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After Ideology

Posted on April 23, 2011 by Andrew Hartman

(Dear Readers: This guest post is written by my good friend Corey Washington and his co-author Johanna Carr. I first got to know Corey in 2001, when he was still a philosophy professor at the University of Maryland. Since then he quit the philosophy business and got a second Ph.D. in neuroscience from Columbia. He’s now a consultant in New York City. Corey’s background gives him a fairly unique perspective, I think. I have always enjoyed our debates because he attacks issues from such a different vantage point. He and Johanna are in the beginning stages of writing a book that is an argument against the very notion of ideology. I asked him to write up a synopsis for the USIH blog, since this seems like the perfect venue for critical feedback on an essay in the realm of ideas. Like most of us, Corey loves a good debate. Enjoy.)

I recently finished reading two books endorsing atheism – God is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens and The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. Each gives a variety of reasons for believing that God does not exist, but the central argument offered by both men is a variation on Occam’s razor:

(a) The hypothesis that God (an all powerful, all knowing, all good being who intervenes in the world) exists is extraordinary.
(b) Being extraordinary, it requires extraordinary supporting evidence before it should be believed.
(c) There is no compelling, let alone extraordinary, evidence for God’s existence.
(d) Hence, one should infer that God does not exist.

Many of my friends are atheist (or agnostic), and mostly for reasons similar to that above. They do not believe in God, because they see no good evidence that he exists. Clearly, they engage in evidence based reasoning about religion. At the same time, almost all of them describe themselves as falling into some political grouping: Marxist, socialist, social democrat, liberal, conservative, libertarian, anarchist – sometimes per economics, sometimes per social issues, sometimes regarding both.

When they talk about politics, they often express very strong beliefs in political ideas based on very little evidence. They might claim legalizing cocaine would benefit society at large or more stimulus spending would be bad for the economy. Some maintain life would be better if there were no markets, others if there were no taxes. While some of these claims are extraordinary and others not, in each case the evidence presented clearly falls short of what a rational person would demand in order to endorse a given claim as vehemently as its advocates do.

It is clear that for most people support for their policy views follows from an underlying ideology rather than from strong evidence. They argue for no taxes because they believe small government is better. They argue for legalizing cocaine because they believe in the right to privacy. In very few cases, do they present a well-formed opinion based on research and evidence. And as any rational person knows only evidence, not ideology, is a sound basis for such empirical claims.

My friends are not unusual. Political beliefs, like religious beliefs, are usually based on very weak, and selective, evidence. People tend to have the same political orientation as their parents, which may result from environment, i.e. growing up in their parents’ household, or a genetic predisposition to a particular political orientation, as recent studies have indicated. People also often develop views as a result of hanging around others with a certain political orientation. Once formed, political views are maintained and reinforced by reading material that supports one’s positions and by discounting material that conflicts. Likewise, people often embrace views advocated by the “experts”, they find idedologically appealing, while discrediting those with equivalent credentials, whom they do not. (When I discuss economics with my friends in Amherst, MA, they quote economist Paul Krugman about as often as Christians quote Jesus.)
In short, ideology seems to be the equivalent of religion, without the God stuff.

Given how randomly political beliefs are formed and injudiciously maintained, we have little reason to be confident they are true. To see this, suppose you set out to maximize the number of true beliefs, and minimize the number of false beliefs, you have about a controversial issue. How should you proceed? You should probably do what scientists do when investigating a new subject: read a range of papers from credible sources; be careful to get different perspectives on the issue. Talk to experts in the field with varying points of views; get their assessments of what you have read and heard from others. If possible, you might even try to conduct your own experiments.

Throughout the process you would try to be very even-handed, weighing conflicting evidence for strength and credibility. You would also be hyper-critical of hypotheses you are considering endorsing – always looking for evidence that what you believe is wrong, so as to avoid coming to an incorrect conclusion. In the end, you might end up endorsing one view (if the evidence was overwhelming), but most likely you would end up taking an intermediate position. Notice how strikingly different this approach is from how people generally form their opinions on political issues.

There is good scientific evidence that political reasoning is based on innate, non-rational principles. Nevertheless, the fact that people reason so badly about politics is striking given that people are intelligent and believe strongly that it is important for their political beliefs to be true. Religion may also be innate and non-rational, but if people are rational enough to give up God-oriented religion because there is not sufficient evidence, why do they not give up ideologies as well?

When I ask this question, the responses are quite similar to what you hear when you discuss atheism with a religious person. Atheists/agnostics cannot imagine how you could act ethically, or more broadly make sense of the world, without an ideology. That is, ideology seems to give many atheists/agnostics a value system just as religion does for believers. I believe ideologies also provide people with a community of like-minded friends, as do religious beliefs, and people are loath to alienate themselves from their friends. But if your goal is to have an accurate political view of the world, what use are such ideologies and communities if they are based on beliefs one has very little reason to think are true?

