Christopher Robichaud’s office at Harvard Kennedy School is filled with role-playing board games, at least one giant John F. Kennedy action figure, and hundreds upon hundreds of books. Most are standard philosophy volumes, but several shelves are devoted to his other passion: horror.
Robichaud’s penchant for the dark side also colors the title of the class he’s currently teaching. Ignorance, Lies, Hogwash and Humbug: The Value of Truth and Knowledge in Democracies explores a range of questions in social epistemology, particularly in the political context. What can we know? How can we know it? And why are we so bad about discussing it as a public?
MATT BIEBER: My sense is that you believe that our contemporary political discourse doesn’t place much value on getting at the truth. Is that right?
CHRISTOPHER ROBICHAUD: I think that’s true. I’m open to someone with more of a historical eye informing me that it’s always been bad. But I also think that there’s a certain zeitgeist going on right now of the form: How can we live in an age so rich in information, with so many educated people across the world, and still seem to be susceptible to such embarrassing and deep ignorance? You would have hoped at this point that a civil society would agree on the basic facts and could get about disagreeing about the interesting things – what to do about them. That’s where disagreements are supposed to happen.
But no, we don’t even agree on the basic facts. You look at the climate science debate. [Makes air quotes.] There’s a lot to disagree with about what the way forward is, about how bad it’s going to get and how soon – there’s a lot of things we don’t know. But there’s a lot of things we do know, and those are the things that are still being contested – it’s an embarrassment.
There’s a lot of ignorance about basic economics. And I’m not talking about projections – that’s a very tricky business – but just how the financial world works. It’s stunning to me that when you’ve got a society that needs to be informed, to make decisions that are going to work, not just for its own members but for the global community, both how little we know as a general population and how bad it seems we are at getting at the facts. And a lot of people are a little bit exasperated by this.
In this country, and this is just a confession, a lot of us were just stunned at the Birther debate. Not at first – you always expect some absurdity to arise when you have a presidential candidate whose name is Barack Hussein Obama, who’s black. That’s going terrify a certain portion of the population.
But after a while, I mean…I think that the number of people who became convinced that he wasn’t a US citizen grew after he was elected President. You start to wonder, “What the hell?” I know that’s just one example, and that may be unfair because it seems so fringe (and yet the numbers suggest it’s not as fringe as we would like). But all the same, it just causes you to scratch your head and go, “What’s going on?
I realized how uninformed I was when the financial crash of 2008 happened. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t understand a darn thing about what was going on. I mean, words were floating around that I got – you know, mortgage crisis, this, that, and the other thing. I got the impression that I might not have been able to go to the bank and take out money. That’s scary.
But how did this happen? It turns out that it’s really complicated. And a lot of us, most of us, people who are educated, didn’t have a clue. And that’s frightening.
MB: You described the Birther debate with air quotes. And you’re right – it’s really a misnomer. A debate suggests people who have some desire to get at the truth – whose priority is to actually discover something about the world.
But on Obama’s birth certificate, on climate, and in lots of other areas in our political life, I think we tend to see people speaking out of need or desire, not clear thought. Tribal, partisan interests dominate discourse much more than an honest pursuit of truth.
CR: I completely agree. When you look at Chapter 2 of Mill’s On Liberty, he thought that the marketplace of ideas would get a society to arrive at the truth. Part of the story there was you needed your experience, but you also need the discussion. Discussion for him was crucial.
But not all discussions have as their goal the arrival at the truth. And so much of public conversation does not seem to be devoted to truth-seeking at all.
Now that may be okay. I mean, there shouldn’t be one kind of public conversation. Sometimes, if a tragedy happens, you don’t want the public conversation to be obsessed with, What is the truth? Eventually, that conversation has to happen. But sometimes, you just want to share, you just want to emote, you just want to yell or cry or laugh or whatever. But there better be some conversation that’s directed at getting clear on what’s going on.
And it seems reasonable that we look to our politicians, in part, to have that kind of a conversation. I don’t want that conversation just to be had amongst a sort of elect few bloggers that I can go to. They are having that conversation, great for them. But why aren’t people who are in everyone’s faces all the time having that kind of conversation?
Your point about debate is right. Take the presidential debates – they’re not debates, if by that we mean a careful conversation in which both sides slowly articulate their views and really take care to challenge each other. It’s a series of one to two-minute blurbs with hopefully one or two “gotcha” moments that everyone can talk about and blog about. You don’t go away really informed any more than you were going in. It’s a game; it’s a sport. Then the question is, what do we do about it?
And here’s where I think it gets tricky, because I don’t think we’re going to have [a better] kind of public conversation unless people want it. [So it’s] figuring out how to get people to want it. It’s not easy. It’s exhausting to have long conversations about difficult matters and we don’t all have a lot of time to do that.
