Quantcast

«

»

Feb 06 2013

In These Times Attacks Rationality

Bhaskar Sunkara has a really disappointing article at In These Times attacking Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglesias and other policy wonk bloggers. It’s just one long attack on thinking rationally and considering the details of policy, on the specious grounds that it eliminates all discussion of values or ideology.

But at some point, Klein and company stopped being liberals. They even stopped being human. The singularity—a technological superintelligence—was upon us. The wonks had become robots, ready to force enlightenment down our partisan throats.

In science fiction, cybernetic revolts often begin benevolently. Humans are fallible, petty, prone to argument and war. Synthetics are precise, dispassionate, above jealousy and strife. Wouldn’t our interests be better served kneeling at the altar of disinterested judgment?…

Klein is the archetype for the bankruptcy of modern liberalism, so much so that he disavows being a liberal at all. He’s a technocrat, obsessed with policy details, bereft of politics, earnestly searching for solutions to the world’s problems through the dialectic of an Excel spreadsheet. He told The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis, “At this point in my life, I don’t really think of myself as a liberal. That’s not the project I’m part of, which is to let the facts take me where they do.” This statement isn’t unusual. It reflects a new center-left common sense—liberals against politics and democratic messiness. Liberals, in the interest of humanity, against humanity…

This fetishizing of objectivity hasn’t been with us forever. The 19th-century press was unapologetically ideological. Newspapers editorialized at every turn, openly declaring allegiance to a political party. The Progressive Era saw a shift away from this model. It was a mixed blessing. The reformed publications could take on corruption and entrenched political machines like never before, but this shunning of overt bias was tied in with hostility toward mass participation in debate and policy formation. Only professional journalists and technocratic politicians, untainted by popular passion, could be trusted to illuminate and solve the problems of the day. The media revolution was, by nature, an elite project…

This is the kind of rigid simplicity that will eventually bring about Klein’s downfall. As science fiction foretells, when faced with cybernetic revolt, organic life prevails through the use of emotions and guile to exploit the rigid, mechanical thinking of the synthetic mind.

To be blunt, this is anti-intellectual bullshit, faux populism aimed at exactly the wrong place. It’s the kind of “thinking to logically robs humanity of poetry and emotion” nonsense that we often see from the right. The last thing we need in a political system that is soaked with appeals to ignorant populism and emotional argument is to marginalize the people who actually do logical and detailed policy analysis. It isn’t enough to declare one’s good intentions if the policy being advocated won’t achieve the stated goals.

39 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    Bronze Dog

    Since when is logic incompatible with emotion and morality? Oh, wait, that’s right, ever since sci-fi shows needed irrational robotic and computerized threats.

  2. 2
    dmcclean

    “If I were human I believe my response would be ‘go to hell.’ … If I were human.”

  3. 3
    imrryr

    As science fiction foretells, when faced with cybernetic revolt, organic life prevails through the use of emotions and guile to exploit the rigid, mechanical thinking of the synthetic mind.

    First of all, as a sci-fi fan I find this reasoning laughable. Secondly, popular science fiction “fortells” that sort of thing because most people find it depressing when the robots win and humanity is snuffed out. I doubt I would’ve enjoyed the first two Terminators as much if the machines won in the end.

  4. 4
    Raging Bee

    Yes, this is anti-rational bullshit, but the article isn’t entirely wrong — rather, it’s an emotional reaction to decades of gross misuse of the language and comcepts of “rationality” by people who seek to erase all morality and compassion from policymakling. How many times have we heard some uncaring dweeb looking down his nose at the “bleeding-heart liberals” and their “irrational” and “emotional” approach to national and global policy isues? How many times have we heard profit-seeking businessmen, responding to “market forces,” described as the ONLY “rational” actors on the world stage? After so many years of seeing “rationalism” co-opted by right-wing con-artists, it’s only natural that at least some people would gag on it and over-react in the opposite direction.

    And why are you even bothering with In These Times anyway? When were they ever anything more than a tired sterile fringe leftist rag? I haven’t heard squat from them since I turned down a subscription offer back in the ’80s. The EARLY ’80s.

  5. 5
    composer99

    As science fiction foretells [...]

    … and with that, I believe Sunkara has pretty much put an end to serious consideration of this article.

  6. 6
    dingojack

    “In science fiction, cybernetic revolts often begin benevolently. Humans are fallible, petty, prone to argument and war. Synthetics are precise, dispassionate, above jealousy and strife. Wouldn’t our interests be better served kneeling at the altar of disinterested judgment?”

