-caused, reversible, and catastrophic. (The combination of all three is quite important in determining what should be done about it.) I count myself in that camp, and I believe it’s a highly defensible position.

The Iraq War

You say, “63% of Republican respondents still believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded in 2003. (Again, to be fair, 15% of Democrats believe this.) This is flatly counterfactual. A blatant lie. There isn’t even the tiny amount of wriggle room that climate change denial has for intellectual skepticism.... To hold this completely false viewpoint against all evidence is again paranoid and delusional. To hold this completely false viewpoint generates profound distrust of those who don’t.” There are two issues with this.

First, you again assert that Republicans (and, apparently, 15% of Democrats) hold this viewpoint because they’re paranoid and delusional. But recall that everyone thought that there were WMD in Iraq during the runup to the war. (Here's video showing many prominent Democratic pols saying so.) Recall also that “neither Bush nor Cheney continued to claim that there were actual WMDs in Iraq once the searches came up empty”. (I’m quoting here from the same HuffPo article that you linked to, so I don’t think I’m showing rightward bias.) Finally, note that the left-leaning side of the media harped on the lack of WMDs a lot, while the right-leaning side didn’t, meaning that you probably had this beaten into your head while our Fox-watching friends barely would have seen a blip. I think it’s a lot simpler to ascribe this to the phenomenon known as “not paying attention” — especially not paying attention to the media of “the other side” — than to paranoia and delusion.

Second, you call it “a blatant lie”. Those are highly charged words indicating an intent to deceive, and if I’m right that most Republicans think this way because they aren’t paying attention, then they’re also false words — Bush and Cheney didn’t claim that there were WMD in Iraq after it was discovered that there weren’t, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find articles from reputable right-wing sources that do. (It has been a few years since I looked, but there were almost none.)

In that context, I wonder how many Democrats know that the final tally of the votes in Florida showed that George Bush won the election fair and square, even without the Bush v. Gore decision: I’ll bet that a large number have no clue, and that many Democrats still believe that Bush stole the election. And that leads to paranoia.

At any rate, Iraq is a club used against conservatives all the time, and we get sick of it. Nobody should be surprised that we ignore what liberals say about it.

I’ll note as an aside that, as a former intelligence officer in the Marine Corps, there’s definitely wiggle room for intellectual skepticism. We the People don’t know half as much as we think we do about what actually happened in Iraq. There’s room to guess that weapons had been smuggled out of Iraq to Syria (note that we’re not attacking Syria as we did Libya — why not?), for instance, or that we stopped weapons from being produced right before they became operational. I’m not saying we did find WMD, but I am saying that the arrogance of the public with respect to what they “know” astounds me sometimes.

President Obama’s religion

I really don’t care about this question, so I won’t spend much time on it. I note that the poll you refer to was of one state only, which may or may not be representative of the country at large. But whatever Obama is, he’s not a devout Christian, and whatever else he may be, he is sympathetic to Islam and to Muslims. You may as well ask the public whether he’s a closet homosexual; they’re guessing about his private life and his inner mind.

Taxes

Sure, I’m willing to believe that 70% of Republicans believe taxes on the middle class have increased during Obama’s presidency. Note that the question doesn’t ask whether the federal tax burden has increased or decreased; a great number of people have seen tax increases at the state and local level. And people don’t necessarily care where the tax increases are coming from. My governor, Chris Christie, gets beaten up sometimes because his state-level tax cutting and spending decreases have pushed up local property taxes.

It’s also possible that shifts in the tax burden have caused people a lot of grief, even if the overall burden has decreased: Our town didn’t increase municipal taxes last year, but property taxes in my immediate neighborhood went up almost 17% as part of a long-overdue revaluation, which means taxes elsewhere in the town went down. My neighbors have asked our mayor, “What do you mean there was no tax increase?”

