Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

A Bigger Take-Away From The Republican Defeat

Democrats are right to feel vindicated but wrong about why

Romney insiders report today that he was “shellshocked” by his defeat, having not trusted polls, operating instead on faith that he would win, faith being a supreme virtue in his book. Of Mormon.

My Democratic friends and I are overjoyed that, after our shellacking in 2010 the Republicans are getting the shellacking we think they deserve.  Still, I disagree with most of my friends about why they deserved it. 

Many of us say they deserved it for their lack of compassion. You remember the audiences at an early Republican debate applauding the idea that a man in midlife with cancer would die untreated if he didn’t have medical insurance? Or booing the gay soldier? Yes, there was a lot of that.

But that’s not why I think they deserved it. After all, who among us is compassionate toward everyone? We might hold everyone in abstract high regard but it takes work to really help people and we all decide where to allocate that work.  The most selfish Republicans are not Scrooges living alone and caring for no one. Romney, Ryan, Palin, Bachmann, Gingrich and Santorum have spouses and children they love. I can’t fault them simply for being loyal to different people than I’m loyal to.

Many of us Democrats say they deserved their shellacking because of their policies.  Cut taxes for billionaires, privatize Medicare, no abortions for rape victims--all reprehensible in my book, but still, in my book it’s not OK for me to feel vindicated just because I’ve come to different policy answers than they have. They felt vindicated in 2010 because we opposed their policies. My sense of vindication has to be founded on something more fundamental than disagreement about policy.

 Some of us would say that the something more fundamental is science. The Republican’s deserved the shellacking because they ignore math and facts, for example the results of empirical tests indicating that Global warming is real.  Again I agree. I have fairly high confidence that this was the last election in which climate crisis denial will have any credibility, which makes me feel more depressed than vindicated.  Unfortunately, the hard evidence of climate crises is coming too fast and furious to be denied for more than a few more months.

Still, the hard evidence isn’t the primary problem.

For me the problem can’t just be the policies or facts but how they’re derived.  I’m like the math teacher who says, “Show your work!”

Science is the key but not so much the empirical evidence part of science, as the hypothesizing part. 

In school they teach us that scientific method is empiricism, doing controlled experiments, gathering data carefully, using statistical methods.  But that’s not the business end of science. The business end is how we come up with hypotheses.  In science, our choice of hypothesis matters a lot.   We can’t afford to investigate everything. We have to hypothesize carefully.

In everyday life we need to pick our hypotheses even more carefully. Why? Because we don’t get even get to test our hypotheses offline the way scientists do. 

A hypothesis is really an interpretation. Scientists guess at interpretations that they can then test in isolation from real world consequences.  We live our hypotheses in real-time, without the luxury of testing in the comfort of our own labs before we bring our interpretations to bear. Our interpretations or hypotheses are the beds we make and are then forced to sleep in, our chickens that come home to roost, or to re-poltrify, our chickens we count before they hatch.  

When you hypothesize that he’s the one to marry, that you can trust her, that this is the right job for you, you’re doing what I’ll call live science, shopping among interpretations that you won’t be able to test in isolation but only in real life, with all the rewards and punishments that come from shopping our interpretations well or poorly.   

We all do live science. You can’t live without making assumptions, interpretations and hypotheses. But some do a lousy job of it with awful stuff coming home to roost, and some do a better job. Doing a better job is what scientific method is all about.

Empiricism isn’t the cornerstone of the scientific method; it’s the handmaiden.  Science is an effort to shop for the best hypotheses before it’s too late, and its biggest enemy is not weak empiricism, it’s human self-rationalization.

What do you get when you cross an emotional animal with a capacity for language?  You get language that justifies emotional appetites.  We all self-justify, desperately if necessary seeking any marginal argument why the hypotheses we’re emotionally invested in are the right hypotheses. 

When religion was our best guess at how to pick hypotheses well, we rationalized our emotional investments by citing religious “proof” that we were right. We all prayed “God grant me one good reason why I’m right” and our radically divergent imaginary Gods, while not forthcoming in granting our rightness, were always forthcoming with their supply of self-rationalizations.

Now that, science has replaced imaginary Gods as our primary source of truth, we pray to science for our self-rationalizations, saying “Science grant me one good reason I’m right.”

We crave and claim to have found scientific evidence that proves absolutely correct our intuitions, interpretations and hypotheses. Republicans are sure they’re realists more in touch with the hard scientific proof about reality than the rest of us.

Our quest for scientific proof is ironic since science’s big breakthrough was admitting that it never proves anything. Science is a commitment to doubting our hypotheses, interpretations and intuitions precisely because we are emotionally invested in them.

Science at core says “To get what we want, we have to set aside what we want long enough to guess as clearly as possible what really is.  Then, better informed we’ll be better able to get what we want.”

During the Bush Debacle I prayed that people would extrapolate beyond the man, his lack of compassion, his policies, and his detachment from facts, to focus on the general problem he never faced, but the problem we’re all subject to whether we face it or not.

He never saw the need for constraints on his interpretations. He never saw the need to cultivate live science skills that are sufficient checks and balances on emotional investment.  He had layers-deep shells protecting him from a discouraging word.

The Republicans excised the word “Bush” because it became discouraging. They excised “Climate Crisis, Inequality, Plutocracy, Theocracy, and dozens of other words they found discouraging. They pumped all sorts of words they found encouraging, words as shells to protect them layers deep from any self-doubt, words I’m delighted not to have to list here, sick as we all are of hearing them. They are the shells that this election may finally shock us free from.

But there’s one encouraging word I have to mention, the most encouraging word, the word that not only blinds us within our emotional investments, but to the whole challenge of cultivating better live science skills. 

That word is “Faith.”

More often than not faith is used as a pure and absolute sacred virtue, meaning to trust our guts, intuitions, interpretations and hypotheses. Faith applied in everyday life is faith that God or science or whomever our culture finds credible will grant us yet one more reason why we’re right. It’s the voice inside your heads telling you to heed the voice inside your head, telling you to heed the voice inside your head, layer after layer.  We use it as a virtue but it really means “Shut the fuck up,” applied to any word we find discouraging to our emotional investments.

Faith is the final bulwark against the care we must all take, the care to improve our live science skills.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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