The Republicans’ Epistemic Problem

English: Karl Rove Assistant to the President,...

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Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that focuses on knowledge: determining the nature of knowledge, sorting out what we can (and cannot) know and similar concerns. While people often think of epistemology in terms of strange skeptical problems such as the brain–in-the-vat and the Cartesian demon, it actually has rather practical aspects. After all, sorting out what is known from what is merely believed is important for the practical aspects of life. Also a significant portion of critical thinking can be seen in terms of epistemology: determining what justifies believing that a claim as true.

In very rough and ready terms, to know a claim is to believe the claim, for the claim to actually be true and for the belief to be properly justified. As any professional philosopher will tell you, this rough and ready view has been roughly beaten over the years by various clever thinkers. However, for practical purposes this account works fairly well—provided that one takes the proper precautions.

My main purpose is not, however, to do battle over the fine points of an account of knowledge. Rather, my objective is to discuss the Republicans’ epistemic problem to illustrate how politics and epistemology can intersect.

As noted above, a rough account of knowledge involves having a true belief that is properly justified. As might be imagined, the matters of justification and truth can be debated until the cows (if they exist) come home (if it exists). However, a crude view of truth should suffice for my purposes: a claim about the actual world is true when it matches the actual world. As far as justification goes, I will stick with an intuitive notion—that is, that the belief is properly formed and supported. To help give some flesh to this poor definition I will use specific examples where beliefs are not justified.

As I discussed in my essay on politics and alternative reality, political narratives are typically aimed at crafting what amounts to an alternative reality story. This generally involves two types of tales. The first is laying out a negative narrative describing one’s opponents. The second is spinning a positive tale about one’s virtues. While all politicians and pundits play this game, the Republicans seemed to have made the rather serious epistemic error of believing that their fictional narratives expressed justified, true beliefs.

While epistemologists disagree about justification, it seems reasonable to hold that believing a claim because one wants it to be true is not adequate justification. It also seems reasonable to hold that a belief formed by systematically ignoring and misinterpreting available evidence is not justified. That is, it seems reasonable to hold that fallacies do not serve as justification for a claim. Hence, it seems reasonable to hold that beliefs based on such poor reasoning do not meet the standard of knowledge—even if we lack a proper definition of knowledge.

One clear indicator of this was the shock and dismay on the part of conservative pundits such as Laura Ingraham. A bit before the election she said “if you can’t beat Barack Obama with this record, then shut down the party.” Other pundits and spinions expressed incredulity at Obama’s ability to stay ahead of Romney in the polls and they were terribly shocked when Obama won the actual election. This is understandable. On their narrative, Obama is the worst president in history. He has divided the country, brought socialism to America, destroyed jobs, played the race card against all opponents, gone on a worldwide apology tour, weakened America and might be a secret Muslim who was born outside of the United States. Obviously enough, such a terrible person should have been extremely easy to defeat and Americans should have been clamoring if not for Romney, then at least to be rid of Obama. As such, it makes sense why the people who accept the alternative reality in which Obama is all these things (or at least most of them) were so shocked by what actually happened, namely his being re-elected. The Republican epistemic and critical thinking problems in this regard are well presented in Fox’s Megyn Kelly’s question to strategist Karl Rove: “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better or is it real?”

After Obama’s victory, the conservative politicians, pundits and spinions rushed to provide an explanation for this dire turn of events. Some blame was placed on the Republican party, thus continuing an approach that began long before the election.

Given their epistemic failings, it makes sense that they would believe that the Republican Party is to blame for the failure to beat such an easy opponent. To use an analogy, imagine that fans of a team believe that an opposing team is pathetic but as the game is played, the “pathetic” team gets ahead and stays there. Rather than re-assess the other team, the fans are likely to start blaming their team, the coaches and so on for doing so poorly against such a “pathetic” opponent. However, if the opposing team is not as they imagined, then they have the explanation wrong: they are losing because the other team is better.  Put another way, their team is not playing against the team they think they are playing against—the pathetic team is a product of their minds and not an objective assessment of the actual team.

