Energion Roundtable Week 9 Informed Voters

Posted By Elgin Hushbeck

This week’s Energion Roundtable question with Bob Cornwall, Arthur Sido, Allan R. Bevere, Joel Watts, and myself is:

An informed electorate is important in sustaining a democracy. We’ve just completed a presidential and vice-presidential debate, and will see two more presidential debates. I’ve just read some factchecking from the vice-presidential debate which suggested that accuracy was a bit scarce. What specific recommendations would you make to individual voters as to how they can become informed voters? Feel free to list and/or link to resources.

This is a particularly difficult question to answer because, for the vast majority of informed voters, the debates are irrelevant.  This is because informed voters tend to vote based on issues. They follow events and have developed political philosophies that, like all philosophies, help them make sense of the chaos that is the world. 

Issue voters made their decisions long ago, and in a very real sense the debates are irrelevant, because for them the candidate is just the vehicle through which the policies they support will be advanced, and the policies they opposed will be blocked.  While their candidate may lose a debate, it is hardly likely that an issue voter will switch to the opposing side, though it can discourage them enough so that they don’t bother to vote.

Thus the debates are important for the very population for whom fact checking is least important. They are not picking a candidate on the issues, so what they say about the issues is not all that important.  This is especially true given the current structure of the debates, which focus on gaffs and one-liners, rather than actual serious discussion and debate. 

This is what made the two debates so far, with Obama’s passivity and Biden’s antics, arguably the two worst debate performances in history of modern Presidential debates. It was not the substance, or lack thereof, nor the fact checking, but the performance itself; it is not what they said, it is what they did.

The other aspect that makes this so difficult to answer is that the question of truth is not an easy question in and of itself. While I definitely believe in absolute truth, I do not believe in our ability to always discern it, nor is it always black and white.  Thus each claim to be fact checked has to be taken on a case by case, charge by charge, basis that hardly lends itself to a short post.

Frankly, I believe that some slack must be cut to both sides. No one can speak for 45 minutes in such a setting on a range of specific issues where the questions are unknown, and they are not allowed any notes, but must speak from memory,  and not make some errors.

As for specific recommendations, here are several in no particular order.

* Start with the premise that both sides are just as _________ where the blank is any number of positive adjectives, such as just as smart; just as good; just as concerned, etc..  Individuals may fail in some respects but if this is not your starting point, you have biased any conclusion your reach. 

* Listen/Read to both sides.  This is easy for those on the right, for the views of the left dominate the culture and cannot be avoided.  Views on the right are largely confined to Fox News, talk radio, and a small number of newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal, and thus must be sought.  For example, conservative talk show host Dennis Prager gave a talk at Stanford in 2003 on The Pathology of Anti-Americanism and Anti-Zionism. The school newspaper paper cited students saying that they had not heard such views at Stanford.  Thus it is no wonder that a study by Jonathan Haidt found that “conservatives understand liberals much better than liberals understand conservatives.”  

Despite the claims of the left, not all of talk radio is hosts yelling at callers. Some recommendations in this area for serious thoughtful talk would be Dennis Prager and Hugh Hewitt, both of whom have a range of guests from both the left and the right. 

* Avoid what Thomas Sowell calls Stage One Thinking.  Many politicians think in term of problems and solutions, that is stage one thinking.  Going beyond this takes into consideration the effects of any proposed solutions with such questions as:  Will it actually work? 

* In exchanges/debates pay more attention to the responses than the initial answers.  Most politicians can lay out their positions; the real test is how they respond to the challenges by others.

* Note the difference between rejecting and attempting to refute.  Do they just say that their opponent is wrong or do they give specific reasons and evidence to back up rejection?

* Along these lines, look for examples. Without a specific example, often it is not actually clear what a politician is talking about.

* Note who is seeking to persuade, and who is attempting to intimidate or silence opposition.

* Look for fallacies. Those who can use reason and evidence normally use it.  Those who can’t, resort to fallacies, the biggest is ad hominem attack, i.e., attacking the person.   Note, however, that there is a difference between attacking a person’s position and record, which is perfectly legitimate, and attacking them as a person.

While this will not make fact checking irrelevant, as what appears to be a substantive reply falls apart if it is based on false information, it will go a long ways towards helping decide who really has the better arguments. 

In the end we get the politicians we deserve.  If we demand from politician reasoned arguments, we will get them.  There is a general derision of mudslinging but politicians use it in their campaigns because it works.  Ultimately the problem is not with the politicians, but with the voters who vote them in.

Oct 16th, 2012

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