Sunday, September 21, 2008

Dueling Experts

Impolitical raised an interesting question today as she surveyed the numerous highly qualified economic experts who have concluded that Harper's whole "The Green Shift will destroy the economy" meme is utter bollocks.

She questions whether the Liberals are doing enough to inform people of these expert opinions, and asks
"whether such independent expertise will be legitimately valued by the Canadian public as the election proceeds or whether there will be lazy succumbing to Conservative fearmongering".

In short, no - I don't believe such expertise would be valued by the public even if the Liberals ran ads featuring it a hundred times a day from now until the 14th. But is it laziness? I thought about it, and while that is undoubtedly part of the problem, I'm not sure that's all there is to it.

I suspect it has more to do with an inability to think critically.

Critical thinking requires not only an analysis and synthesis of available information, but an ability to discern between varying qualities of information based on the quality of the source. A critical thinker would, for example, give more weight and consideration to multiple peer-reviewed scientific studies on the effects of fluoridated water than, say, something your friend sent you in an email.

This would seem to be self-evident, but the persistence of such idiotic notions as "Global warming is caused by sunspots" and "Obama is a Muslim" in public discourse speaks volumes about the public's inability to distinguish fact from rumour, and expertise from hackery.

(I'm sorry - I've been sitting here watching "The Grapes of Wrath" on CBC, and the next thing I know I'm having to suffer through not one, not two, but THREE consecutive sweater-wearing Steven Harper ads during the commercial break. The cognitive dissonance just made me throw up in my mouth a little. Anyway...)

I'm not sure who or what is to blame for this shocking inability to tell the difference between smart people and idiots. Part of it may be a failing in our education system. Part is a creeping anti-intellectualism that started with Nixon at the end of the sixties and has infected North American consciousness ever since. Part may well be the media's insistence on giving equal time and weight to both sides of any given issue, even if one side is entirely out of its weight class. As in, "Next on CNN, physicist Stephen Hawking faces off against the President of the Flat Earth Society".

Jim Travers ran an op-ed in the Star today that may offer some insight.

Beating up elites is almost always better politics than talking down to voters. So if it weren't for extraordinary events it would be no surprise at all that this election's question mark is the size of the approaching Conservative victory. But these are suddenly turbulent times that in theory should be raising doubts that Harper's preferred role for government, a role drawing heavily on coffee shop wisdom, is the best one to pull Canada through.

... Only voters can decide and it's to Harper's considerable advantage that they don't have much time to mull variables. Consensus forms slowly around complex issues – balancing the federal budget took nearly a decade to rise to the top of national priorities – and the issues now muscling their way into public consciousness weave tightly through the very nature and purpose of 21st-century government.

Harper's other advantage is Dion. Electioneering isn't primarily about policies, it's about character and identity, and Conservatives are far superior to Liberals in making voters comfortable with their leader. Harper is positioned as Everyman driving kids to the rink in a Chevy minivan – as if he didn't have a chauffeured limousine. Dion is the nerd carpooling academics to a symposium in a Volvo wagon – as if he didn't have a government Prius.

There's more to Harper and Dion than either stereotype. Still, there's no evidence yet that Conservatives were wrong to assume that voters are happier being told what they already know by politicians than what they should think by experts.

Someone else (I wish I could remember who) also pointed out today that people are always more inclined to accept information when it serves to confirm that which they already think they know. He got himself ragged upon as I recall.

Al Gore has a lot of answers in his extraordinary book, "The Assault on Reason". Go. Read. I'm going to bed. I can't take the end of "The Grapes of Wrath" right now.

It looks too much like the future.

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