March 2, 2016

The Republican Party Can’t Stop Trump

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 5:13 pm

Those who have been reading this blog for a long time are well aware of my stance on most populist movements and my concern over the dual trends of toxic populism and political polarization. Since I’ve been watching populist sentiment for some time, I am therefore not wholly surprised that Donald Trump has become the Republican front-runner.  I have followed the rise of Trump with alarm (and cynical non-surprise, quite honestly), and I believe that a Trump presidency would be utterly disastrous to the nation.

However, there is a selfish part of me that is feeling extremely smug about the Trump phenomenon, I freely admit.  Two years ago I said that if it was “elitist” to believe that people in charge of policymaking should know what they’re talking about and respect the system that works, then I’ll wear the scarlet “E” with pride.  I felt like a voice crying in the wilderness by actively defending a system of governance that was being called “archaic” by social media activists of the right and left, and derided as corrupt both by grassroots activists and popular media such as the Netflix show House of Cards.

I’m not going to pick on entertainment, because it is an artistic expression, but the types of entertainment that are popular at a given moment obviously can reveal the zeitgeist of the culture at that moment.  And it has been clear to me, at least, that we have indeed been in an “anti-establishment” stage for several years, on both sides.  Those aforementioned grassroots activists were (are) angry because they believed themselves to be shut out of the process due to a bias in favor of “special interests” and against “the people,” but in reality they were mostly shut out because they were unwilling to compromise their views to get anything done.  And that goes for both sides, though admittedly more so for the political right.

Finally, some mainstream media outlets are saying what I’ve been crying for years.

The Governing Cancer of Our Time – The New York Times

The Great Money-In-Politics Myth – Vox

There are others, but the point is clear.  Media outlets are finally starting to get it.

Typically, some players have failed to see exactly what is driving Trump’s candidacy (and, to a lesser extent, that of Bernie Sanders, although he is not a dangerous candidate and I consider it unfair for him to be compared to Trump).  The multiculturalist left has decided that the culprit behind Trump is systemic racism of lower-class whites.  The economic left has decided that Trump and Sanders, in different ways, are speaking to voters who have been left behind by globalism and big money.  (The right wing seems to be collectively shaking its head over shots of hard liquor.)  I think these issues may be contributors, but I think the real appeal of Trump actually is his “political outsider” shtick.

Of course, Trump has been involved in politics as a big-money insider for years.  But somehow this man has turned that to his advantage.  “Yes, I know all about how the process works, and it really is corrupt and these people really are evil and bought out by people like me,” is the subtext of his message.  “Everything you believe about it is correct.  And I’m sick of it too, and now I’m going to work on your behalf.”  It’s just like House of Cards’ appeal, I think:  a seeming confirmation of what people want to believe about “the system.”  Except instead of being a piece of popular entertainment, Trump is actually running for the highest office in the land.

For decades, the right wing has pushed a populist message that “insiders” with political experience are somehow inherently corrupt, and that “regular people” are exemplars of homespun virtue and purity.  Indeed, this anti-intellectual message has been extended well past politicians.  This “expert = evil” message has been applied by the hard right to science, academia, and national media, among others.  In my post in which I endorsed Hillary Clinton, I pointed this out.  Do keep in mind that I wrote the following in April of 2015, well before Trump ascended to the top of the GOP polls:

I have come to see the value of expertise in any skilled profession.  Being a “regular Joe outsider” with no experience in policy or governing is not an intrinsic virtue, and we are seeing that play out in Washington and in state governments now, with a crop of new representatives who ran on a “Main Street” populist campaign platform that presented experience as equivalent to “corruption” or “being part of the problem.”  They have strong opinions, but they don’t understand how things get done and don’t care to learn, because they are the virtuous non-politicians (who now hold political office) and they know best.  This is why we have gridlock in Congress and an increase in stupid, blatantly unconstitutional bills introduced in state legislatures.  It’s a destructive, anti-intellectual mindset.  Character and skill (at a profession that isn’t inherently immoral) are completely distinct and unrelated qualities, and people need to start seeing expertise and “insider” status as a good thing again.

Anyone who has been ripped off by a local business or had bad dealings with a neighbor can see the fallacy.  Some people are all right and some are prone to corruption, and it is something that can rear its ugly head in literally any context.  But because many “regular people” simply don’t know any politicians, policymakers, or experts in general, they can readily dehumanize them.

Trump has ascended to be the front-runner for the Republican Party nomination because for thirty years, GOP-aligned media outlets (talk radio, Internet) have cultivated this “folk wisdom” about the purity and goodness of those who disrespect the political process and the inherent evil of those who want to work within it.  He is impervious to the attacks of the Republican establishment because they are coming from the Republican establishment.  Everything an establishment figure says against him affirms his message that “the system” is out to screw the regular guy over.

The Republicans have cultivated this anti-intellectualism for years, and they are powerless to stop it now.  Even if they manage, somehow, to stop Trump himself, it will at this point probably be by the quintessential “crooked insider” shenanigan of denying him the party nomination in a brokered convention.  That would only fuel the firestorm even more.

The Democratic nominee can stop Trump, of course, and quell “Trumpism” for a while.  This is especially true if Trump actually ends up fracturing the race into a three-person contest, which he very well might.  If Trump gets a clean nomination (by earning a majority of delegates), there are quite a few mainstream Republican figures who say that they would vote for Hillary Clinton simply to repudiate Trump.  A resounding vote seemingly in favor of “the system” (and she represents it in spades) and against Trump’s anti-intellectual populism might shut it down for a while.  This is what I hope happens, a new respect given to “the process” after having to face, collectively, what destroying “the process” actually looks like.  But the GOP cultivated this for a long time, and it will take a long time for it to truly cease to be a political force.