In the case of Obama, the conservatives and Republicans would be rightfully dismayed if they lost to someone as bad as their idea of Obama. However, they did not run against that alternative Obama. They ran against the actual Obama and he is not as bad as they claim. Hence, it makes sense that they did not do as well as they thought they should.  To be fair, the Democrats also had an Obama narrative that is not an unbiased account of the president.

It also makes sense that they would explain the loss by blaming the voters. As Bill O’Reilly explained things, Obama won because there are not enough white male voters and too many non-white and female voters who want “stuff” from the government. This explanation is hardly surprising. After all Fox News, the main epistemic engine of the Republicans, had been presenting a narrative in which America is divided between the virtuous hard working people and those who just want free stuff. There was also a narrative involving race (as exemplified by the obsessive focus on one Black Panther standing near a Philadelphia polling place) and one involving gender. Rush Limbaugh also contributed significantly to these narratives, especially the gender narrative, with his calling Sandra Fluke a slut. On these narratives, the colored people and women are (or have joined forces with) the people who want free stuff and it is their moral failing that robbed Romney of his rightful victory. However, this narrative fails to be true. While there are some people who want “free stuff”, the reality is rather different from the narrative—as analyzed in some detail by the Baltimore Sun. In response to such actual evidence, the usual reply is to make use of anecdotal evidence in the form of YouTube videos or vague references to someone who just wants free stuff. That is, evidence that is justified is “countered” by unwarranted beliefs based on fallacious reasoning. Ironically, the common reply to the claim that their epistemology is flawed is to simply shovel out more examples of the defective epistemology.

As might be imagined, while the Republicans had a good reason to try to get people to accept their alternative reality as the actual world some of them seem to have truly believed that the alternative is the actual. This had a rather practical impact in that to the degree they believed in this alternative world that isn’t, their strategies and tactics were distorted. After all, when one goes into battle accurate intelligence is vital and distorted information is a major liability. It does seem that some folks became victims of their own distortions and this impacted the election.

People generally tend to want to cling to a beloved narrative, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. However, there is a very practical reason for the Republicans to work on their epistemology—if they do not, they keep increasing their odds of losing elections.


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  1. However, there is a very practical reason for the Republicans to work on their epistemology—if they do not, they keep increasing their odds of losing elections.

    I don’t know if that’s true. The Republicans still took the House, and they gave a respectable shot at the Presidency while they were running with a candidate that many of them disliked. They can keep on being effectively deluded about long-term or abstract threats (climate change), and threats to the American general welfare (voodoo economics).

    To be sure, the effectiveness of the delusion runs out eventually, since it leads to one new catastrophe after another: a Sandy or a Great Recession, say. But they’ll have that covered when the time comes. They’ll just co-opt the rhetoric of pseudo-leftist populism, as they always do, and make it seem as though the sane federalist types who were trying to contain the threat (Brooksley Born, say) were actually the ones who dropped the ball.

    Rather, I think it makes sense to say that they risk losing elections so long as their delusions are paired with imminent disasters — campaigning specifically against FEMA in a run-up to Hurricane Sandy, say, or campaigning to scuttle Social Security. They can’t win on a “lying about matters of mass life and death of Americans in the short term” platform. If they don’t figure that out, then they really do suck at being effective villains. But I think it’ll occur to somebody or other at some point, and the sociopathic dance will continue anew.

  2. Don’t underestimate the capacity for humans to work under dodgy epistemic systems, especially when it’s convenient.

    A large portion of the world’s population live their entire lives as if there really is a God.

    A large part of America’s wealth was built on the epistemically naive view that people with black skin are sufficiently different from those with white skin – and this persists to some extent.

    Many otherwise reasonable Germans came to believe Jews were the main cause of all their woes. They didn’t lose WWII because they came to see their mistake but for many other reasons. They might well have succeeded in maintaining that view had they won.

    The Middle East is a problem because of the epistemic views of those peoples, about themselves and about each other. But the problem, as a system, persists; and in that very cruel sense, it succeeds. The Middle East is stable in its chaos, despite its chaos. And as with East/West MAD, though the stability hangs in fine balance, it persists.

