It hangs over American politics like a moth-bitten blanket. An old and weary narrative, it crowds out conversation and lets shopworn cheap-shots masquerade as thoughtful critiques. Yes, it’s one more marker of the bad faith and disrespect that pervade our politics, but its costs go beyond hurt feelings. Real Americans pay a price for this poisonous argument.
The story in question is “the Republican war on science.” That particular phrase is the title of one 2007 book, but this story’s tentacles stretch far beyond a single volume. For years, a concerted effort has been made to intertwine scientific truth with progressive politics in the public imagination. In recent weeks alone, Nancy Pelosi and Charlie Crist both earned headlines by trashing the “anti-science” GOP. The left-leaning media works hard to make campaign issues out of contrived litmus tests that bear little relationship to real national issues.
Their project seems to be working. When Tumblring twenty-somethings reblog the latest “pro-science” rant from credentialed crusaders like Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson, one cannot miss the whiff of self-styled defiance. Like retweeting a feminist longread or “liking” a Jon Stewart tirade, speaking up for science is now seen as a form of political protest. Sporting an ironic “Science!” t-shirt is at least partially about sticking it to Republican rubes.
This script has become so familiar. From spirituality to environmentalism to financial economics, we hear, conservatives’ insufficient educations leave them unable to see past shadow and superstition. The right buys blissful ignorance by disengaging from reality.
But liberals’ intellects deprive them of this luxury. Cursed with vision keen enough to see in shades of grey, progressives cannot help but examine all the evidence and see what makes sense. Building a messy worldview out of complicated facts may be less viscerally satisfying than dictating from dogma, we’re informed, but it is infinitely more honest. So when you’re looking for leaders who will actually improve people’s lives, the talented technocrats beat the Manichean moralists eight days a week.
Policy should belong to pragmatists, the story concludes. And thus politics should belong to progressives.
Except That’s Not Reality
This narrative serves America well save for two minor flaws: It’s a lie and it hurts people. Confirmation bias and ex post rationalization are human universals, not the exclusive province of the political right. Every day, the best interests of vulnerable people are sacrificed on the altar of leftist faiths as ironclad any conservative presuppositions.
Take Medicaid, a policy issue I touched on recently in these pages. The vast majority of Democratic policymakers and sympathetic journalists take it on faith that the good intentions that inspire the program and the vast sums we invest in it add up to something that improves poor people’s lives. When progressives discuss red states’ reluctance to volunteer for the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, they almost describe a clear trade-off: Conservatives’ contempt for social assistance and the GOP’s austerity fetish are on one side, and the medical destinies of needy Americans are on the other. Shame on the heartless Scrooge who could possibly prioritize the former!
But leftists rarely pause to interrogate the premise, to actually verify that signing humans up for a complex and convoluted financial product is in fact synonymous with boosting their well-being. It’s hard to fault laypeople for leaning on this commonsensical assumption. But in 2014, every serious student of policy should be aware of the growing evidence that calls it into question.
For decades, a series of studies have raised red flags. Surgery patients, cancer victims, and transplant recipients who were enrolled in the program were all found to fare worse—not merely than privately-insured patients with presumably easier lives, but worse than equally poor people who lacked any insurance at all. This literature was capped off by the landmark “Oregon study,” a brand-new analysis that marshals gold-standard methodology to compare Medicaid recipients with uninsured people.
The scholars found mixed results. Medicaid does lower psychological stress and increase financial stability, results we would expect from any transfer program. But the program actually increases unnecessary trips to the emergency room. And remarkably, Medicaid coverage has no measurable impact whatsoever on clinical health.
To an intellectually honest observer, these findings compel more questions. What are reasonable expectations for health insurance? Should we be satisfied if Medicaid helps people sleep easier but makes them no healthier? Even if so, is health insurance the most effective way to convert taxpayer dollars into peace of mind for the poor?
Virtually no prominent progressives join center-right commentators in positing such questions. In a recent Intelligence Squared debate over the ACA, the liberal commentator Jonathan Chait laughed off all these studies by feigning surprise that—gasp!—disproportionately impoverished Medicaid patients might be unhealthier than average folks. The problem, of course, is that every study worth its salt controls for demographics and income. Many of the Medicaid studies even control for existing health status. But never mind the facts—favorable news is trumpeted, negative results are brushed aside, and conventional wisdom marches on.
