Sunday, November 11, 2007

Re: The Problem with Democracy in America

Through a chain of links I recently found an article entitled "The Problem with Democracy in America" on the political blog Scholars and Rouges. On first readthrough, I agreed with this article, but after critical examination I found it sloppy and unsupported. This will take a while to relate to skepticism, but stick with me.

The author, who goes by the nom de blog Bonesparkle, offers this thesis (with italics and bolding preserved from the original): "The problem with democracy in America is that too many people are allowed to participate."

To elaborate more on the argument presented:

1. Society is more complex now than it used to be, and most people will never understand it.

As my friend Walter Lippman noted as far back as the 1920s, ours is a complex society, and it’s almost impossible for the average citizen to know enough about most issues to actually cultivate an informed opinion. Society is unimaginably more complex now, 85 years on, and if anything citizens - excuse me, consumers - are even less capable of understanding the issues that shape their lives than they were then.

What makes the author think society today is more complex and difficult to understand than at any time in the past? Oh, maybe because we have cutting-edge research with ethical implications. That’s never happened before. Never before have scientific discoveries challenged the beliefs and morals of the public at large or the established rulers. Never ever. And the fact that a war is going on because of a misinterpretation (or misrepresentation) of prewar events also has never taken place in all of human history. Obviously Bonesparkle doesn’t remember The Maine.

2.The opinions of "smart" people are better than the opinions of "stupid" people.
2.a. Only smart people should be allowed to run the country.
2.b. In America they do not run the country.
Brilliant people are a minority in any nation, and the excellence of any endeavor requires the participation of that elite group. In America they are despised and mocked, and under no circumstances are they elected to high office.
A goodly number of Americans aren’t intelligent enough to be safely entrusted with the vote.
In fact, the author offers a second post in order to clarify this point, replete with citations to poll numbers.

While I’m sure we would all like to think having a PhD makes one more informed and intelligent across the board, I’d like to see some evidence that it’s so. As counterexamples, I offer Michael Behe, intelligent design advocate, and Linus Pauling, Nobel laureate in chemistry and peace, also advocate of megadosing vitamin c (see Quackwatch article). While I may accept a well-formed argument that the voting public should be better informed, the premise that intelligence makes one more suited to vote or to represent the public is flawed.

What evidence does the author present that America does not have intelligent representatives? Sure, we all have heard plenty of Bushisms and know about Senator Ted "Series of Tubes" Stevens. But there are smart, science-savvy representatives out there; for instance, minority whip and Illinois Senator Dick Durban (born, by the way, on the East side).

3. Conclusion: …

Since Bonesparkle doesn’t present much of a conclusion, I’ll try to take mine clear. We as skeptics may be ready to jump on the bandwagon that the uninformed public is the source of a lot of problems. I know I’m ready to do that. But I feel the things I am most apt to do without thinking are the things I should think about the most critically. Luckily, I did that with this article. On first reading I agreed with the author and felt that an uninformed public is a problem in a democracy. After writing out the argument and examining the logic, however, I found it lacking. The premises had nothing to do with the thesis, i.e. the thesis is that "too many people are allowed to participate," but the claims made are about intelligence and ability to understand. Not to mention that the given claims are not supported by the evidence presented.

Always check the evidence. Follow links. Look at sources. And don’t let your confirmation bias overwhelm your critical thinking.

UPDATE: Fixed bad link.


Ben said...

I don't quite understand his argument since most people in the United States do not vote anyway. Is the percentage of those who do show up comprised mostly of "stupid people"? If so, why are the smart people not voting?

Dim said...
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Dimitris said...

Define "smart"

Ben said...

In this case, smart would mean the people who are qualified to vote as defined by the author of the original article.

Ben said...
This comment has been removed by the author.