    Had Romney won, Republican history, the history of the winner, would have confirmed their view of Obama. Only much later retrospectives would likely uncover the truth for later generations.

    Critical thinking is so easily and conveniently omitted, often with little apparent consequence, or with consequences that are ignored, or alleviated by some other means. Rational economically motivated Republicans have so far let the crazies do their thing, appealing to the irrational vote. The Palins, the O’Reillys, their public, live in their own wonderland. The flawed epistemology has been tolerated for the greater good of the GOP. But Bush was a disaster, McCain a dribbling old fool, and Romney seemed to be a mash-up or plastic Reagan and gaff ridden Bush. It wasn’t the epistemology that failed but its presentation – just a touch too much crazy on show.

    Maybe with the right candidate, someone who appears just a little more rational, a little less flaky, maybe they could still win with seriously flawed epistemology. Do the Republicans really need to change their actual epistemology, or just its presentation. If such a large proportion of the American vote does lack critical thinking, then they won’t notice the distinction.

    As you pointed out, the Democrats weren’t entirely epistemologically sound. That didn’t lose them the vote. Politicians being entirely rational and epistemically sound? Some parallel universe, maybe, but not this one. Spin is hard to avoid, which in turn makes lies hard to avoid. Brute honesty is perceived as politically suicidal. Lying to yourself, believing your own bull-shit, allowing your own flaky epistemology to dominate, seems a much easier ride, and makes it easier to take other people along for the ride too.

  3. BLS Nelson,

    True-their level of success exceeds their level of justified, true beliefs. Also, it could be argued that it is precisely their incorrect narratives that enables much of their success (the same charge could be leveled against Democrats as well-a look at Politifact shows that both parties have a limited relationship with truth).

    However, I would contend that they have committed an error in getting the electorate wrong. That is, as O’Reilly indicated, they believed in an America that isn’t in terms of the population. O’Reilly seemed to feel betrayed by the fact that America was insufficiently white and male.

    As you note, this epistemic problem does come with a price-one typically paid by the general population. But, we do get the government we deserved.

  4. Ron Murphy,

    Good points.

    Interestingly, a case can be made that the Nazi’s ideology did contribute to their defeat. After all, their anti-antisemitism was instrumental in driving out numerous Jewish scientists who later worked on the Manhattan Project. This gave the United States the atomic bomb before the Axis and was instrumental in ending WWII.

    Because of years of teaching critical thinking, I have a “complicated” view of the matter of persuasive narrative and critical thought. On the one hand, as I tell my students, fallacious reasoning and rhetoric are vastly more effective than logical argumentation in terms of getting people to believe claim (and act on them). On the other hand, as I tell my students, reality still remains and bad reasoning ultimately runs afoul of the actual facts. This suggests the ideal combination would be to be able to use rhetoric and fallacies on others while using critical thinking when making decisions. Naturally, the challenge is to keep the poor reasoning from infecting one’s entire thought process( serving that Kool Aid to others, while never taking a drink). This is sort of an interesting parallel with Glaucon’s unjust man: having the appearance of justice, while actually doing whatever it takes to succeed.

  5. Democrats voted for someone who is claiming the right to decide if they live or die based solely on his say so, so don’t think the blindness is only on one side.

  6. Keddaw,

    Could you expand on that? Do you just mean the obvious: the President has executive power and this can be used to kill people? Or are you claiming something else?

  7. Obama’s ‘kill list’, the massive power grab the executive branch did after 9/11 (USA PATRIOT Act) and then Obama signing the NDAA.

    Obama is claiming the right to kill American citizens with no judicial oversight. No oversight at all. Never before in the history of the USA has there been such a claim made by the President.

  8. Ah, the kill list. Yes, that worries me. I’ve written on the assassinations conducted via drones and have been critical of them. From what you had written, I though you were claiming that Obama could simply kill anyone, anywhere for any reason. This is not the case. At least not yet.

