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Matthew J. Edlund M.D.
Matthew J. Edlund M.D.

The Power of Ideology

There are reasons why we don't all agree.

Why Is That?

People keep asking me the same questions: how can anyone behead children? Why do ISIS members burn a pilot alive, film the murder, and triumphantly distribute it globally? If there is an answer to those questions, some of it lies in ideology—the study of ideas and systems of belief. Researching ideas, much as you study photons, rocks, or emotions, can help you understand the underpinnings of your own thoughts and beliefs—and that of everyone else—particularly the belief that you don’t possess an ideology.

Lots of people think that way. Years ago when I was teaching at a medical branch of the University of Texas, a student came to me following a lecture. He announced in a gorgeously cinematic west Texas twang, “you have a real accent.” I did. I told him it was a fractured Eastern variety filled with strangely differing pronunciations of “Mary” and “merry.” Yet he had an accent, too. The student smiled at my foolishness: “I don’t have an accent.”

Those who share an ideology often feel the same. They can’t understand how others can see the world differently—what they know is so obvious.

The Power of Ideology

In a time where economists win Nobel Prizes and “rational economic man” is given credence as a paradigm of intelligent behavior, it is sometimes hard to see the immense power of ideology. We too quickly forget the totalitarian fueled wars of the 20th century.

Stalin was a thug, an extortionist, a train and bank robber, a practiced killer who convinced well over 100 million people that the ideologies he penned—and Stalin wrote a lot—compelled belief as from a deity. During the 1920s and 1930s, Russians literally killed themselves to labor for the state, creating an industrial colossus from war-torn rubble. People starved yet worked endless hours. Meanwhile, millions were simultaneously murdered.

Their crimes? Most were not only unknown to their perpetrators, but had never been pondered. Their fabricated crimes were literally “unthinkable.” Yet these “evil” individuals were then asked not only to confess to their non-existent crimes, but to force themselves to believe their own thoughts caused them to commit those crimes. Many acquiesced to completely rewriting history during their trials—and in their own minds.

Ideology does not always trump reality so starkly. But consider the belief, powerful in some potent political circles, in the “hoax” of global climate change. In 2004, Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard, was writing a book on climate change. As described in the New York Times, she decided to check the scientific literature of the previous decade. Her question—did any disagree with the finding that climate warming during the past 50 years was due to increased greenhouse gases? She checked over a thousand papers. None disagreed. Not one.

After publishing her results in Science, she began receiving hate mail. She quickly discovered that many of those who “disbelieved” in greenhouse gas-based climate change were not climatologists. They were weapons and rocket scientists. Presumably nuclear power, which many of them supported, might be a potential solution to global climate change.

So why did they refuse to believe all the data? Oreskes concluded the data violated their belief in free, unfettered markets. If greenhouse gases were causing climate change, then some kind of government regulation—like a carbon tax—might be needed to stop it. That contradicted their idea that “totally” free markets were the underpinnings of democracy. So believing that climate change is real and advancing—as climatologists do—to this group of scientists innately contradicted their sense of “freedom,” “democracy” and “the American way.” Such beliefs needed to be “debunked”—in spite of the facts.

Why We All Can’t Get Together and Agree

People are often stumped by human fractiousness. Why do people argue so much? Can’t they just sit down and rationally come to a sensible compromise?

No. Because their fundamental ideologies are often different—and deeply unexamined.

In much of today’s political debate, whether about health care, global warming, or the genocide of peoples, the communicants are not operating within the same or even similar belief systems. They think their ideals and thoughts are so basic, so bedrock, that it's just “impossible” for others to think differently.

Except that they do. So in the Middle East, soldiers refight the battle of Karbala—which took place in 680—and giddily wipe out children and infants. Doctors who see guns killing more Americans than car accidents consider gun registration a public health issue akin to vaccination and sanitation. To their minds, it would be easy to save tens of thousands of lives—particularly from the growing number of gun suicides. Many millions of gun owners observe the same picture and think it has nothing to do with health—but everything to do with freedom, democracy, and basic human rights.

It’s not easy to get people to acknowledge their basic beliefs—especially when they think they’re automatically correct. But until those beliefs are examined—and acknowledged—many of the most important debates can only take place by people talking past each other.

Because they’re not talking about the same things—and they don’t realize it. Such is the power of ideology—to disappear itself in plain sight, and shape our views of the world—whatever the facts.

About the Author
Matthew J. Edlund M.D.

Matthew Edlund, M.D., researches rest, sleep, performance, and public health. He is the author of Healthy Without Health Insurance and The Power of Rest.

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