Monday, June 18, 2007

Gore's Assault on Reason is wrong

I think the central idea of the book is wrong. I don't think the use of reason has declined in the last few decades.

Things have certainly changed, and I can see why a "just the facts" person feels unfairly marginalized. Mastery of facts doesn't carry much weight.

Facts or Gore's reason have never been dominant in public discourse, except maybe for a "mini-Enlightenment" around the 1960s and 1970s. Dense policy proposals were kind of cool, because of basic respect for wonky, professional problem-solvers. But after major failures, the respect faded. Don't make the mistake of believing that wonky solutions ever carried the day because of reason. It was merely minor celebrity for the Reasoners.

Biases and mental filters have changed, and Gore failed to change with them. He became marginalized but doesn't understand why. He failed to adapt.

Ironically, reasoned study of how to move people has helped others adapt and defeat Gore. Better reason has allowed others to surpass Gore's ability to persuade. Only in the last few years, as he made a big movie, has he begun to catch up. It's not his reason that's attractive, it's his celebrity.

Public discussion has always relied on biases, mental shortcuts, and choices of trusted authorities. The supposed enemies of reason in Gore's book just learned better (using reason) how to become trusted authorities and win votes.

For a while, faith and similar badges of trust became more useful than an advanced degree and an erudite vocabulary. This too shall pass, and in fact its passing feels like a giant kidney stone in America's midsection right now.

What matters is finding ways to connect with people, to build relationships and trust, to get past biases and mental filters. Only then do ideas have power. Is that manipulation? No, it's just defeating the natural and pervasive skepticism that we all have against our own image of who are the purveyors of snake oil remedies.

We're all skeptics, and our biggest difference is what triggers our skepticism and makes us begin to ignore a public speaker. Professing faith turns off PZ Myers and professoring turns off a different set of people. And when turned off, listeners are deeply skeptical of whatever is said. What Gore decries is just the ability to use reason as a badge that inspires trust. People never understood and bought the arguments of Gore's reason, they just liked the people who sounded like Reasoners.


Anonymous said...

If only Gore's failure was as simple and open-and-shut as you argue here. Unfortunately your explanation diverts attention away from a much more insidious cause. (I do not in any way mean to suggest, by the way, that you have it in for Al Gore, or are intentionally misreading your readers, unlike the national press core--read on.)

This history of Gore's treatment by the media in the 2000 campaign, and subsequently, is one of the darkest chapters in the history of American journalism, a history which your analysis unwittingly reflects. Bob Somerby, who does media analysis on his blog The Daily Howler has shown in excruciating detail how the national press chose to present Gore in the 2000 race in a highly negative and unflattering way, using stories about Gore that the reporters knew were untrue at the time they used them, but which they continued to regurgitate until the Supreme Court turned the country over to Bush.

It is terribly important that all of understand how the national press so systematicaly distorted the coverage of the 2000 campaign, and how the press is perfectly capable of treating candidates in the 2008 race in the same fashion.

Mark Powell said...

This is about what I think is a mistake made in Gore's book and elsewhere. Mistakes never help, in elections or otherwise. This is not an analysis of media coverage or the overall causes of an election defeat.

I think Gore and others would do better to stop making this particular mistake. Whether that would be enough to win elections is a separate question which I don't pretend to answer.

waterwords said...

We are in faster communications environment than we used to be, and discourse is as thoughtful as it once was. 'Tis true.

But the people who understand the facts of a particular matter have a tendency to assume that everybody else does, too. And fail to provide sufficient interpretation to help the uninitiated come up to speed.

hugh said...

I think you discount reason a little too completely here. You're right - reason isn't enough to win over a mistrustful public. But it's still absolutely necessary for you to get anywhere. You've got to have reason underlying whatever passion or charisma or empathy you do use to persuade people with.

I think the current administration is a great example of people who are very good at persuading (or manipulating) people but absolutely devoid of any underlying reason. It's a tragedy that they've been good at motivating people and useless at choosing which direction to move in.

Mark Powell said...

I'm responding to people who think reason alone is sufficient. Reference the debates on "Framing Science" and the like, where some scientists decry anything other than "just the facts" as manipulation and spin and regard it as morally wrong.

I agree reason is necessary, along with the other parts of good leadership. Reason has a place, but reason isn't everything.