June 21, 2014

Alleging a Conflict of Interest Does Not Discredit Research

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 12:02 am

A few days ago I wrote that the new populism was an anti-expert phenomenon that discounted, often even disparaged, the skills of negotiation and compromise in politics.  As it turns out, the new populism is also deeply anti-scientific, given that it appears to have just as little comprehension of the logic involved in the scientific research enterprise.  I’m speaking in particular of the practice of attempting to discredit a study by claiming that the researchers had a financial conflict of interest.  This assertion is thrown around whenever a piece of research comes out with a conclusion that a given side doesn’t like.  And the grassroots on both left and right do it.

On the right, this is prominently shown in the climate change denial crowd.  Even on FOX News, hardly a grassroots-based source, climatology studies that show warming and indicate a very high probability of its being due to human activity are dismissed on the grounds that “those scientists get grant money that’s contingent on them coming to that conclusion.”  The tea party foot soldiers (or keyboard warriors, more typically) repeat this claim ad nauseam.  On the left, this behavior is most commonly found among the anti-big-agriculture crowd.  A study comes out that finds that a dietary bogeyman of the left really isn’t bad?  Well, the study must have been influenced by Big Ag, so therefore it can be dismissed among the faithful without a second thought.

The term “conflict of interest” is thrown at scientists by these people, and they fail to realize (or more probably, simply don’t believe) that even if a researcher was receiving funding from a source that has an interest in the research conclusions, that does not discredit the research.  In fact, you can’t find any scientist anywhere who doesn’t have a “conflict of interest” of some variety.  In most sciences, positive findings (in science, this means finding a real effect instead of failing to do so) are a lot more likely to be published than null findings.  Scientists therefore have a personal interest in seeing positive results.  Scientists can also have a personal conflict of interest that is ideological rather than financial.  There is no such thing as a truly detached, objective human being, and the political populist squawking about “conflicts of interest” in science amounts to little more than the fallacy of argumentum ad hominem.

What matters for assessing the credibility of research are the methodology of the research and whether the study can be replicated.  Does it “look bad” for, say, the corn industry to contribute funding to research indicating that high-fructose corn syrup isn’t harmful in moderation?  Well, yeah, it does.  But “how it looks” means NOTHING in the scientific method.  If there is a problem in the way that the study was done, then call that out.  If there isn’t an obvious problem but the study cannot be replicated by other researchers, then it might be time to question whether the claimed methodology was the actual one.  But in the absence of these other issues with the research, going after the people who paid for the study doesn’t prove a thing about its validity.

As an example, a couple of years ago, a right-wing think tank funded a sociologist to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct a survey into the personal outcomes of adult children who had been raised by various types of families.  The study was, for a little while, used in court cases to support denying marriage to gay couples.  The claim made was that people who grew up in these households had poor life outcomes in the surveyed areas.  Naturally, there was pushback against this study, due to the political nature of its topic.  The type of pushback that ultimately went nowhere (and rightly so) was that which was based on attacking the funding source and asserting “conflict of interest.”  The pushback that was successful was to go after the methodology of the study.  As it turned out, the people that the researcher and his allies were claiming had been “raised by gay couples” were almost entirely from broken homes in which one parent was gay but was originally in a doomed marriage with an opposite-sex person.  The real takeaway from the study was that gay people shouldn’t marry straight people and definitely shouldn’t have kids with them, because—no particular surprise—kids from broken homes tended to have more issues than kids who grew up in happy families.  Making attacks on the source of the funding didn’t discredit the conclusions that were being bandied about; going after the methodology and finding that it did not support the claimed conclusions was what did the trick.  (And, as a footnote, some ideologues among the critics did not at all like that the more scientifically minded critics urged them to knock it off with the irrelevant attacks on the funder and focus on methodological problems.  This is another anecdote in support of my conviction that there is a strongly anti-scientific strain among modern-day grassroots political activists.)

The final problem with ideologues claiming “conflict of interest = discredited study” is this:  It is an implicit allegation that the scientists involved in the work committed research fraud to please their funders.  This is an incredibly serious allegation to make, the gravity of which these ideologues apparently have not a clue.  Deliberate research fraud is a permanent career-ender in science.  The world of scientific peer review is based on an honor system that what the researchers claimed they did is what they actually did.  (Replication of studies bolsters the system, but again, there is a preference for positive original research, so a lot of replication studies don’t get published.  There is awareness of this problem in the scientific community and steps are being taken to address it.)  If a person wants to claim that a scientist committed research fraud, this claim is so serious that the claimant had better have proof of it.  And yet, political activists with a definite conflict of interest (the desire to see certain results so that they are not disturbed in their ideological convictions) toss it around implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) without the slightest regard for what they are saying.

The net result of this ignorant, slanderous, conspiracy-theorist, and scientifically irrelevant line of attack has been an undermining of the trust in certain areas of science, depending on where a person falls on the political spectrum.  In other words, they’ve touched science and managed to poison it too in the public mind.  So yes, between the bad logic and a destructive mode of skepticism that completely undermines the foundation of the scientific method, I think I am entirely justified in saying that there is an anti-scientific current running through the new populism.

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