Many people complain these days about the quality of political discourse. Our Congressional representatives are currently talking past each other, trashing the other side, trying to score points only with those who agree with them. There is little effort at persuasion, much less at compromise.
We can learn something about why so much political argument is nasty and fruitless right here at home. On Monday, September 23, two letters making political comments appeared in the Journal-Courier. They are worth a closer look as examples of political writing.
Bruce Richards wrote about a poll I cited in my column of September 3, about how many Louisiana Republicans blamed President Obama rather than President Bush for the “poor response to Hurricane Katrina”, which struck three years before Obama took office. Mr. Richards does not like those facts, because his ideology gets in the way.
He didn’t get much correct. I didn’t write about all the Republican respondents, but only those who identified themselves as “very conservative”. I didn’t say half of them blamed Obama, but that the half of the Republicans who were “very conservative” were twice as likely to blame Obama as Bush (the percentages are 36% to 17%); the other 47% were unsure. The poll-taker, Public Policy Polling, didn’t survey 274 people, but rather 721 Louisiana voters, of whom 274 were Republican primary voters, and of those, 121 described themselves as “very conservative”. I didn’t ridicule anybody, I just reported these results.
Once we get past Mr. Richards’ errors, his main argument is that PPP is a “left-leaning organization”, which proves to him that their results are determined by partisanship and bias. He claims that these numbers are too small to be valid. But Mr. Richards doesn’t know much about scientific polling. All the polls that we read about in the 2012 election were based on relatively small numbers of people.
One way to spot poor argumentation is to see how ideologists like Mr. Richards escalate their criticisms. He begins by voicing “serious doubts” based on his incorrect assumptions, then gets to “highly misleading”, and ends up with “junk science”.
In fact, PPP was one of the most accurate polling organizations in the 2012 elections. There is controversy from left and right about their polling methods, which differ from most polling organizations, but nobody challenges their record of accuracy.
In that same issue, Jim Shelts makes no pretense of being reasonable. Like Mr. Richards, Mr. Shelts doesn’t like the facts, this time about global warming, so they must be wrong. He begins by calling global warming a “fraud”, and compares modern climate scientists to ancient peoples who practiced human sacrifice to cause rain. That the Aztecs did sacrifice people to the rain god Tlaloc is one of the few things that Mr. Shelts gets right in his short letter. Mr. Shelts’ assertion that “the fraud is unraveling” is made up, since the UN climate report that was just released is even more certain than before that human action has caused warming of the climate.
Mr. Shelts says correctly that the earth’s climate has changed before, then concludes incorrectly that those who worry about today’s warming are conning people. The UN report notes that 120,000 years ago, the world’s average sea level was at least 15 feet higher than it is today. True, interesting, and irrelevant. We now have 7 billion people on earth, with a heavy concentration in coastal regions, including in the US. The report projects that average sea level will rise between one and three feet by the end of this century. A two-foot-rise, the average predicted in this report, would put millions of Americans under water: 224,000 in California, 41,000 in South Carolina, 31,000 in North Carolina, 527,000 in Florida, 762,000 in Louisiana, 39,000 in Massachusetts, and 216,000 in New York. Mr. Shelts doesn’t want to know that, so it’s all a fraud. Ideology defeats fact.
The problem here is trust. Political distrust, like that of these recent letter-writers, along with thousands of contributors to the daily din of political commentary, is spread too broadly and too indiscriminately. The New York Times and Rush Limbaugh are both “media”, but one deserves significant trust and the other none at all. Not because of ideology, but because of their record of reliability. The news stories in the New York Times and on FOX News deserve more trust than the political commentary of FOX talk show hosts or New York Times editorial writers. Those different expressions about politics have different purposes and different reliability.
The PPP deserves trust because of its outstanding record, irrespective of its supposed political “lean”. I don’t deserve trust or skepticism because of my affiliation with Illinois College, which has nothing to do with my writing in this paper. I don’t deserve trust because I am an historian or a gardener or wear a beard.
You as reader get to decide how much trust you give what I write. I hope that decision is based on the reliability of my essays, not on knee-jerk reactions to my supposed ideology.
But that’s up to you.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 1, 2013