But right now, there’s some desire for that but there’s not much will behind it. We don’t see our leaders having that kind of conversation on a regular basis. We don’t see the media—and I use that term carefully because the media covers a lot—but we don’t see the media presenting too many opportunities for them to have that kind of conversation. Around the dinner table, we all know it’s more just a recitation of what we already believe than it is a substantive conversation of what might be the case.
Where is it going to be inculcated? I can fall back on the classic, “Well, if we just taught it in school.” I think it’s probably true up to a point, but then I’m somewhat depressed that we want to solve so many of our societal problems by saying, “If it were just taught in school more.” But I do think that we do need to somehow inculcate the kind of norm amongst all of us to demand this kind of conversation, or else it’s never going to happen.
MB: Why does it depress you that people look to schools as a way to inculcate this value?
CR: It seems so often that we point to a problem and we say, “Well, gosh, if we just did more of this in school” – education as the Band-Aid to solve it all. Look, I’m sure it’s part of the solution; I’m very much hopeful that it is. But I think it has to be even more than that.
It needs to be carried into home life, and it does need to be carried beyond the four walls of the classroom, or else it just becomes “the thing I did in school” to be put away the minute I get out the door. I guess that’s my concern.
MB: The point you made a minute ago – that if we’re going to have more frank, honest political conversations, there has to be a cultural support or cultural desire for it – that strikes me as right. That politicians will never get too far out in front of the public on this, because there isn’t a political incentive to do so.
But I also worry that without more really visible examples of this sort of discourse taking place, the public will never take those frustrations that you described and articulate them in a form that actually forces politicians to move. Chicken and egg.
CR: I agree. It’s become [common] to point to the partisanship that’s going on, but whether there’s a historical precedent for it or not, it’s pretty bad right now. In this kind of environment, we can more or less guarantee that it’s not going to happen. I mean, it’s just not going to happen. There are going to be eloquent speeches, there are going to be stabs, and that’s it.
We’ve all got to take it down a few notches, because one of the things you learn with entering a conversation where you’re sincerely trying to get at the truth is: one, you may not; and two, if you don’t do it carefully, it does degenerate into a shouting match. You just end up holding more firmly to the belief that you started off with, which does no one any good. You’ve got to be willing to give some ground. It can’t be an exercise where your view of it is, whatever your opponent says, you’ve got to have something to say back to make sure that you don’t have to give an inch. That’s not how it goes.
So what are we talking about? What kind of conversations should be had about this?
Imagine we have a Paul Ryan and a Barack Obama next to each other articulating what to do about Social Security, say. They’re going to give us their initial policies. We can read those on our own, but if we put them in dialogue, the hope is that what comes out of that is an articulation of their different values and a defense of those values. Maybe they’ll give a little bit more, maybe they won’t. You’d like them to move forward a little bit. But it’s okay if at the end of this, they’re not holding hands and running off together whistling.
Surely there’s got to be something to be gained from that process, particularly being able to extract the deep core values that are guiding both their thinking about this.
MB: That would be lovely to see. But let me push back a bit: earlier you suggested that we ought to be able to identify the problems without much controversy, and that the hard part should be figuring out what to do about them.
But in the case of Ryan and Obama, I don’t think they agree on what the problem is. It’s not just that Social Security needs to be fixed: they each think of it as broken in very different ways. And as a result, their visions of what would count as “fixing it” are very different as well.
CR: That’s absolutely true. There are going to be policy areas where there’s legitimate disagreement about just what the problem is. I think I had more in mind, though, that surely there are some foundational facts that we can all just agree to. Maybe there are some foundational facts about the solvency of Social Security – [and on that basis] here’s a range of solutions that would solve the problem. Now, let’s make our arguments about which one we think is the better of them.
The current conversations don’t even let that happen, because it’s, “Well, now this wouldn’t really solve the problem” or “It’s not as bad as you say” or “It’s much worse than you say.” And it’s all done to avoid being plain [about] the deeper things motivating people.
MB: A few moments ago, you offered a nice description of what debate could be: a careful, slow articulation of what we believe, and a responsiveness to what others are saying. My sense is that right now, politics is one of the least likely environments for that sort of thing to happen (given politicians’ incentives and so forth). It’s not clear to me that there’s an archetype out there – someone who does what you describe, who listens and speaks thoughtfully and concedes points when they need to be conceded. I’m not sure that person gets elected to office.
CR: That person doesn’t get elected to office. I need to think about this more, but I don’t know if I need the politicians to be the exemplars of this. I just need them to play along a little bit more than they are. It would be great just to have more people around doing it.