    I do think that the assassinations are morally troubling and strike me as a violation of the constitution. However, I am not a constitutional scholar and could be in error here.

    However, I’ll take Obama over Romney, even with the death drones.

  9. Mike, that is precisely what Obama is claiming the ability to do. He has already killed two American citizens (intentionally).

  10. Why is there this big difference between Obama being able to kill U.S. citizens and non-U.S. citizens?

    It seems to me that it’s bad to kill innocent people or people who are presumed to be innocent, whether or not they are U.S. citizens and that there are some justifications for killing dangerous people, whether or not they are U.S. citizens.

  11. Because the whole point of America is that all its people are equal under law.

  12. I’m not from the U.S., although I am from America (Chile), but I still don’t get the point.

    It’s morally wrong to kill innocent people, whether or not they are U.S. citizens, while it seems morally justified to kill dangerous people (under some circumstances), whether or not they are U.S. citizens.

    The point, for me, would be to see if the people killed are dangerous and if there is any other way to “deal with” them.

  13. He cannot, as of yet, kill any American. That is, he could not just send drones to whack Mitt Romney, Lady Gaga, or even me just because he wants to.

  14. Swallerstein,

    Mostly a matter of law (but also one of ethics).

    No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

    So, killing an American citizen without the due process of the law would be a violation of the constitution. The administration has claimed that they engaged in due process. I have argued that they did not-but obviously they are not listening to me.

    Battlefield killings could be justified, but the drones have been engaged in what certainly appears to be assassinations.

  15. Mike, what protection do you (falsely?) believe you have over being killed by your President?

  16. keddaw,

    The OP was about the specific epistemological problems that the Republicans have, which lead them to misread what the public wanted, and which way the vote was going to go. Clearly from pre and post election comments many Republicans were way off the mark with what they thought would happen. Though in the OP the Democrats weren’t let off the hook entirely.

    So, first, just to clarify your point, are you claiming a difference between Obama and Romney here, or are you saying that any US president has the capacity to order kills?

    And second, can you say what the relevance of this is with respect to the OP. Are you saying that we are all in the dark epistemologically, regarding presidential or government power?

  17. Ron,

    The point was that blinkers to reality/bubbles of non-reality are not limited to the right.


    There is a fundamental difference between Obama and Romney – Romney has not ordered the deaths of innocent civilians, including at least one American minor. This is not to say that Romney wouldn’t do exactly the same, or in any way to paint Romney as a better candidate (far from it) but you asked a direct question and I thought I should answer it.

    On the more general point, Obama has claimed powers no US president has – the ability to kill US citizens with no trial, no judicial oversight, and no need to defend/justify the decision to Congress. He is setting this in place in such a way that all future Presidents will also have this authority.

    The relevance to the OP is simply that while Republicans live in a bubble of make believe the left also do, even the leaders:
    Unless you think she’s a lying murder-apologist, which I’m also perfectly willing to believe.

  18. In case anyone was wondering who the American minor killed was it’s Anwar Al-Awlaki’s son, killed in a completely separate drone strike to the one which killed his father. The following shows the respect for law and justice that the Democrats currently have:
    Yet people on the left still believe the Democrats are ‘the good guys’, in spite of mountains of evidence (and bodies?) to the contrary. This is the epistemic problem that the left has.

  19. Keddaw:

    I agree with you that it is terrible that the 16 year-old boy was killed by a drone, but what makes it terrible is not that he is a U.S. citizen, but that he is an innocent 16 year-old.

    Would it be any less terrible if the boy had been a Somali citizen or a Palestinian or a Bolivian?

  20. swallerstein,

    While the so-called immorality of the act would be the same, the fact it is a US citizen makes it orders of magnitudes worse in a pragmatic sense.

    The US used to be a country of laws, a country where no man was above another, where rights were enshrined by law and no ruler, no king, no bishop, transcended those laws above the common man. That made it a shining beacon to the rest of the world, an ideal for the rest of us to push our governments towards, a bastion of freedom, liberty and justice.

