How Politics Makes Vox Stupid

Vox had an excellent article a while ago on how politics makes us stupid. It describes a number of ways in which people behave systematically irrationally about politics.

For example, there is research suggesting that showing people more evidence makes them hold their existing beliefs more firmly – regardless of whether the evidence supported or contradicted their beliefs. It talks about how people avoid evidence that threatens their self-identity.

But Vox made one big mistake with the article. When writing apolitical pieces, designed to reach across party lines and improve the state of political rationality, there is one rule you must always obey. Failing to observe this rule will lead to one side rejecting you and the other side failing to learn the lesson at hand. Failure to observe this rule leads to mindkilling, and Moloch.

The rule is:

If you use a political example from one side, you must use an equal and opposite example from the other side.

If you’re writing an article on irrationality in politics, and you have an example of republicans being irrational, you need to have an equally important example of democrats being irrational, with the same emotional salience, and the same amount of pagespace dedicated to it.

Vox totally violates this rule. And it does it in the predictable direction. It’s a left-wing site in general, and it’s specific examples of irrational behaviour (apart from those lifted from papers):

  • Climate change ‘denialists’
  • Sean Hannity (a conservative commentator)
  • Fox News
  • Antonin Scalia

Every single example of a person or a group they used were right-wing. Did they notice this? If not, then they need to do some serious work on their own bias. If they did, they have done their left-wing readers a great disservice.

The point of learning about biases isn’t to gain a new weapon with which to attack others. The point is to turn the knife upon yourself and cut the cancer from your own mind.

Cloaking dissent as tactical advice

Let B be some belief you don’t agree with, and A some popular argument for B. You believe B is false, but publicly criticising B is socially costly.

One strategy is to firstly assert B, but say it’s a shame people argue for B on the basis of A. There are many strong arguments for B, you say, but A is unsound. A has false premises, or invalid logic. So we shouldn’t use A to support B – otherwise the evil critics of B could use the unsoundness of A to cast doubt on B! True believers in B can safely disregard A, because we know B is true.

By using this strategy, you might plausibly persuade people that A is false. And because A is a commonly quoted argument for B, you have therefore made some progress towards getting people to reject B, all while avoiding the social stigma associated with B-deniers.