    My dear Bhaskar Sunkara : -

    Try reading the collected ‘robot stories’ of the late Dr Isaac Asimov.

    Disrespectfully,
    Dingo
    ——-
    If I were not human I’d cry:
    “Let there be light!”

  7. 7
    ArtK

    As science fiction foretells, when faced with cybernetic revolt, organic life prevails through the use of emotions and guile to exploit the rigid, mechanical thinking of the synthetic mind.

    Where is James T. Kirk now that we really need him?!?!?

  8. 8
    eric

    The whole sci-fi tie in is ludicrous, but since he went there: sci-fi also has a wealth of stories about what happens when charismatic demagogues take over and emphasize emotions and religion over rationality. Funny how he doesn’t mention those.

  9. 9
    Glenn E Ross

    Sunkara leaves out an important piece, even when analyzing facts, Klein and the others use their ideology. If Klein and others like him merely wanted an ordered and safe society the “facts” would lead them to some version of a police state. Klein and others like him start with the belief in a fair and democratic society, a liberal democracy in the classic sense. They then use “facts” to determine the best policies to reach that goal.
    It isn’t that Klein and the others do not use ideology, it’s that they try to not allow ideology to skew their analysis of data. They use ideology to determine the goals of policies.

  10. 10
    jnorris

    He’s a technocrat, obsessed with policy details, bereft of politics

    As opposed to the War on Terrorism = Invade Iraq = Piece of Cake big picture kind of politics that worked so very well for us.

  11. 11
    Cuttlefish

    Until I get my non-polluting flying car, I’mma discount the foretellings of SF.

  12. 12
    d.c.wilson

    It’s interesting to see the script flipped. For the longest time, conservatives insisted that liberals were ruled by their emotions and conservative policies were rooted in logic and reason. Such statements were usually followed by naked appeals to nationalism and xenophobia. Of course, the GOP has been the party of fear for a long time now, but this growing hostility on the ride to intellectualism and the very concept of learning itself is deeply disturbing.

  13. 13
    ashleybell

    Weird. I got a completely different take from this. The first thing that came to mind in his description of Klein et al was of the atheists who are religious apologists. Rebranding their disengaged, condescending cowardice as calm, unbiased fairness… I may have missed something here though. In fact, likely.

  14. 14
    ashleybell

    Aslo, I’m not familiar with Klein at all. That is probably what I missed

  15. 15
    Raging Bee

    In fairness to this article’s author, I should also point out that a past generation of technocrats made a big boast of bringing “rational principles” to foreign policy: they rejected the “old thinking” that we had to choose between all-out war and all-out surrender, and gave us a nice comfy middle-ground of “flexible response” that worked so well in Vietnam. Today’s (yesterday’s?) neocons have also cloaked their indifference to human life and values in the mantle of “rationality.” We’ve been burned by people using “rationality” as a cover for spinelessness and shortsighted warmongering before, so an emotional reaction against rationality is wrong, but understandable and perhaps inevitable. given the history.

  16. 16
    fifthdentist

    “Where is James T. Kirk now that we really need him?!?!?”*

    I thought it was Picard, not Kirk, who fought the hive-minded Republicans, er sorry, I meant Borg. How could I get those two confused? The Borg are much more free-thinking and life-like than Republicans.

    * To answer seriously, he will likely be in Star Trek 57: The Search for Plot.

  17. 17
    Alverant

    It’s called science FICTION for a reason. Great sci-fi tells a story as a metaphor where the antangonist, the protagonist, the setting, etc all represent different things about humanity. Yes, there is a time and place for emotions, but setting policy isn’t strictly one of them nor is it for all emotions. Irrational phobias have no place in making policy but compassion does. Not everyone feels the same emotion given a set of facts. But logic and rationality tends to be more universial.

  18. 18
    scienceavenger

    I haven’t read such ponderous, empty prose since the last time I subjected myself to Alan Bloom. And every time one of these pseudointellectuals metaphorizes something being rammed down their throats, it makes me want to do exactly that.

  19. 19
    pinkboi

    I almost see where the author is trying to go – much evil comes from people who pretend to be rational, who worship bipartisanship, who commit the golden mean fallacy and call it thinking, who erroneously believe the political process can be impartial. But if anything, I see this sort of fallacious thinking less in Klein and Yglesias than most progressives for the very reason that these two tend to correct for their own biases. I have my disagreements with them but I also think we need more liberals like them. They do take thinking where it leads them, even if it goes against the cockamamie bag of positions that is partisan ideology.

  20. 20
    eric

    @9:

    Sunkara leaves out an important piece, even when analyzing facts, Klein and the others use their ideology. If Klein and others like him merely wanted an ordered and safe society the “facts” would lead them to some version of a police state.

