Lizard Brains and the poverty of public discourse: When science and the rational are abused by political designs

Abstract: Science is the coin of the realm, the gold standard in the battle for truth. But using fact and reason as proxies for discussing values tends to obfuscate fact, reason and science and make of them rhetorical weapons. We all would be better served if we discussed values in a more straightforward manner, instead of using “dueling facts’ as some kind of code language.  Thus even science is hurt in this unworkable effort.

Our age is dominated by science and technology. There is much good in this.  Science helps us live longer, healthier lives, it helps generate a modern economy that can lift much of humanity out of subsistence living, and generally it improves the lives of millions if not billions of people. Science has attained a kind of revered aura around it.

It is not surprising that science and the Enlightenment rationalism on which it is based, is used by virtually everyone as a trump card in all kinds of arguments. Even President Obama waded into this morass during the campaign. “Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now, and facts and science and argument [do] not seem to be winning the day all the time is because we’re hard-wired not to always think clearly when we’re scared. And the country is scared.”

Arianna Huffington walked the argument a little further, attributing the voter revolt to our “lizard brains.” I think everyone understands that these kinds of statements are political rhetoric, made during the campaign to gain political advantage or to explain to the faithful why voters were repudiating the President’s policy agenda. What is interesting is that these essentially political statements were put into the vernacular of science, because doing lent them greater credibility. It’s not the policy that’s at fault, it’s the voters’ wiring. You can’t fight the wiring. The subtext, of course, is that Democrats are on the side of fact and science doing battle against their opponents, who are clearly somewhere lower down the evolutionary scale.

These arguments are easy to ridicule. That’s already been done by many right-wing pundits. Of course, the (mis)appropriation of science and reason is not limited to those on the political left. One has only to listen to a few minutes of Rush Limbaugh to discover that Republicans are the party of reason, while Democrats simply react to things emotionally. Limbaugh attempts to delegitimize his opposition by positioning himself and his allies as fighting for truth against those who simply rely on their feelings and good intentions.

Everyone likes to use science and rationality because it is supposed to be objective, based on evidence and fact. When it gets dragged into politics, it is anything but. Rather, it is a thin veneer covering political rhetoric designed to score points against an opponent. The problem is that our national discussion is hampered by an unfortunate, self-imposed moratorium on the discussion of values. I’m not sure when the moratorium was put into place, but it has been a long time since we had an honest discussion – or any discussion at all – about matters of values. The last one I remember was over “welfare queens,” which was far from a serious dialogue on values. While it wasn’t any more elevated than our current level of political rhetoric, it was at least an argument about values.

Today, instead of discussing or arguing over values, we have dueling facts, but these facts merely serve as proxies for the values discussion that we are avoiding. When Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman argues that the nearly $1 trillion dollar stimulus package was far too small to succeed, he is making an argument about fact, one based on economic science, but does anyone really believe that he is oblivious to the fact that his prescription for the economy just happens to lead to bigger government, more bureaucracy, greater wealth redistribution and the creation of more Democratic voters?

When Congressman Paul Ryan, the Republican’s spokesman for their economic policies in the House of Representatives, disputes Krugman’s Keynsian analysis calling instead for the extension of the Bush tax cuts to spur economic growth, does anyone imagine that he is not aware that his objective economic analysis will coincidentally benefit big business, a key Republican constituency?

These two brilliant men are looking at the same problem with a different set of facts and coming up with a completely opposite set of policy prescriptions. Facts are like that. There are lots of them. But if we restrict our discussion to facts, how can we decide whose set is most important? Perhaps it is not a simple matter of science after all. There are serious debates to be had over what extent should we be redistributing wealth. What are the political, social and psychological ramifications of such a policy? Is it really in people’s best interest to give them two years of unemployment? Or are they trading away their sense of responsibility for a sense of entitlement? There are serious questions of values that are worth debating. These are discussions worth tackling head on rather than arguing over which set of data represents the real facts. And they are certainly more enlightening than telling the American people that they are simply voting out of fear when they oppose a particular set of policies. At least that is what my lizard brain is telling me.

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