And, look, I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no one – obviously there are people doing this, from Bloggingheads to some of the great blog exchanges. But, you know, I think it’s fair to say that there’s not enough because it rarely, if ever, seeps into mainstream conversation. It’s always just one or two steps underneath it. It’s people who already want it. That’s a good first step, but there may be [other] people who could benefit from it – who may not want it, and this sounds bad, but maybe should see it and be exposed to it.
What do we want out of our politicians? Well, we want everything – everything. We want them to be everything all the time. So, on the one hand, we probably do want them to be the sort of thing that I’m talking about, but we also want them to be the kind of person who immediately has the right decision and says it with charisma and conviction and guides us the right way. Those two things rarely go together very well. They can sometimes, but it’s hard, and we are asking a lot of our politicians.
So let me offer just some basic first steps that would make the world a better place. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a debate where you knew that everyone involved agreed to the following: You would sincerely answer the questions asked of you. You wouldn’t pretend. You wouldn’t answer a different question. You wouldn’t throw the question back in someone’s face. You wouldn’t change the conversation to who’s asking the question – you actually just answer the questions. That’s not asking too much.
MB: I would love that world, too. But I wonder – given that each party has its shibboleths and purity tests, it would be easy for politicians to feel like they were being asked questions which not that many people actually cared about, but which had the potential to torpedo their campaigns.
CR: Absolutely. And that’s why the solution can’t just be with them. That’s why there’s got to be a public receptive to that sort of thing that doesn’t punish them for having that kind of conversation, and there’s got to be a media that’s not going to immediately take the first five words out of their mouth and run it as the headline. It’s got to be a community effort. And this is why it’s hard; it’s hard to break out of the cycle.
Because if it’s just one, if you have the most sincere politician, you’re right, her career is not going to last very long, because she’s going to eventually say something that might be sincere and well thought-out but sounds terrible and she’s done. And if we don’t want to hear that conversation, if we’re like, “What did they just say?” then we’re just as bad. So it has to be communal.
MB: You’re working to build that community in your class, I think. At the beginning of the semester, you told your students that they “don’t get to go through” this school without calling into question their own deep assumptions and considering that they might be wrong about the kind of change the world needs.
CR: Yeah, I’ve talked about that. This school – the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (I’m not talking about all of Harvard University) has as its mission to produce future political leaders, people who are going to make public service their passion, their occupation, their vocation. One of the things I love about teaching here is that people will look at me with a straight face, with no sense of irony, and say, “I want to make the world a better place.” That’s rare and wonderful – in most places, people would just sort of smile and say that. It’s really believed here. But there’s a little something dangerous in that, because that “better place” is not obviously agreed upon by everyone.
The way I look at it is that we all have an obligation to examine our own values, our own moral beliefs and convictions, because if we don’t, then these things will guide us and then we might end up hurting a lot of people in our immediate vicinity. But if you’re going to be a leader who’s going to be empowered to pass policies that you think make the world a better place, then there is an opportunity to achieve great things and there’s an opportunity to do terrible things. And so, it seems obvious to me that you now have a much more serious obligation to hold up those values that are making you think it’s this that’s better versus this that’s better, or it’s this moral principle that we should be following, not this moral principle that we should be following.
In other words—and I don’t want this to sound too dark but it might sound a little dark—this should be done to avoid doing terrible things. If it ends up doing great things, awesome, but the minimum is it should keep people from doing terrible things in the name of making the world a better place. We’ve seen this happen in history – people who wanted to make the world a better place and their conception of a better place was ghastly. Now I don’t see that here, of course, but what I do think is that people can’t simply rest assured that their moral values and convictions are right.
You know, you want any profession to have some kind of ethics to it—law and medicine, of course—but here folks are saying, “I want to be empowered to pass policies that affect everyone, in one community or in the international community.” Well, then, learn how to spend some time thinking about just what those values are that are guiding you. That’s my thought.
MB: The school really encourages its students’ desires to make the world a better place. But among the student body, there’s real disagreement as to what counts as better. There are students on opposing sides of the political aisle, for example, who want to do literally opposite things, so it seems like they can’t all be on their way to making the world a better place.
Given the wide range of backgrounds from which students come – including deeply divergent ethical assumptions – should the school try to teach particular ethical values? Or is it only possible to try to expose students to a range of ethical thought and encourage deeper inquiry?
CR: I’m open to lots of things; I haven’t really thought too hard about that. A concern for me isn’t so much the diversity issue; it’s just the time. Folks are here only for a few years, and there’s a lot to learn. I don’t want this to become, “Ethics is important, so it should be the thing that everyone takes all the time.”
