Policy/Science vs Politics/Religion

I had the following dialog (via email) recently with a very anti-Iraq-war friend with whom I’ve been debating for … years:

Him: no, i think you’re irretrievably blindsided on pretty much every political issue.

Me: It would help if you expressed some observable standard for judging ANY political issue aside from…faith.

Him: i give up. it’s not even worth it.

Me: Hmm. Thats an interesting way of putting it. What would make it worth it? What would you like to achieve?

Him: what would make it worth it? you shutting up about this. it’s a wasted effort to talk to you about this stuff. you’re so inherently wrong about so many of the issues that it is impossible. you want pointless, empty academic discourse? try [mutual friend]. i get mad.

Inherently wrong. I interpret him to mean that there is no possible way for my position to be correct on e.g. invading Iraq. That there is no fact, that, if proved true, would make my position correct. It sounds more like he is talking about
expressing religious faith than determining good policy.

I’ll fully admit that it is much more fulfilling to express heartfelt religious sentiment than it is to assess the relative merits of various policy choices. I’ll further admit that it is maddening when people say things that threaten such feelings of fulfillment. Although I tend to view policy through the lens of (social) science — where the goodness or badness of a policy is measured against an ability to achieve some goal, It is clear that many people are religiously attached to particular policy choices or the belief that all policy choices of some group are inherently right/wrong — where goodness or badness of a policy is measured against its acceptibilty to some social group.

The nice thing about the religious/political perspective is that it feels better and, in the end, one can hope that the has to arrive at a good policy (because it has to align with the actual interests of the group members). However, as Clay Shirky has brilliantly noted A Group is its Own Worst Enemy. Groups engage in behavior that preserves the integrity at a substantial cost to its members:

Bion was a psychologist who was doing group therapy with groups of neurotics. (Drawing parallels between that and the Internet is left as an exercise for the reader.) The thing that Bion discovered was that the neurotics in his care were, as a group, conspiring to defeat therapy.

There was no overt communication or coordination. But he could see that whenever he would try to do anything that was meant to have an effect, the group would somehow quash it. And he was driving himself crazy, in the colloquial sense of the term, trying to figure out whether or not he should be looking at the situation as: Are these individuals taking action on their own? Or is this a coordinated group?
Now, Bion decided that what he was watching with the neurotics was the group defending itself against his attempts to make the group do what they said they were supposed to do. The group was convened to get better, this group of people was in therapy to get better. But they were defeating that. And he said, there are some very specific patterns that they’re entering into to defeat the ostensible purpose of the group meeting together. And he detailed three patterns.

The first is sex talk, what he called, in his mid-century prose, “A group met for pairing off.” And what that means is, the group conceives of its purpose as the hosting of flirtatious or salacious talk or emotions passing between pairs of
The second basic pattern that Bion detailed: The identification and vilification of external enemies. [e.g. Bush is a dumb/evil liar conspiring to … etc..] So even if someone isn’t really your enemy, identifying them as an enemy can cause a pleasant sense of group cohesion. And groups often gravitate towards members who are the most paranoid and make them leaders, because those are the people who are best at identifying external enemies.
He said the group structure is necessary to defend the group from itself. Group structure exists to keep a group on target, on track, on message, on charter, whatever. To keep a group focused on its own sophisticated goals and to keep a group from sliding into these basic patterns. Group structure defends the group from the action of its own members.

The problem is that non-professional politicians lack any formal decision making structure to help them reach a good policy consensus. Instead they get hijaacked by the most motivated paranoid folks because they are the ones with the time to spare who make the group feel good. In 1970, Feminist activist Jo Freeman, wrote The Tyranny of Structurelessness, a brilliant article describing the impact of a lack of structure on the feminist movement.

Unstructured groups may be very effective in getting women to talk about their lives; they aren’t very good for getting things done. Unless their mode of operation changes, groups flounder at the point where people tire of ‘just talking’ and want to do something more. Because the larger movement in most cities is as unstructured as individual rap groups, it is not much more effective than the separate groups at specific tasks. The informal structure is rarely together enough or in touch enough with the people to be able to operate effectively. So the movement generates much emotion and few results. Unfortunately, the consequences of all this motion are not as innocuous as the results, and their victim is the movement itself.

If people were less enamoured of their group and more enamoured of either making policy judgements themselves or specfically deferring policy judgements to those whom they respect, they would be better off.

Note for those paying attention: Yes this contradicts my diatribe against the Enlightenment. There is probably a balance. I’m just not yet sure how to achieve it.


One Response to Policy/Science vs Politics/Religion

  1. this is maddening.

    it all boils down to this, alex: iraq is a clusterfuck, a total fucking vortex, and it didn’t have to be. you and all of the lunatic neocons screamed that we were risking a mushroom cloud in manhattan (your words, my friend, your words: ‘would you bet on the possibility of a mushroom cloud to stay out of war?’) if we didn’t attack iraq right now, and look at the results: we are involved in a war we cannot afford, that we didn’t have to fight, because there are no WMDs.

    it all boils down to this: you were wrong. and we are fucked. even bill kristol, even stupid david brooks can admit that mistakes were made. why can’t you? it’s not like you’re trying to win an election.

    admit that we made a mistake, and i will engage in constructive dialog with you about what needs to be done next in that country. otherwise we have nothing to talk about in this respect, because of a basically insurmountable difference of opinion.

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