So your comment that “taxes on the middle class have decreased during the Obama administration” doesn’t give a complete picture. “To believe that the president has raised the tax burden on middle class requires a complete rejection of actual hard data in favor of an assertion which is another flat lie” is closer to the truth, but it assumes that people are looking at actual hard data. You’re pushing those “paranoia and delusion” buttons again, which may be emotionally satisfying for you, but it clouds the truth; it seems to me that a much more likely scenario is that people don’t realize where the increase in their personal tax burden is coming from.

If you think about it, this is a little bit like people making opinions about global warming based on local weather.

Meanwhile, the same poll says that 74% of Democrats think that the unemployment rate has decreased or had no change under President Obama. But the unemployment rate now is still higher than it was when Obama came into office. Even if you leave out those who think it has stayed the same — because the difference isn’t that great — 59% of Democrats are flat-out wrong.

Would you say that the vast majority of Democrats believe a lie because they’re sheep caught up in Presidential hero-worship? Or would you perhaps come up with a softer way of explaining these metrics?

To be fair, a majority of Republicans think the unemployment rate has increased a lot, when it’s only slightly higher. (Some people know that the unemployment number doesn't discount those who have stopped looking for work; they may legitimately think the number is much higher, but not without reason.) I think the poll write-up summarizes well: “Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of this variation in beliefs is attributable to partisan biases. More than 60% of Republicans said that unemployment has increased a lot, while almost as many Democrats said that it has decreased. In both cases, their beliefs were conveniently consistent with their party loyalties.”

Guns

Gun control hasn’t been a major part of Barack Obama’s presidency, but we know the company he keeps, and they want gun control.

I also find it plausible that the reason for Fast and Furious was to create an environment in which American guns were seen as an international threat, thereby increasing global pressure for gun control. Maybe you don’t, but I’d like to know what it was really for if not. The other explanations coincide more poorly with the facts.

Wrap-up

Until recently, I read the Huffington Post religiously, along with other liberal news and opinion outlets. A friend of mine said, “Normally I like to hear about people reading HuffPo, but I know you’re just on recon.” He was right: We should know our “enemies”, especially when they’re also our friends and countrymen. I know what you think of us, so your blog post was only disappointing rather than surprising.

Despite the fact that I’ve gained a fairly strong sense of where you’re coming from, I still think many liberal positions are wrong. And that’s not because I’m indoctrinated by right-wing media. I don’t watch Fox News. I rarely read Fox online. I don’t listen to talk radio. When I argue with liberals, I rely on news sources that they trust, because otherwise they’ll dismiss me as a wack-job anyway (although they rarely return the favor, and will insist that HuffPo is reliable).

Sometimes our differences stem from foundationally different beliefs (e.g., equal opportunity necessarily brings on equal outcomes, therefore unequal outcomes are based on systematic discrimination). I think liberals tend to believe in systems to improve the human condition (which is why many smart scientists, engineers, and systems-oriented people are liberal); whereas conservatives tend to believe that human nature dictates the human condition, and human nature adjusts to changing circumstances pretty slowly, which is why we (or at least I) dislike attempts at rapid systematic change.

We can talk about those things all day. But it’s hard for us conservatives to talk to people who think we’re vicious. To be sure, some of us are; so are some of you. I think most of you are good people who are badly misguided. I would like the courtesy of the same from those with whom I have ideological differences.

I repeat that I’m not justifying any false beliefs based on the fact that Democrats believe equally stupid things.

I am saying that when you say, “I don’t bark at liberals and progressives, because there simply isn’t the wholesale denial of reality in that wing of American politics and culture that there is on the Right”, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I think you’re a very smart man, so I think this mentality is more emotional than rational, something you’re comfortable with based on a few data points rather than something that is logically coherent when fully investigated.

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About the Author

Jake Freivald

The eyes of Jake Freivald

Jake Freivald lives in New Jersey in a house that teems with life: a wife, eight kids, two dogs, two cats, and ten fish. They’re all being neglected right now, so he’s going to stop writing this.

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Copyright © 2012, Jake Freivald.

 
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