Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Why "Politics On Facebook" Is So Stupid

What is the safety record of new oil pipelines, as compared to older pipelines or rail transport? What states or cities have experimented with vouchers or charter schools (or other implementations of school choice), and what kinds of results have they seen? What new trends in “health outcomes” have we seen in the past few years (thus plausibly attributable to Obamacare), and which of these trends do you predict will be reversed if we repeal it? How many terrorism deaths have been caused by terrorists from countries on Trump’s travel ban list? If that’s an unreasonable sample to extrapolate from, what has changed recently to invalidate this history? And what is the expected amount of terrorism, however quantified (# of terrorism deaths? # of non-lethal incidents?), that the travel ban saves us from?

My major gripe with “politics on Facebook” isn’t that it happens. My complaint that it’s done so poorly. Information that would be relevant to the discussion is never offered. This is uncharitable, but my guess is that the people choking my news feed with self-flattering moral outrage memes don’t even consider that the empirical record might change their minds, or that future events might contradict them. Don’t for a second believe that pure moral outrage can answer all the important questions for you.

There are two very good reasons to think through these annoying empirical questions. The first is that you otherwise have no way of communicating with people who disagree with you. Consider this exchange:

Standing Rock supporter: “It’s imperative that we respect the land of a Native American tribe! The pipeline threatens their water supply, and at any rate their sovereignty should be respected whatever their reasons for saying ‘No.’”  
DAPL supporter: “No, it’s imperative that we respect the rule of law! DAPL followed it, acquired all the necessary land easements and approvals from all the right government agencies, etc. The pipeline doesn’t cross the Dakota Sioux’s territory and poses essentially zero threat to their water supply.” 

Both people in this discussion think they hold a moral trump card, but what really needs to happen is some quantification of the risk posed to the Dakota Sioux tribe’s water supply. Someone arguing on the side of the Dakota Sioux can do so more effectively if they have this information and can contradict claims made by supporters of the pipeline (claims which are empirical in nature).

The second (and far more important) reason to think these things through is that you’re probably wrong at least half the time. You should have some mechanism for determining when you’re wrong. If you observe the world through a lens of pure moral outrage, you have no such mechanism. You are basically allowing your emotions to pick an answer that in reality depends on facts and data. You might as well flip a coin. You aren’t just researching the facts so you can shut the mouth on that snarky conservative/libertarian/progressive on your Facebook feed (or passive-aggressively post the reply on your own page hoping s/he will see it). You’re doing the research so you can learn when your critics are right. And sometimes they are. Sometimes you are the snarky idiot on your Facebook feed. You need to adopt habits that allow you to identify when this is the case. 

I see the occasional plea for all "politics on Facebook" to stop completely. I don't want that. Bad policy really does hurt people, and that harm needs to be aired and examined in public view. Some people will smile to your face and be a decent person to you, but then will enter a booth and bubble in a circle every 2 years that says, "Steal my neighbors money and beat them up if they do things I don't approve of." These folks do need to understand that they are hurting people. There is a legitimate counterpoint to your worldview. There is a counter-claimant to every claim (someone has to pay, right?). There are opposing interests that need to be traded off against each other, and ultimately a winner needs to be picked and a decision made. Advances in information technology have allowed this conversation to happen. Unfortunately, there has been no such advance in emotional technology. We are still using our stone-age tribal brains to sort and interpret the incoming flood of information. We can do better, but it takes effort. 

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