Research indicates researchers don't understand democracy

Perhaps you've seen this article that reports on psychological research led by David Dunning of Cornell

incompetent people are inherently unable to judge the competence of other people, or the quality of those people's ideas. For example, if people lack expertise on tax reform, it is very difficult for them to identify the candidates who are actual experts. They simply lack the mental tools needed to make meaningful judgments.

As a result, no amount of information or facts about political candidates can override the inherent inability of many voters to accurately evaluate them. On top of that, "very smart ideas are going to be hard for people to adopt, because most people don’t have the sophistication to recognize how good an idea is."

Stupid is as stupid does, eh? The basic finding of this research is that people tend to overestimate their own competency on a variety of cognitive tasks. As such, they don't recognize what they don't understand and make judgments based on that inability. I imagine this is probably the case. In fact, I've often figured that close elections might be determined by people who pull the wrong lever or confuse the two candidates and so on. Given the common experience in my undergrad classes of students identifying counter-arguments in a text as the author's position, the idea that democracy is a nonrational process is hardly surprising.

What I find surprising is the researchers implied premise that democracy would require this rational, evaluative capacity in order to flourish. I suppose one might suggest that the Founding Fathers Enlightenment philosophy would be grounded on the notion that humans were fundamentally rational beings and that thus the premise of modern democracy is that citizens can exercise a rational capacity that they do not have. On the other hand, the Constitution clearly reflects the framers fear of demagouges and mob rule in the separation of church and state, the checks and balances of the three branches of government, the electoral college, etc. In reading this article, the presumption seems to be that democracy relies upon the ability of voters to select strong leaders. However, it strikes me that the structure of our government is designed to undermine leadership, to make it difficult if not impossible to accomplish anything. The incompetence of the voters, such as it is, is not a bug in democracy; it's a feature. 

Let's set aside the framers' putative assumptions about democracy and consider instead a more Latourian object-oriented democracy hinged on a distributed cognitive network. The average American would likely struggle with many so-called rational-evaluative tasks without the assistance of mediating objects: doing their taxes, buying airline tickets, plotting a route to an unfamiliar destination, etc. Since at least the 2000 election, we are all painfully aware of the mediating role of voting machines. JFK and Reagan are both testaments to the power of being telegenic. And as Brian Massumi investigated in Parables of the Virtual the power of the "great communicator" (i.e. Reagan) could not be explained in rational terms. We can draw two important conclusions from these matters that help us recognize the impossibility of rationality as a ground for democracy. First, good rational decisions would depend upon access to adequate information. E.g., seeking shelter for the night in a cave seems like a perfectly rational decision if you don't know that there's a bear in there. Today, adequate information about candidates requires interfacing with media objects, which are not simply mute translators of other reality in which they are not participants but are rather active participants in composing the reality of which they are a part and integral components in our distributed cognitive processes. Second, we should certainly understand by now that these processes are not strictly rational, but draw upon a range of embodied responses. 

From me though, this connects back to my previous post regardling Meillassoux and Latour. Caught between dogmatism and fideism, we offer no basis for decision-making except for belief. Competency doesn't come into play in voting, except to the extent that I need to competently select the person whose beliefs are closest to mine. Admittedly that can be tricky because politicians regularly misrepresent themselves and their opponents. However, even if one could be compentent at this task, the result would still be largley pointless. Dunning uses the example of climate change (which is fortuitous for me as this is right up Latour's alley). We deny climate change by revealing that science is not what we imagine it to be. Philosophy (and cultural studies) play right into this by insisting on the correlationist inaccessibliity to the real. We turn the scientific discourse on climate change into a matter of belief. The fact that scientific evidence on climate change is constructed through experimentation suggests that the evidence might have been "constructed" otherwise. Just as objects play a role in the lab in constructing evidence for climate change, they play a role in the mediated, public/political discourse on the matter. Both science and democracy are object-oriented. In fact, they participate in the same mileu rather than being distinctly separate modern realms.

I'm not sure why people deny climate change. Many reasons probably. Is it psychological? Because it is an "inconvenient truth" and we are "in denial"? Is this belief an ideological force perpetrated by wealthy people who benefit from oil and the status quo? Is it because climate change situates humans in relation to the world in a way that is incompatible with religious beliefs? Is it an antipathy toward science (or scientists) and what the acceptence of science would imply about our own competency and/or agency? Or is it something else? Of course we could ask similar questions about why people believe in climate change. The problem we have isn't that people believe one way or the other but rather that this is a matter of belief, and we require a different kind of discourse.



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