Recent studies confirm that when people holding false beliefs are confronted by facts contradicting those beliefs, not only do they fail to reject their false beliefs, but they believe them even more strongly than before.*
Philosophers, political scientists and social psychologists have long noted the irrational aspects of human nature. Nonetheless, one of the cornerstones of classical democratic theory is faith in reason. The focus on reason in democratic thought reflects the Enlightenment view that reason is a kind of light that dispels the darkness of the world; a faculty of the mind that advances knowledge and, despite the shortcomings of human nature, provides a source of optimism for human progress. If reason fails to function, as suggested by the conclusions above, democracy must confront a major challenge.
Democratic thinkers have long held that because people are rational, they can come together and review the facts of any situation. Through public discourse and debate they can discover the proper course of action based on a rational analysis of the facts. The conclusions of this process are then ratified through a vote that reflects the will of the majority. Classical democratic philosophers, most notably John Stuart Mill, argued that truth is discovered through an open airing of opinions and debate. In his famous essay, On Liberty, Mill identified at least four reasons to permit the liberty of thought and discussion. The first of these was that the popular point of view, the received opinion of the day, might in fact be false, and an open hearing from all points of view would be the procedure most likely to discover the truth. Because we are rational creatures, the community would adopt the truth and reject the false point of view.
Some have argued against the fundamental rationality of human beings, especially when they turn to politics. And if we are to believe the contemporary social psychologists who conducted the studies mentioned above, the cornerstone of rationality in our democracy collapses and the voting process institutionalizes irrationality. This is not something in which we should take pride. There are few areas of life where we would endorse irrationality as the best way to solve problems. We certainly don’t want irrationality in the operating room. We fear it if it appears in the cockpit of a passenger jet. And we assume the rationality of others as we drive our cars and trucks on our roads and highways. The business of life requires rational guidance, not domination by irrational impulses or false information.
How can we save democracy from our own irrationality?
There are no easy answers to this question. There are many sources of irrationality in life. Included among these are the influence of social relations, personal worldviews that do not fit the facts, general ignorance, and threats to self-esteem. Attempting to deal with all these at a national level is probably not possible.
I think the best hope for for keeping irrationality to a minimum lies in the restoration of civility in political life. The decline of civility in recent years both in politics and in society at large is obvious and many have written about it. In today’s political environment political messages frequently contain extremist rhetoric and personal insults. Political discussion seems at an impasse. It is a common observation that the volume of a discussion and its rational content vary inversely with each other. Add personal insults to the mix and reason has no chance to determine the outcome. Digging in one’s heels when under attack is normal. The point of view that one is defending becomes identified with one’s very sense of self. This scenario is doomed to failure. We cannot continue like this.
The rules of civility serve to support the more rational and reflective features of our natures. Perhaps a national campaign toward their restoration might be conducted by members of our national leadership. This is an effort worth undertaking. If civility perishes, so too reason. Without reason, democracy is but a facade for blind allegiance to ideology and ignorance.
*See, for example, Nyhan, Brendan, et. al. “Effective Messages in Vaccine Promotion: A Randomized Trial,” Pediatrics, March 3, 2014 (published online), and Nyhan, Brendan and Reifler Jason. “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions,” Political Behavior, June 2010, Vol. 32, Issue 2, pp. 303-330.