In the realm of politics, there are millions of poorly informed people viciously defending ideas they they know very little about. And many of the the thought-leaders these people listen to are selected because of their biased reasoning, not in spite of it. We are confusing the criteria for selecting experts with good opinions, with the opinions themselves. The problem gets worse with more complex issues. Nuanced opinions don’t do well in systems where the vast majority of people are just footsoldiers who can’t be expected to understand the big picture. As the general public picks up an idea and fights for it, they lose track of the caveats and tradeoffs that come with it. They’re only interested in winning the battle.
I think this concept of leveraged intelligence goes a long way toward explaining why there’s so much vicious shouting back and forth by so many in U.S. politics. President Obama said the Affordable Care Act would be good for the country. Then Mitch McConnell said it would be bad. The rest of us jumped into the fight, based on who we trusted more. For most people, most of the time, this strategy probably works fairly well in life. It allows us to have opinions on a diverse set of issues that we otherwise wouldn’t know what to do with. It makes sense to become a foot soldier for your causes, even if you don’t have a comprehensive understanding of the issues themselves. It makes you more powerful as you try to shape the world to be more to your liking. This turns humans into super-organisms. I can read an expert’s opinion on when humans will invent useful quantum computers, decide that I like her style and trust her judgement, and then boom: Suddenly I too have an opinion on when we’ll have quantum computers. Cool!
But, of course, everything goes horribly wrong when we turn to politics. Imagine that you’re someone who loves guns. You believe that guns make you safer. You believe that guns make your family safer. You believe that higher rates of gun ownership is a good deterrent and lowers the crime rate. You decide to do some research to make sure that your beliefs are true, so you start reading through the academic studies. But who has time to read primary research and wade through the quagmire of conflicting results from imperfect studies that all measure slightly different things? Not many of us! So what do you do instead? Easy: you look for a trusted expert who has read all of the research and can help you interpret it all. After a bit of searching, you find a smart-sounding expert who loves guns, believes that guns make us all safer and believes that gun ownership lowers the crime rate. He’s extremely knowledgeable on the subject and all of his beliefs are backed up by facts, figures, and graphs. He skillfully points out all of the flawed thinking of the other side. Bingo! You’ve found your expert and it turns out that you were right about everything, and you can now feel happy and justified in your opinions.
The problem, of course, if that we live in a big world and there are lots and lots of experts, and there’s bound to be some who share your outlook on any given topic, even if it’s wrong. The goal is to extrapolate what you would think if you were more knowledgeable, so it’s tempting to find experts who most agree with your current beliefs and adopt those opinions. But that leaves no mechanism for you to ever change your mind. You’re simply choosing your expert based on the ignorant beliefs that you already have. For every one source like the one you found, there might be a dozen similar people who changed their minds after becoming experts in gun research. But how would you ever know that? You would never know to choose any of those people as “your expert” because they don’t seem familiar to you. They don’t seem like the proper extrapolation of yourself.
It’s a vicious cycle. People choose their sources based on what they think the correct sides are, based on their feelings and intuitions. Then they listen to those sources and have all of their feelings and intuitions confirmed. Many of the country’s thought-leaders are selected because of their biased reasoning, not in spite of it. This makes politics a lot of fun because we can all feel smug and right about everything, but its not a great system for getting at the truth. Nuanced opinions don’t do well in systems where the vast majority of people are just footsoldiers who can’t be expected to study the details. As the general public picks up an idea and fights for it, they lose track of the caveats and tradeoffs that come with it.