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I have posted before on The Signal-To-Noise Ratio, discussing the amount of noise in the blogosphere. But what I’ve increasingly become aware of is that the problem goes beyond this. There is, from many quarters and by many dynamics, a very virulent reaction to signal, in which noise is aggressively generated to interfere with signal as it emerges.

I encounter this with particular force on right-wing facebook pages, and, among them, libertarian/tea party facebook pages most of all. Most recently, on Colorado Republican State Senator Shawn Mitchell’s page, he and his friends very transparently demonstrated a commitment to burying posts that were inconveniently factual and rational under pure noise.

Within a day, as I was simultaneously responding to a global warming denier on one of Mitchell’s threads by listing the actual empirical evidence, and to someone oblivious to the history and nature of property rights on another thread, who insisted that taxation to mitigate anyone else’s poverty is theft, by linking to and expanding on The Paradox of Property, and as the signal-disrupting noise machine was revving up again, Mitchell blocked me from his page.

It’s always telling when a group of people implicitly admit that the only way they can win a debate is by locking out the opposition and holding the debate in their absence. It’s telling when they respond to invitations to all strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, aware that none of us has all the answers, by hurling pejoratives. It’s telling when they respond to “you may be right about everything and I may be wrong about everything” with no similar or reciprocal admission that there is any chance that they might not be completely correct on every single belief that they hold.

And this is exactly what defines that ideological faction. It’s not the substance of their beliefs, which I strongly believe are laden with irrational and counterfactual conclusions, but rather the simultaneous insulation of those beliefs from any intrusion of reason or evidence and promotion of them to the status of absolute truth, that is truly culturally and politically pathological.

As I explain in Scholarship v. Ideology, there is a continuum of modalities of thought ranging from ever-more irrational and blindly ideological in (often self-defeating) service to compassionless selfishness, to an ever-increasing commitment to the application of reason to reliable evidence in service to humanity (as well as enlightened self-interest). Approaching the pole of pure irrationality and dysfunctional belligerence, there is a two-step process employed by which completely unsupported beliefs are first insulated from reason and evidence and then assumed to be unassailable truth on no rational basis whatsoever (also described in Scholarship v. Ideology).

The first step is an appeal to a relativistic argument that all opinions are equal, and that therefore any counterargument to the ideological position that mobilizes reason and evidence can in no way claim to be privileged over the arbitrary opinion itself, even simply by being a more compelling argument. In this relativistic step, “reason” is always defined as completely subjective, formal logic dismissed as “your reason, but not mine,” and evidence whose reliability is better ensured by the methodologies designed to do so replaced with a combination of selective and manufactured factoids assembled solely to “prove” the desired conclusion.

The second step, ironically enough, is a dismissal of any other claim to the same relativism of the first step, insisting that to harbor any uncertainty regarding the arbitrary opinion that was insulated from reason and evidence in the first step would be to make the error of relativism, and that therefore the arbitrary opinion is indisputably the absolute truth. The most obvious example of the product of this two-step process is religious fanaticism, in which Faith, by definition, is insulated from reason and evidence, and then promoted to the status of absolute truth.

(I have posited, by the way, that there may be such a thing as “pure faith,” that has no reductionist object of belief but rather a deep sensation of belonging to a sublime reality, that might be conducive rather than an obstacle to the ever-fuller realization of human consciousness. See, for instance, “Is Religion A Force For Good?” and A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization.)

But there are many quasi-religious, fanatically cult-like, ideologies that make no explicit reference to the divine. They utilize the same modality of thought, the same tactic of insulation from reason and evidence followed by promotion to indisputable absolute truth, and they are toxic to civil society and civil discourse. They not only are sources of adamantly-propagated noise drowning out the signal of disciplined thought that serves us far better, but they are actually targeted waves of such noise, determined not merely to compete with the signal by the rules of reason and evidence (which, on some level, adherents recognize is a losing strategy), but to jam the signal by any and all means available.

The currently most virulent and troubling secularized cult of irrational dogma is the libertarian/tea party movement, which is comprised of a combination of smaller “pure” factions (those who are not social conservatives or theocrats), and larger “hybrid” factions (those who combine libertarianism, social conservatism, theocratic tendencies, and a commitment to the preservation of inequitable distributions of wealth and opportunity into a “worst of all worlds,” internally inconsistent, ideological blend)

It is, as I have often said, a movement of organized ignorance, not merely insisting on its arbitrary false certainties, but zealously committed to imposing them on the world, regardless of the real costs to real people. The iconic moment was the choice to blackmail the nation with a threatened self-inflicted default of our financial obligations as a nation by refusing to raise the debt ceiling –a formality that has always been automatic, and in most nations IS literally automatic– because of the complete dysfunctionality of failing to do so, in service to an economic policy that even conservative economists opposed (the extension of the Bush tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, in the midst of a recession). Predictably, it resulted in a downgrading of our national credit rating, which only served to further deteriorate our fiscal and economic health.

