Thursday, February 19, 2009

Presumptions and evidence

How people frame things—and what presumptions are behind such framings—can generate a lot of heat in public debate because people can look at the same events so differently. Worse, they can fail to see any legitimate reason for people not seeing things the same way they do. Leading, of course, to presumptions of illegitimate reasons.

These tendencies are magnified if use of evidence itself is subject to different framings and presumptions.
Consider two different points of view. One is generally impressed with how well a current society works, sees it as embodying a lot of human achievement and is sceptical about schemes for improvement. Confronted with some critique of some aspect of that society, any evidence cited for such a critique is going to tend to be “read down”. More neutrally, there is going to be a fairly high standard required for the evidence to be accepted and resonate.

There is some nuance here depending on whether the viewpoint is explicitly conservative or is based on some political philosophy that the society in question happens to substantially embody. But the general tendency is clear enough.

Consider a different point of view. This is centred on hoped-for or expected values or aspirations that the society in question—or large sections thereof—do not satisfactorily embody. This a point of view essentially based on permanent critique of the society. Any particular matter that fits in with that permanent or general critique is going to have a presumption in favour of it. Evidence is going to tend to be “read up”. Indeed, relatively slight evidence may be sufficient to resonate.

There is some nuance here depending on whether the viewpoint is based on some fairly structured sets of values or aspirations or it is being critical of the society that is the key thing. But the general tendency is clear enough.

Of course, much of the achievement currently embodied in society rests on past dissatisfactions with how society was and is the result of active efforts to change structures within society motivated by such dissatisfaction. The abolition of slavery, votes for women, the end of Jim Crow, to name a few examples. There is not an “automatic win” to either broad perspective.

Moreover, people will shift patterns depending on the issue: critics and defenders of public broadcasting may well reverse their attitudes to evidence compared to an issue such as past removals of indigenous children.

It also matters how successful the society in question is. The more obviously successful the society, the less evidentiary plausibility in basic critique and the more risk that changes defined against the society will misfire. If one defines virtue against success, one is likely to end up embracing a lot of failure. Indigenous policy in Australia over the last 40 years embodies this tendency—take a group doing markedly less well than the rest of society, destroy the institutions which evolved to connect them to that society (the missions and pastoral work), replace them with structures designed to be as differentiating as possible from the (much more successful) mainstream and then take no responsibility for the resulting social disaster (one much worse than anything arising from removing children), despite the same people being extremely ready to engage in the blame-game in other circumstances.

We can see the same differences in perspectives in the reactions to the Victorian bushfires. Between those who see existing society as embodying human achievement and aspirations, and so is actively worth defending (which still leaves plenty of room for debate about proper policy), and those whose immediate reactions are to see current society as moral blight. Which is, indeed manifesting echoes of previous disputes because it is the same divide coming up again and again.

From issue to issue, we see these different reactions. Including varying (and shifting) evidentiary standards. Even attitudes to examining the evidence are going to differ. Particularly between the defenders and critics. The former are going to be very demanding about evidence. The latter may well even take sceptical concern about evidence cited in the critical case as itself being maleficent: there has been a lot of this in both the stolen generation and global warming debates.

All of which militates against constructive public dialogues. Conflict is built-in before one even gets to any details. Which makes commitment to the importance of truth, and of a certain basic civility in public debate, all the more important. The former because what other arbiter is there: other than brute power? The latter so that the ability to come anywhere near the facts of the matter is not severely damaged or destroyed by ideological passions.

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