    No, it wouldn’t, you’re making the same mistake Sunkara is and assuming facts lead to policies. They rarely do. You are absolutely right that Klein is using his ideology, but that’s because a ‘no-ideology’ position cannot lead to any decision – not even a police state decision. Facts alone most often lead nowhere at all.

    Look, take climate change as an example. The “factual” side of the issue is how much the temperature is changing, where its changing, and why (what are the causes). The fact side may also include our best scientific assessments of the environmental and social results of different response strategies (including the likely results of a “do nothing” strategy), how much different responses will cost, and who will bear those costs. But to answer a question like: should I pay $5 for a 0.01 degree remediation, or $50 for an 0.1 degree remediation, you need an ideology. No “fact” is going to tell you which of those options is the right one, because “right” is not a factual judgement, its a value judgement based on your goals and what you personally think is important. No “fact” about the global climate change is going to tell you whether the people in coastal district A would rather lose 1,000 acres of usable land or have their taxes go up by 5% to prevent that. Certainly, scientists will have an opinion on the value of environmental protection, but science itself does not. That requires a value judgement about how important it is to preserve the current ecology vs. other interests.

    So, again, no. Facts alone =/= police state. The values and ideology of a police state leads to a police state. Don’t blame science and research for such policy choices, or you’re buying into the anti-intellectualism of Sunkara and those like him.

  21. 21
    dingojack

    I’m not sure if it on topic or not, but it is always something we should hear/watch from time to time:
    The Ascent of Man. Knowledge or Certainty. Episode 13. [an extract].
    Dingo

  22. 22
    Bronze Dog

    I really can’t get over the facepalm I’m having over her sci-fi talk. She can’t tell the difference between rationality and a Straw Vulcan. In sci-fi shows where the robots make a big deal about logic, they’re actually quite irrational most of the time, building their positions and methods on transparently false premises, false dichotomies, absolutes instead of probabilities, and so forth. The humans notice the flaws and use their superior human logic to manipulate the irrational, limited robots through those flaws.

    In instances of emotion, it’s usually the robot’s ignorance of human behavior and goals that’s the problem, not some magical incompatibility of logic and emotion. Sometimes they’ll assume that humans aren’t capable of self-sacrifice or even reckless behavior and are defeated by humans who use high risk, high reward tactics they didn’t have contingencies for. Sometimes they’ll assume humans are inherently reckless and crazy, and thus underestimate their ability to enact a coherent, covert plan. And, of course, if you don’t consider those examples to be bad writing already, sometimes emotion wins through bad writing or dumb luck, rather than realistic reasons.

    I’ve never seen a sci-fi show where logic itself is the problem, only poor Straw Vulcan depictions of it.

  23. 23
    Nick Gotts

    Like ashleybell@13, I don’t see in the article what Ed sees. Here’s a quote from early on:

    Matthew Yglesias, Ezra Klein and their companions were fearless—but, beyond that, analytical. They knew how to use graphs and the Internet, bringing an earnest quantitative approach that would make liberals the Very Serious People of the Digital Age.

    So what the writer is complaining about is not wonkishness, but lack of political commitment to liberal values – which one of the targets himself makes explicit.

  24. 24
    Jordan Genso

    I find it a bit ironic that many of the responses (posted here) to the column are based on rational thought. Don’t you realize the author has already defeated your arguments by devaluing rationality? Where’s your humanity? ;-)

  25. 25
    Jordan Genso

    @23 Nick Gotts

    So what the writer is complaining about is not wonkishness, but lack of political commitment to liberal values – which one of the targets himself makes explicit.

    I think another way of putting that though is Klein & Yglesias display intellectual honesty.

  26. 26
    Raging Bee

    Jordan, it appears someone’s rational word-wrapping algorithm has defeated your emoticon. The horror continues…

  27. 27
    Glenn E Ross

    Eric @20 sez:

    So, again, no. Facts alone =/= police state. The values and ideology of a police state leads to a police state.

    I try for brevity, so I understand your inability to understand my point. Simply put; Ideology determines goals, rational analysis determines policy to reach those goals.
    If your ideology is that the overriding goals of society should be order and safety with little or no regard for personal liberty, then the goal of policy becomes some form of police state. Your ideology does not have to be “police state’, your goals make a police state inevitable.

  28. 28
    brucegee1962

    So many people have been commented on how the author fails at science fiction that no one has commented on how he failed at basic history.