I am adamantly committed to the marketplace of ideas, to the belief that all views should be aired, should compete, and, hopefully, the most reasonable and well-evidenced and humane will be the ones to survive that process. But when some factions, some cults, try to drown out other voices, even if only within their own echo-chambers, those factions are stifling rather than facilitating that process of the competition of ideas, ensuring that, for themselves at least, their ideas never have to compete against any others.

To be sure, this goes on to some extent in other kinds of echo chambers, including echo chambers on the left, and it is just as wrong and dysfunctional when it does. But this cultish, dogged irrationality is not what defines any other ideology currently in vogue anywhere to the same extent as it defines contemporary conservatives. Indeed, it is their anti-intellectualism which sometimes leaps out most vividly, their rejection of scholarship as a liberal conspiracy, their rejection of journalism as a liberal conspiracy, their rejection of reason applied to evidence in any context or any manner as a liberal conspiracy.

If that’s a liberal conspiracy, then it’s one to which we all should belong.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

The difference between a scholar and an ideologue is that a scholar seeks out the truth while an ideologue is certain he is already in possession of it.

(This relationship is sometimes inverted, when there is overwhelming scientific evidence for something that ideologues want to dismiss. Under those circumstances, scholars are relatively certain while ideologues are conveniently uncertain; however, the latter is not an honest quest for knowledge, but rather a disingenuous obstruction of it. In both cases, one modality focuses on reason applied to evidence, and the other on the insulation of dogmatic belief from reason applied to evidence.)

It is true that everyone has biases, and that biases influence everyone’s perceptions and conclusions. It is untrue that there is no distinction in the degree to which this occurs and holds sway among competing modalities of thought. To put it simply, if scholarship were indistinguishable from other modalities, the accelerating production of subtle insights into the nature of reality that has characterized science could never have occurred.

The reason for this distinction is that scholarship involves an explicit commitment to apply reason to evidence, and to subject all ideas to the scrutiny of others who are doing the same. This can take the form of replicable scientific experiments, or, to explore phenomena whose variables are too difficult to isolate, variations of this procedure adapted to different conditions. The individual practitioners are more or less adept at it, and more or less committed to the systematic reduction of bias that is one of the principal reasons for this methodology, but to off-set that they must always convince a succession of committees of their peers, and then the general readership of their peers, that their conclusions are valid. This begins to resemble legal procedure, with arguments made for competing cases, judged by a jury of peers, though in scholarship it is a jury of peers with similar expertise.

More casual modalities of opinion formation more liberally incorporate bias into their perceptions and conclusions, sometimes developing precisely in a manner to do so as robustly as possible, systematically insulating irrational and counterfactual beliefs from the lathe of reason and evidence. One such modality currently in vogue is particularly fascinating. It involves a clever combination of relativism and absolutism, first to insulate arbitrary opinions from any intrusion of fact and reason, and then to claim that that opinion must be the absolute truth.

Step one in this anti-scholarship modality is to insist that no modality or opinion is any better than any other, and that the products of expertise or systematic investigation merit no more deference or consideration than any opinion held by any lay person. This is the relativism portion of this modality of thought: All opinions are equal, and none can be privileged over any other. This step insulates arbitrary opinions from any threat from reason or evidence, since any application of reason and evidence can only produce another opinion of equal value to the arbitrarily derived one.

Step two involves rejecting any suggestion that the arbitrary opinion must be considered a tentative conclusion rather than the absolute truth, on the basis that to do so would be to commit the error of relativism: There is one absolute truth, and to claim that one must be uncertain about reality is, according to this modality, a failure to accept the fact that there is one absolute truth. Therefore, the holder of the arbitrary opinion feels justified in being absolutely certain that their arbitrary opinion is the one unassailable Truth.

So, in this modality, first irrationality and counterfactuality is insulated from reason and evidence by means of a relativistic argument, and then it is promoted to unassailable absolute truth by recourse to an absolutist argument. Ironically, the very relativism that is used to insulate the arbitrary opinion in the first place is denied to all others on the basis that relativism is a fallacy! By doing so, the arbitrary opinion is promoted to the status of an irrefutable “truth,” since it can’t be challenged first due to the equality of all opinions, and second due to the fact that since only one of those supposedly equally valid opinions can actually be true, it must be the one that has “proven” impervious to all challenges (by fiat)! I’ve seen this two-step dance of insulated irrationality occur over and over again in “debates” with fanatical (generally right-wing) ideologues, usually accompanied by intense belligerence and a flood of ad hominems directed at anyone “pretentious” and “priggish” enough to challenge that modality.

In some ways, these two modalities, scholarship and what I am calling anti-scholarship (the two-step insulation and promotion of irrationality) define the extremes of a continuum, with various modalities falling along the spectrum between them. Obviously, I’d like to promote a shared commitment, by each and all, to do our best to move along that continuum in the direction of the more disciplined and bias-reducing modality of scholarship.

(See also The Elusive Truth, The Hydra’s HeadsThe Signal-To-Noise Ratio, Un-Jamming the Signal, Un-Jamming the SignalIdeology v. Methodology, The Voice Beyond Extremes, The Real Political & Cultural Dichotomy, Sacred Truths, The “New” ReductionismThe Tyranny of Blind Ideology, An Argument for Reason and Humility.)

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards