Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Cult of Rationality (Part 2)

I wonder how persuasion works. The author of our book, Jeff Gates, goes about persuasion by sheer volume of facts. He piles them on like once he's piled them high enough, opposition will cave under the weight. Will that work?

No doubt he's right about the things he says. We do need a "genuinely vibrant democracy" (xi); socioeconomic polarization is out of control (19); and daycare is a significantly bad idea (42). My question is whether factual proof of these things will convince anyone. Let's face it, Fox News is the most watched cable "news" channel (I really truly hope I don't have to explain why that fact is relevant to this discussion). C-Span doesn't have a very high viewership, Fox does.

At the same time, we're right in the middle of an era when what I call the "cult of rationality" has boomed. In our era, it seems like nothing is more powerful than statistics and other forms of "factual" analysis.

When I met with the Vice President for Academic Administration at Walla Walla University to discuss the fact that academic credits weren't functioning as they should (it's a long story, but essentially I had a problem with the fact that one or two credit classes often demanded more time than four credit classes), the only thing she wanted to know is if I had statistical evidence of the phenomenon.

She could have stepped out of her office for five minutes and asked students that passed by, or she could have simply thought about it, but instead we launched into eight months of drumming up proof. Ultimately, "proof" came in two forms: a spreadsheet her office compiled and dozens of emails written by students detailing their experiences. I don't know which one sufficed as proof, but the email campaign certainly got me called into her office for more discussions.

This is only one example, but let me assure you that my time in the working world (and I suppose the academic as well) has certainly led me to believe that we care (or think we do) about facts and quantifiable evidence. So, how does Glenn Beck remain convincing given that his show is largely devoid of facts?

Further, if you follow public policy as closely as I do, you know that Congress does not run on logic or facts. The health care debate (which apparently is still ongoing: herehere, and here) is one of my favorite examples of a policy debate that was almost exclusively conducted outside the realm of reality. Nate Silver is a genius and I read his blog daily. During the health care debate he posted about the fact that many people simply did not know what was in the bill. Frankly, opposition to the bill was (and I would argue still is) based substantially on ignorance.

What does this mean? Well, in my opinion, it means that regardless of our preoccupation with quantifiable facts and statistics, our opinions are largely shaped by something else. Malcolm Gladwell, in Blink, makes some interesting statements about decisions not based on facts and careful thought.

It may sound here like I'm siding with Glenn Beck. I am not. Nor am I advocating for a society that would reject the "cult of rationality" and live by some other creed. My concern is that Jeff Gates will not be persuasive in the book we're reading. After all, it's over 10 years old and not much has changed the way he wants it too.

I have a tendency to write using quantifiable facts. The posts I get the best responses from are ones where I don't do that. Live and learn.


  1. I confess that I likely have not read as much of this book as you, but i have a pretty good excuse. Anyway, my favorite quote so far is,

    "... the limits to human prosperity are now our own. Those limits lie in the realm of political choice. That makes them eminently solvable. The only thing keeping us from a peaceful, post-scarcity world is a lack of political creativity. The barriers are no longer physical but organizational. Even environmental constraints are now solvable with intelligent technologies, ecological design, and alternative fuels."

    This is where we come in. Bam!

  2. You're right. The political paradigm that is now in control is just waiting for us to topple it...