Evidence Blindness, Science, Politics, and the Free Market/Business Model

The other day in a science publication I came across a wonderful term — evidence blindness. Evidence blindness occurs when someone turns a blind eye to evidence contrary to his or her personal convictions, dismissing such evidence on whatever grounds possible, sometimes logical, sometimes anything but logical.

The writer, whose name I can’t recall at the moment, made the observation that science works despite the evidence blindness of scientists themselves because theories, discoveries, and claims are subjected to scrutiny by a large and wide body of scientists. While this is a messy process that doesn’t always work as well as it might, in general it does weed out bad science over time, and progress does occur. But that progress only occurs because of two factors: (1) the claims have to be able to be empirically tested and (2) nothing is allowed to remain “sacred” once disproven.

Today, as I’ve intimated in earlier blogs, although I didn’t use the term “evidence blindness,” our society is setting itself up for collapse because our institutions are actually moving away from the logic of the science model and are fostering a growing epidemic of evidence blindness.

We have politicians who claim that we can pay for all the social programs for the elderly and the uninsured and the impoverished children just by slightly raising taxes on the wealthy. Whether or not this is ethically or politically wise is one question, but no one is pointing out that that, practically speaking, it’s impossible. The top ten percent of the taxpayers in income terms already pay close to 70% of all federal income taxes. Even if one could confiscate all the wealth of all the U.S. billionaires, the combined total wouldn’t run the government for even a year. Add in all the millionaires, and there might be funds for another year… and we’d be a socialist nation, with not much incentive to strive. This isn’t, as they say, rocket science. The numbers are out there. But the numbers aren’t there for those who wish to believe otherwise. They’re evidence blind.

On the other side, the free market/business model types are forever extolling the virtues of so-called free competition and business practices, and trying to extend them everywhere. We deregulated the telephone industry [and I will note for the record, in the interests of full disclosure, that years ago I was part of a team that looked into and published a study on the likely impact of long-distance deregulation]. Deregulation effectively created two main outcomes: long-distance costs went down, and every other telecommunications cost went up. Ma Bell got broken apart, and now AT&T has been taken over by one of the regional Baby Bells, and we have regional monopolies in land lines, as opposed to a national monopoly, and an oligopoly in cell phone service, not to mention an associated dotcom bubble that burst, with an incredible amount of fraud, loss of jobs, and dislocation. Our free-market in healthcare results in some of the most advanced medical techniques and drugs — and the highest rate of medically uninsured citizens of any major industrialized nation. Such”free-market” gyrations do indeed result in a “more efficient” allocation of resources, the economists assure us, but they also produce human and economic costs that are anything but insignificant, and yet the champions of the “free market” appear evidence blind to such costs.

Transportation is yet another intriguing area. The United States built a nation that initially was tied together with canals, followed in turn by the railroads, then with the interstate highway system, and then with the airplane. Yet all of these transportation systems that support our “free market” were subsidized heavily by government. George Will, the commentator, who actually once was a transportation analyst for a U.S. Senate committee, observed that without state, local, and federal subsidies no airline company ever in the United States would ever have made a profit. The federal government operates and maintains the air traffic control system and the federal safely regulatory structures. Local governments build and operate the airports, and the landing fees paid by aircraft come nowhere near paying for those services. Railroads were once heavily subsidized, but now that there are only minimal passenger service subsidies, in all but a few areas and routes, passenger trains are vanishing. What we subsidize most heavily is the automobile, and that creates excessive demand that overwhelms what we’re willing to pay in taxes for highways and roads. But do most people see that? No… they’re evidence blind. They may talk about it, but they buy larger vehicles and oppose higher taxes.

We do provide a vast array of government subsidies and services to businesses of all types and classes, and yet the cry from the business community is always to “get government off our backs.” They’re evidence blind to the benefits they receive, and all most of them see is the taxes they must pay.

They also talk about the need for a business model in government and education. Everything needs to be priced in terms of what it brings in. If music education or physics classes cost too much, increase tuition or fees or cut the programs. If fares don’t cover the costs of mass transportation, don’t increase subsidies, but raise the fares or cut services. Yet when politicians point out that business needs to pay for the pollution or environmental degradation that it creates, that’s imposing unnecessary costs on business.

We all receive services from governments, but so often the services that don’t provide tangible cash returns are the ones that we slight — particularly law enforcement and teachers. More and more often I see business leaders complaining that the schools don’t provide the training that they need in workers… but the vast majority of these same “leaders” aren’t out there championing the need for more resources for better education. Oh… they want efficiency, and that translates into spending less. Yet study after study has shown that three factors are paramount in successful education: smaller class size, teacher subject matter expertise, and classroom discipline. For various reasons, almost everyone seems evidence blind to these key factors. They just focus on efficiency and management, yet the size and cost of school administration, and the number and amount of tests required have ballooned out of control. Teacher education programs focus more and more on techniques of teaching and less and less on subject matter expertise. And heaven forbid that anyone suggest that any student isn’t wonderful or that there are rules and requirements and expectations awaiting him or her out in society.

Why has all this occurred? One significant reason is because honest debate has vanished. If you don’t like what someone says, you don’t have to confront it or examine it. Just flee to whichever and whatever specialized media niche or religious belief structure that comforts and reassures you. Avoid paying attention to all the unpleasant truths and concentrate on those few that are important to you.

After all, you’re free to believe what you want… unlike those poor scientists, who actually have to test and prove their beliefs.