    Now it is a totalitarian police state where people’s rights mean nothing and your life is merely at the government’s discretion rather than a fundamental right. The rest of the western world is now better off than the US in terms of fundamental freedoms and their governments are following the US model into spying on citizens and restricting their freedoms.

    So yes, it would have been much less terrible if the US was conducting these acts of terror (double taps can be described as nothing else) only on foreign nationals. That they are doing it on their own people mean they not only don’t believe the empty rhetoric of protecting US citizens, but aren’t even interested in making the pretence that their strikes are for that purpose because the US citizenry are so ignorant and/or apathetic of it that they ignore the reality of what is happening to their Constitutional rights.

    Okay, end of rant…

  21. Epistemology « Close to the Edge - pingback on November 17, 2012 at 7:59 am
  22. Am I missing something here? Is Keddaw implying killing an American citizen is worse than killing a foreign national? How can this be? What makes a dead Palestinian or Somali any different from an an American citizen? Don’t you think those protections that you so talk about should apply to every other human being? Why an us against them way of thinking?

  23. keddaw’s rationale is leaning too heavily on 2 common, bipartisan, and unjustified narratives:

    1. voters must either be WITH or AGAINST their president, and;

    2. team blue must be AS BIASED as team red

    The 1st is a fallacy committed (asymmetrically) by those thinking of the re-election as red-vs-blue.

    And the 2nd is a “tu quoque” gambit that insists on symmetry, despite the ever mounting evidence gathered by researchers into science denial: facts that can be justified (it’s turning out) DO have that well-known liberal bias.

  24. makagutu, you are not misreading me. You are, however, misrepresenting me. You or I killing someone is equally ‘bad’ regardless of nationality, but the US Government (the President specifically) killing a US citizen without oversight or being held to account in any way (US media, we’re looking at you since Congress has been derelict in their duties) is worse than killing a foreign national.

  25. anonymous, allow me to re-write your comment:

    1. Democratic voters must either be WITH or AGAINST their president, and;

    2. team blue must have some biases they are just as blind to as team red

    Now we can have a conversation…

    “The 1st is a fallacy committed (asymmetrically) by those thinking of the re-election as red-vs-blue.”

    There are more than enough people willing to hold their nose and vote for a red or blue candidate they don’t actually want as President in order to stop the other guy to make this a truism in an apparent two-party system rather than a fallacy.

    And your second argument falls by the wayside in the correct wording of it above.

  26. @BLS Nelson:

    “The Republicans still took the House …

    Two points:

    1. In some states, the Republican legislatures had gerrymandered Congressional Districts after the 2010 census. One way of doing that was to wiggle the boundaries of some district to engulf as many Democrats as possible, leaving Republican majorities in more districts.

    2. As I understand it, more people voted for Democrats in House races than for Republicans. The gerrymandered districts led to the end result. Even so, the Republicans lost several (8?) seats.

  27. The Republicans’ Epistemic Problem » Free Bloggers Alliance - pingback on December 10, 2012 at 2:11 pm
  28. Vem pratar du med egentligen? « En ganska liberal blogg - pingback on February 10, 2013 at 11:18 am
  29. in the debate, that Romney was right that for 14 days the Obama adniristmation had talked about the video as being at least partially responsible for the Benghazi attack. Ivy, no one is denying that the Obama adniristmation seemed to conflate the demonstrations in Cairo and other Middle East cities with the attack on the embassy. There were conflicting reports right from the beginning. Even some Libyans were saying the next day that they had thought the video may have been responsible for the attacks.What conservatives have falsely claimed is that Obama NEVER said anything about terror when talking about the situation, and that is why Romney looked bad last night. He lives in that conservative bubble where he only hears right wing talking points. He was shocked to find out that the president DID indeed talk about terror the next day.Yes, the president and his adniristmation confused the situation by talking about BOTH terror AND the video that caused demonstrations in other cities. Yes, it was not handled perfectly. But Romney tried to turn this into an attack on the president based on a set of information that was NOT true and that’s why he looked bad. It wasn’t Candy Crowley’s fault that Romney was implying something that was untrue. It was Romney’s fault.Personal responsibility!

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