Folks do need to learn how to negotiate. They do need to take leadership classes. They do need to focus on the policy areas that they’re going to be occupied with. How do you fit all of that into a couple of years when you’ve got to do a research assignment and find a job as well?
With that reality, I think I would just fight for, at the minimum, what we have, which is some formal training in thinking ethically and hope that that training inspires people to continue the conversation going forward, both here and after graduating.
I don’t know how to put this in the best of ways—but we are at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, so let’s look at John F. Kennedy for a second.
I think John F. Kennedy is the perfect example to hold up in terms of how complicated serious moral thinking is. On the one hand, he said some extraordinarily moving and powerful things in the ethical arena when it came to public policy, and he tried to enact many of them. On the other hand, personally, his life was significantly morally problematic.
I think that we should embrace that or recognize that that’s possible in all of us. Let’s hope not to the one negative extreme, but it should be a humbling moment, and I think ethics should do that as well – to make you realize that we’re very fallible and very divided. And sometimes, our personal lives can be morally flawed and yet we might have a lot to contribute outside of that. And just the opposite – we might be moral saints who really don’t have anything morally compelling to say about the way the world should be.
Kennedy should be held up as an example to look at just how messy this whole thing is. And why do I think that’s important? Because I think the most dangerous idea that someone can embrace is becoming self-righteous, thinking that, “Well, that’s everyone else. But me, I’m morally pure and my policies are morally pure, and thus I don’t have to think about it.”
You may be morally pure, but you have to think about it. And as it turns out, the more we think about it, the more we realize, “Oh, I’m up to my neck in the moral mud just like everyone else.”
MB: I agree that getting clear on what’s going on within ourselves – and what’s going on morally in a given situation – is really tough business. It’s even tougher given some of what behavioral and moral psychology is telling us about how our minds actually work.
I know you’re thinking quite a lot about these areas. How have these fields affected the way you think about public discourse and what would need to change in order for it to improve?
CR: Part of this is a project of us coming to terms with who we are. I think if we are knocked down a few notches and we realize we are susceptible to some serious shortcomings, then that helps us move forward. A lot of work on behavioral psychology points to ways in which the very cognitive mechanisms that have worked so well for us in certain environments – in forming quick and fast beliefs about our environment that will help us not get eaten – ends up leading us into some quicksand when it comes to forming beliefs in other arenas. You read through a book like Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and you go, “Wow! I’m guilty of many of these things!” That’s the point, is that we all are.
Also, there’s no quick fix. Being aware of them sort of helps you, but they come too fast and too strong and too often to really avoid them all. What’s the good news about this? The good news is that if we really are made aware of this, we can start setting up mechanisms to keep each other in check.
And to bring us back to what we were talking about before with the university, the thing I like about a university setting is that you’re not the lone scholar up in the tower with the candle. You are in a community of peers who will, whether you like it not, hold you accountable for what you say, and who will run that experiment that you just ran and see if it holds up, or will look at your argument and go, “You know, this doesn’t work.”
It’s frustrating at times, it’s wonderful at times, but the idea is that we are all in it together and we’re there to check on each other. From this process comes something approaching clarity. We are all are susceptible to a lot of ordinary cognitive error –we find ourselves in arguments with other people, just saying things that we know we have no backing for whatsoever. If we’ve got a community around us that calls us out on that, I think that’s great.
MB: Behavioral psychologists have known about routine cognitive errors and fallacies for decade, but relatively little of this research has filtered into the public consciousness. It seems as if we’re still talking about politics and conducting political arguments as if this stuff didn’t apply or wasn’t true.
CR: I agree. I think it’s improving but it’s been [slow] coming . You hear some of the words show up, like “cognitive dissonance” and that sort of thing. But the ideas behind them, it’s probably going to take another generation. This is often how it happens. The science is done and then there are the pioneers who semi-popularize it and then it becomes something that more people glom on to.
But will it start being taught in high school classes? Will people start listening to debates, aware of these fallacies? I don’t know. I hope so. I think Kahneman’s book is very refreshing. And you know, it isn’t gospel. Like so much else, people can test it. But I do think that behavioral psychologists have their finger on a certain pulse, and I think we would all be better off, knowing that we’re guilty of some of these things.
You know, one very rich and interesting area in moral psychology right now is this concern that so much of our ethical deliberation is based on these immediate judgments about particular cases. And there’s a lot of work to suggest that we should look again at how we’re forming these judgments. Should we be putting as much stock in them as we have? Maybe, maybe not. But the sciences force us to have that conversation and not to just leave unexamined our intuitive judgments about particular cases and go, “This is our data. That’s unimpeachable. We’ll start to build theories around it.” It’s not that clear anymore.