Laslo Boyd: The War On Reason

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By: Laslo Boyd 

The founders of our constitutional system were children of the enlightenment. While they had a keen understanding of the vulnerabilities of human nature, they believed that the system of self-government that they were establishing ultimately required the use of reason.

To cite one prominent example, Thomas Jefferson was a staunch defender of freedom of the press, not because he thought that everything published would be true, but because he believed that a free flow of information was essential if voters were to make informed decisions and hold those in government accountable.

There have been periods in our history when political blocks rallied against the use of reason. As an example, the Know-Nothing Party of the mid-19th century argued vociferously against allowing new immigrants into the country. The Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 was another instance in which advances in science were seen as threatening traditional ways of life.

Today, we are deep into a period that the Know-Nothings would find very familiar and even comforting. The growing tendency of some political groups to reject science and reason in favor of ideology and religion is a major and direct contributor to the dysfunction that we observe in so much of our politics at all levels.

Commentators yearn for moderation and the middle ground on issues. However, when one group is certain that revealed truth is on their side, compromise is not possible. Similarly, if overwhelming scientific evidence is rejected because it either doesn’t fit with a pre-conceived view of the world or is inconvenient to economic interests, we stick our heads in the proverbial sand and risk later disaster.

Anyone reading this column can easily fill in the specific issues to which I am alluding. Climate change is an established fact, not a debatable theory. We have visible evidence all around us. The oft-cited figure that 97% of the scientific community agrees on the findings has not stopped opponents from ridiculing and ignoring reality. Every time there is a cold day, some clever Fox talking head giggles about “global warming.”

For those unwilling to acknowledge the challenge of climate change, it would at least be honest to admit that you don’t care at all about future generations or about the quality of life on this planet. The challenge for those who accept science is to stop wasting their efforts trying to convince the deniers and focus on creating a political consensus among those still willing to use reason.

This past Sunday, the New York Times editorialized in favor of legalizing marijuana. That is a significant step by a major American institution and needs to be recognized as important. The role of reason in this instance is to acknowledge that past policy has been an abject failure, costing billions of dollars, jailing enormous numbers of people, and leading to no discernable reduction in use.

While the details of legalization matter and should be considered carefully, facts are strongly on the side of the Times.

Ongoing debate about the Affordable Care Act provides another illustration of politicians ignoring facts, creating lies and myths, and locking into rigid ideological positions. While the law is certainly far from perfect (as distinguished from all those other perfect laws that we have passed), the evidence — something opponents shy away from — is that there has already been significant positive impact. Millions of previously uninsured people have received coverage, bending the cost curve of healthcare down, and starting to create a more rational system.

That House Republicans have bellowed about “repeal and replace” and have voted on over 50 proposals to repeal, but offer no alternative, demonstrates a flight from reason as well from responsibility.  The law could be improved, but only if opponents were willing to reason rather than posture.

Other examples readily come to mind. The non-debate we are having about immigration involves more screaming than thinking. Our failure to pass sensible laws regulating firearms is only possible because facts and data are ignored. The growing economic inequality in this country is well documented, but lobbying and power have overcome the overwhelming evidence that the long-term strength of the country’s middle class is being swept away.

What’s causing this rejection of reason in our politics?  It’s always been part of the dynamic, though not always so prominently. The diminishing quality of much of our press coverage coupled with the upsurge in overtly partisan media explains some of the problem. In that respect, Jefferson’s diagnosis is still right on the money.

We are also in a period of rapid and dramatic change in the economy, technology, and the demographics of the country. Many people are attracted to politicians and political movements who seem to promise that they can hold back change. But that promise is only possible if you ignore facts and reality.

With all that going on, is it any wonder why voters are sitting out elections in record numbers?  A number of studies have focused on the socio-economic characteristics of who votes and who doesn’t. It is equally important to examine motivations. If you believe that your vote doesn’t matter, or if you believe that the system is broken beyond repair, or if you believe that an economic elite controls everything, the incentive to participate drops substantially.

A politics that rejects reason and fact doesn’t look very appealing to rational voters.  The paradox, however, is that as those people stay away from the polls, individuals who are driven by ideology or religion or “Know-Nothing” views, come to dominate even more.

American politics is not doing a good job of responding to the important challenges facing this nation. The problem is that the system is being greatly swayed by anti-reason forces. That the pendulum has always swung back the other way in the past is no guarantee that it will this time.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.