In a revolutionary analysis of reason in the public sphere, the legal scholar Dan Kahan has argued that certain beliefs become symbols of cultural allegiance. People affirm or deny these beliefs to express not what they know but who they are. We all identify with particular tribes or subcultures, each of which embraces a creed on what makes for a good life and how society should run its affairs. These creeds tend to vary along two dimensions. One contrasts a right-wing comfort with natural hierarchy with a left-wing preference for forced egalitarianism…
Kahan notes that people’s tendency to treat their beliefs as oaths of allegiance rather than disinterested appraisals is, in one sense, rational. To express the wrong opinion on a politicized issue can make one an oddball at best—someone who “doesn’t get it”—and a traitor at worst…Kahan concludes that we are all actors in a Tragedy of the Belief Commons: what’s rational for every individual to believe (based on esteem) can be irrational for the society as a whole to act upon (based on reality).
Intellectual and political polarization feed each other. It’s harder to be a conservative intellectual when American conservative politics has become steadily more know-nothing, from Ronald Reagan to Dan Quayle to George W. Bush to Sarah Palin to Donald Trump. On the other side, the capture of the left by identity politicians, political correctness police, and social justice warriors creates an opening for loudmouths who brag of “telling it like it is.” A challenge of our era is how to foster an intellectual and political culture that is driven by reason rather than tribalism and mutual reaction.
Making reason the currency of our discourse begins with clarity about the centrality of reason itself. As I mentioned, many commentators are confused about it. The discovery of cognitive and emotional biases does not mean that “humans are irrational” and so there’s no point in trying to make our deliberations more rational. If humans were incapable of rationality, we could never have discovered the ways in which they were irrational, because we would have no benchmark of rationality against which to assess human judgment, and no way to carry out the assessment. Humans may be vulnerable to bias and error, but clearly not all of us all the time, or no one would ever be entitled to say that humans are vulnerable to bias and error. The human brain is capable of reason, given the right circumstances; the problem is to identify those circumstances and put them more firmly in place.
For the same reason, editorialists should retire the new cliché that we are in a “post-truth era” unless they can keep up a tone of scathing irony. The term is corrosive, because it implies that we should resign ourselves to propaganda and lies and just fight back with more of our own. We are not in a post-truth era. Mendacity, truth-shading, conspiracy theories, extraordinary popular delusions, and the madness of crowds are as old as our species, but so is the conviction that some ideas are right and others are wrong. The same decade that has seen the rise of pants-on-fire Trump and his reality-challenged followers has also seen the rise of a new ethic of fact-checking.