There’s an old saying to the effect that it isn’t what we don’t know that hurts us, it’s what we know that isn’t so.
Misinformation, in other words, is more damaging than ignorance.
I agree–with a crucial caveat. The adage is only true when we are aware of our ignorance–when we recognize what information or skill we lack. As research continues to demonstrate, however, there’s a high correlation between ignorance of a particular subject-matter and ignorance of our own ignorance. (It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect.)
That’s why lawmakers’ allergy to data and preference for evidence-free policy pronouncements are so maddening.
A while back, I read a column making the point that data is inevitably political. The government collects data in order to inform policy decisions, because in order to address issues, it is essential to understand the facts involved, to have a handle on what we academic types like to call “reality.”
The column that I read (and no longer remember where, or I’d link to it) considered the consequences of the Reagan Administration’s decision to stop collecting data on corporate market share. Without that information, policymakers have no idea how large the largest corporations have become. They lack evidence on the degree to which companies like Amazon, Walmart, et al can dominate a segment of the economy and effectively set the rules for that segment. It’s likely that this lack of data is a significant factor accounting for diminished anti-trust enforcement.
The problem goes well beyond economic data. For a considerable length of time, the United States has been mired in one of the nation’s periodic and damaging anti-intellectual periods, characterized by scorn for expertise and empirical evidence. (Another troubling manifestation of that scorn is the reported evisceration of Congressional staff–the panels of employees with specialized knowledge that advise Congressional committees and individual Representatives on complicated and technical issues.)
Instead of evidence-based policy, we get faith-based lawmaking. Ideology trumps reality. (And yes, I meant that double entendre…)
Last year’s tax “reform” is a perfect example. It was patterned after Sam Brownback’s experiment in Kansas–an experiment that spectacularly crashed and burned. As NPR reported
In 2012, the Republican governor pushed reforms through the state Legislature that dramatically cut income taxes across the board. Brownback boasted the plan would deliver a “shot of adrenaline” to the Kansas economy.
But the opposite happened.
Revenues shrank, and the economy grew more slowly than in neighboring states and the country as a whole. Kansas’ bond rating plummeted, and the state cut funding to education and infrastructure.
You might think that Kansas’ experience would inform a similar effort at the federal level, that it would at least be taken into account even if it wasn’t considered dispositive, but clearly that didn’t happen.
It’s that same dismissive attitude about “facts” and “evidence” and “data”–not to mention science–that is the largest single impediment to serious efforts to slow the rate of climate change.
Some lawmakers who deny climate change ground their beliefs in religious literalism (making them ‘literally” faith-based), but most do so on the basis of the same free-market ideology that led them to dismiss results in Kansas, and oppose even the most reasonable regulations. (There’s a highly convenient aspect to that ideology, since it keeps campaign contributions flowing…but it would be a mistake to think everyone who subscribes to it does so only as a quid pro quo.)
If the country doesn’t emerge from this “Don’t bother me with the facts” era, we’re in for a world of hurt.
And speaking of literalism, the whole world will hurt.