Progressives are equally prone to cherry-picking when it comes to education. As always, different studies point in different directions. But as the famously independent-minded scholar Rick Hess documents in an exhaustive review, the thrust of the literature is not really ambiguous. Vouchers and charters are not panaceas, Hess owns, but “for poor parents trapped in dangerous and underperforming urban school systems, it is pretty clear that school choice works.”
Much like the Oregon health study, one brand-new report is especially interesting and noteworthy. Last month, experts from Mathematica Policy Research published their analysis of charter schools in Florida and Chicago. Whereas most research stops at rates of high school graduation and college admission, their data continues tracking students through their college years and into their careers.
What they found is fascinating. First, attending a charter instead of a public high school made students significantly likelier to graduate and to enter college. This much is old news to education scholars, although you wouldn’t know it from listening to the left. Next, the scholars uncovered new evidence that charter students are meaningfully more likely to stick with college for more than two years. And most interesting of all, the study found that school choice yields significantly higher earnings later in life: Charter graduates earn roughly 13% more money in their mid-twenties than comparable alumni of public high schools.
The study’s conclusion? Precisely how charters produce these improvements remains “an open question,” but the end result really doesn’t. School choice endows vulnerable kids with “skills that are useful for success in college and career but that test scores do not capture.”
Who’s Really Interested In Data?
Does the left bow dutifully before this scholarly consensus? Not a chance. In one of the most underrated moments from the 2008 campaign, a moderator put the subject of school choice before Hillary Clinton. Displaying zero awareness of the empirical evidence, the once and future candidate skipped over the science and offered a bizarre hypothetical (spoiler: it features a “School of the Jihad”) that gestured weakly towards constitutional objections. Those concerns have their validity. But a true data-driven pragmatist would seek creative solutions for implementing proven innovations, not laugh lines to dismiss them.
Oddly enough, one man encapsulates the progressive movement’s fraught relationship with the facts. One of President Obama’s earliest announcements was his choice of Steven Chu, a genius physicist with a Nobel Prize, to head the Department of Energy. Chu’s appointment brought forth a downpour of praise as many relished the symbolic break from Bush. The Republican Dark Age was over and a new Enlightenment was upon us, embodied in the brilliant Berkeley laureate who was now boarding a flight to D.C.
Fast-forward five years. Chu, now out of the administration, was recently asked about the administration’s reluctance to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. To the surprise of many, the scientist departed from leftist dogma: “I don’t have a position,” he explained, “but I will say that the decision [was] a political one and not a scientific one.” His comments dovetailed with yet another exhaustive State Department report that confirmed what experts have understood for years: Keystone would not exacerbate climate change, since the Canadian fuel will be extracted and shipped with or without the pipeline. The only real question is whether the oil will travel through the Keystone or by rail—and studies show that pipelines are safer for workers and the environment alike.
I’m still waiting for progressives to embrace Chu’s expert analysis. More likely, though, they will treat their former hero just as they treat science itself—essential and praiseworthy when it reinforces their politics and nonexistent when it doesn’t.
The left is certainly not alone in these errors. Health, education, and energy are three arenas in which progressives display a universal tendency: They champion evidence that gels with their intuitions but shrug off data that disrupt them. This phenomenon knows no party, as the psychologist Jonathan Haidt demonstrates. All humans are inclined to rationalize backwards from our preconceptions.
But while progressives are not uniquely guilty of this phenomenon, their movement is uniquely ill-equipped to guard against it. If a measure of intellectual blindness inheres in who we are, that is all the more reason to cultivate epistemological modesty. All the more urgent that we should stay skeptical, even—or perhaps especially—of things we consider proven.
This skepticism is a central pillar in right-of-center thought. It was the conservative patriarch Edmund Burke who mused that “we are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small.” It was the libertarian hero Friedrich Hayek who insisted that we recognize “the insuperable limits to [man’s] knowledge” and favor organic social arrangements over clever schemes of our own design. And today, it is not progressives but leading center-right voices like Jim Manzi and Nassim Taleb who eloquently remind us that things are almost always more complicated than they seem.
The theoretical physicist Richard Feynman once quipped that “the first principle” of science is “that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” If we take the genius at his word, “the party of science” starts to look like a paradox. To insist that only your ideology is empirical and enlightened is to conclusively prove that it is neither.
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