    This fetishizing of objectivity hasn’t been with us forever. The 19th-century press was unapologetically ideological. Newspapers editorialized at every turn, openly declaring allegiance to a political party. The Progressive Era saw a shift away from this model.

    So apparently he missed class when they covered a little thing like, oh, the Enlightenment. Not to mention Utilitarianism and Benthamism and all the other “evidence based” political movements of the 19th century. That sentence was simply crazy.

  29. 29
    dingojack

    Since the Illuminati seem to be hiring only has-beens and also-rans ….
    :D Dingo

  30. 30
    Nick Gotts

    I think another way of putting that though is Klein & Yglesias display intellectual honesty. – Jordan Genso

    You might think that, but you’re wrong. There is no incompatibility between commitment to political values and intellectual honesty.

  31. 31
    DaveL

    So in other words, facts are bad, because science-fiction.

    Also, using Excel makes you a technocrat.

    You see, that’s the problem with arguing against the use of facts and reason. Once you throw those away, whatever is left sounds like the ravings of a madman.

  32. 32
    Jordan Genso

    There is no incompatibility between commitment to political values and intellectual honesty.

    I disagree, although I think we may view the word “commitment” differently (or maybe what is meant by “values”). I personally think that many conservatives’ “commitment” to their values and ideology is partly what leads them to deny reality. Most partisan hacks are committed to certain values, and will ignore evidence that doesn’t line up with those values.

    Many people are committed to their values and are not partisan hacks, so I will agree that a commitment to political values could be viewed as compatible with intellectual honesty, but it becomes a discussion of semantics.

  33. 33
    laurentweppe

    We’ve been burned by people using “rationality” as a cover for spinelessness and shortsighted warmongering before, so an emotional reaction against rationality is wrong, but understandable and perhaps inevitable. given the history.

    But in that case, the article should have been about the imposture of the pseudo-intelectuals whose argument can be sumarized as “I’m right because I’m smarter than you there is nothing to discuss”, not about the wonks who try to add real data to the mix.

    When, say, Salon made the 30 worst pundits series, they were also accused of anti-intellectualism, the difference being that the articles were not meant to attack rationality itself, they were meant to say: these 30 wankers claim to be more intelligent than the average plebean: that’s a lie

  34. 34
    Raging Bee

    laurentweppe: you’re right — but as I said, this is an emotional reaction, not a coherent argument. (And as I also said, why is anyone even bothering with In These Times in the first place?)

  35. 35
    shockna

    How many times have we heard profit-seeking businessmen, responding to “market forces,” described as the ONLY “rational” actors on the world stage?

    To be fair, economists have a very, very long history of twisting words to mean very different things than what they do to common people; this much is often true of almost all academic disciplines, but economists don’t seem to point that out like other scientists typically will (given how many economists are blatantly ideologically driven, I’ll wager this may be intentional…).

  36. 36
    Michael Heath

    I’m glad to see Ed point out the failed populistic thinking that unfortunately exists on the left.

    Fortunately these people have no almost no power; it’s bad enough plutocratic and populist conservatives get to impact us all.

    However if Republicans are unable to politically react to their losing on the demographic front and Democrats gain power, than Democrats also run the risk of their populists increasing their influence, though probably not nearly to the degree we observed from the GOP as ideologues migrated to one of the two parties. This risk should be of less concern due to leftist populists not carrying the weight of fundamentalist religiosity with them but instead the weaker tea of political ideology and some form of non-fundamentalist woo.

    And I love Sunkara’s classic zealot’s argument, which is he has none yet still refuses to adapt. At least it’s more honest than creating an entire universe of false premises to buttress one’s conclusions like we get from Christianists.

  37. 37
    John Horstman

    Data-driven, evidence-based policy? Oh the horrors! How dare Ezra Klein use facts to suggest policy that will effectively reach desired goals. I mean, it actually has a chance of working then! And we can’t have government doing anything effectively, otherwise people might not categorically hate it!

    *headdesk*

  38. 38
    scienceavenger

    @22 excellent points, It’s worth noting how out of date the emotionless logical Vulcan character is. The latest neurological findings suggest that sans emotions, we are not Spock, we are Rain Man, dithering about forever trying to decide between a blue pen and a black pen.

  39. 39
    democommie

    “Not everyone feels the same emotion given a set of facts. But logic and rationality tends to be more universial.”

    Are you speaking of a labratory setting where some %age of the test subjects (let’s, for the purpose of this argument, say 26% + 1%) is NOT incapable of thinking logically and rationally? In meatworld, it’s observable that a fair portion of the electorate/citizenry does not succumb to either logic or rationality.

Leave a Reply

Switch to our mobile site