Corey Washington’s Background:
M.S., MIT, Linguistics, 1987.
PhD, Stanford, Philosophy, 1994
Asst. Prof, U Washington, 1992-1996
Asst. Prof. U Maryland, 1996-2003
PhD Columbia, Neuroscience, 2010
Corey is presently a New York City consultant.
Johanna Carr received her degree in Philosophy, emphasis on History of Science, from Stanford 1991. After years in the tech world, failing to effect any change in corporate politics, she is currently pursuing a second PhD in Motherhood.

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Replies to This Discussion

Yes, there are a lot of similarities across all domains of belief.

But in my opinion there is a big difference between beliefs in magic and beliefs in political, social, philosophical, or psychological hypotheses. The former have no hope whatsoever to ever be verified while the latter can eventually be tested. Also, religious beliefs are shared much more widely and therefore exert a deeper pressure on individuals.

Consider the longevity of particular religious faiths and the transient nature of every other kind of belief, 

Even though the same brain systems are involved and the spectrum of behaviors is very consistent across the board, one set of beliefs is concerned with an afterlife and will be very persistent by its unverifiable nature, the other is about the real world and more likely to evolve into something useful.

I don't like this article very much. Yes, we all have value systems that we adhere to. And yes, sometimes people believe things on the base of little evidence. We are all human. Humans are less rational than we think we are. What's new? 

I do not think the comparison between religious beliefs and political beliefs is a fair one. Religious beliefs are based on no evidence, and people with these beliefs don't even look for evidence, they believe what they believe as an article of faith. There is nothing a religious person could do to examine their beliefs rationally that would not lead to, well, disbelief.  People with political beliefs could base their ideology on facts about human societies, the world, economics, etc. As a matter of fact, many people do. Political beliefs can be analyzed rationally and the person who thinks critically about their political ideologies often change them, or at least part of them. Their political ideologies could also be reinforced as a result of examining the facts very carefully. While the beliefs of religious people will get invariably destroyed upon critical examination. Case in point: many people who go to college and get exposed to science, end up disavowing creationism, even though they learnt this as children as part of their religious education or family environment.

(When I discuss economics with my friends in Amherst, MA, they quote economist Paul Krugman about as often as Christians quote Jesus.)

Ugh. This is a silly comparison. Paul Krugman is a Nobel prize winner, a world-known economist who has often predicted the behavior of the markets and economic growth or stagnation worldwide. Not only he exists, he is a scholar and an expert. No wonder people cite him and quote him. He is not god or infallible, but someone worth listening too. While Jesus...well, I'm sure you get the point of why this comparison is silly.

In summary, I disagree: ideology is not like religion, minus the god part. The fact that some people may believe in their political ideology religiously, meaning uncritically and unquestioning, does not transform a real-world system such as a political system in something with no base in the real world, like a religion. 

I like this comment very much :)

the main idea in the article is, extraordinary claims needs a extraordinary evidences. the god thing is just an example. In the political world there is a lot of extraordinary and dangerous claims
from history and nowadays we can take these examples :

A) Communism, claim their ability to create a new human society ....the result is millions of victims and a lot of human suffering (Survivors liken N.Korean prison camps to Holocaust horrors).

B) Nazi, claim the pure race and racial superiority ... The result is millions of victims around the world and the holocaust, anti-Semitism, etc.

C) U.S. invasion of Iraq; claim the liberation of Iraq "and democracy, freedom and human rights". the result is the destruction of infrastructure, millions of victims, poverty, a pro-Iran government and the U.S. prisons were managed by some psychopathic U.S. soldiers.

and so on 

Yes, I get the main idea of the article but I still don't like how it's written or where it seems to be going. He does not even mention totalitarian regimes, or the war in Iraq. From the perspective of someone living here in America, this is another attempt at saying that liberals and conservatives are both equally irrational. Like saying Fox News and MSNBC are both "ideological" and partisan. Never mind that one station constantly distorts the fact, while at the other, there is a lot of fact checking (and some distortion, of course). 

I agree! The picture of that girl hurts :(

this hurts more 

no one should be in such suffering.
Bush invaded Iraq without any evidence of weapons of mass destruction. war on Iraq has no basis in international law nor in any kind of morality.
what did the war cause? it cause only the destruction of infrastructure and more than half a million people dead And a few millions of orphans and widows. New wave of anti-Western hatred (not only In the Arab region, but in other non Arab non Muslim regions) with the rise of fundamentalism.

in Iraq and the Arab region today, no one talk about the dictator Saddam, but people talk about Fallujah. a Symbol of resistance against the U.S. occupation.

But, we are tough m***** f***** haha:


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