NSA PRISM Program: Look At Your Reaction to PRISM, and You'll See How Objective You Really Are

ByHenry Davis

This and last week, columnists and TV pundits were in an uproar over the NSA-Verizon phone records scandal. Even Fox News has begun criticizing Obama's use of domestic surveillance. Hold on, though — Wasn't Fox News the main public-relations cheerleader for the growth of the national security apparatus under Bush? Didn't they call critics unpatriotic and un-American just a few short years ago for even questioning our now-massive surveillance state? How hypocritical.

Now, pause. How did you react to that last paragraph? If you're liberal and haven't kept up with news about Top Secret America over the past few years, did you nod your head in agreement despite not having an understanding of the arguments or facts underlying my position? If you're conservative, did you immediately write me off as a liberal "Bush-basher," someone who could never be a valid contributor to the world of political opinion? 

Public Policy Is Hard

Constructing and supporting good public policy is hard. Underlying our opinions are chains of cascading arguments that often stem from philosophies and theories that have been debated for decades and, often, centuries. We may emphatically support one side or another, but these debates continue to rage among professors who have spent their entire professional lives studying small subsets of their chosen disciplines. Accepted theories have been proven wrong in the past and even the most well-intentioned, well-supported policies have uncertainty attached to them, since we can only create well-informed, but not perfect, predictions of the effects of a law.

Should Obama stimulate the economy? It depends on whether you follow Keynesianism, Austrian Economics, or another ideology. Have most of the pundits screaming on TV about the issue ever taken a basic macroeconomics class, where they would have been exposed to AS/AD or IS/LM graphs? Probably not. Have they read conservative critiques of these theories, as well as the rebuttals to these critiques? Have they read the modern economics literature on the effect of deficits on growth? Have they studied the history of economic thought? Judging by the glazed-over face of the pundit on TV with the perfect hair whose regurgitated talking points are being broadcast to millions of Americans, my guess is not. But would it matter?

Was the Iraq War warranted? That depends on your foreign-policy philosophy but also depends on the "facts" that you like to cherry-pick as evidence. A liberal might point to the lack of WMDs and the failure of intelligence agencies. A conservative might point to the brutality of the Saddam regime and say that we acted on the best information at the time.

Facts and pseudo-facts are used as weapons in the great American sport of politics.

The Psychology Of Politics

As much as we might see ourselves as independent thinkers, ultimately, we are bound to repeat the musings of politicians and journalists in our everyday debates, whether they are reasoned or not.

Despite the nuances of our debates, most Americans treat politics like the NFL. Choose a party when you're young and then root for that team and its policies regardless of what occurs. It's easy to internalize and repeat packaged talking points from politicians and the media. It's much more difficult to search through primary sources, read and evaluate hundreds of books on topics from multiple viewpoints, and construct a well-informed opinion. For Americans juggling political activism with their job, their love life, their kids, their hobbies, and their mortgage, this is all that most are able to do. 

Here's a secret: Nobody in the world has the ability to form perfectly factual political viewpoints on every single issue based on strict cold calculation and exhaustive research. You'll always be missing a fact or a counter-argument. We can try to learn as much as we can about the issues but — let's face it — nobody has the time or analytical skills to become an expert on the nuances of UN Resolution 242, and the chemical structure of greenhouses gases, and the history of the Middle East, and Ricardian equivalence, and derivative clearinghouse regulation, and carried interest, and labor-union history, and the effect of our patent system on pharmaceutical companies. 

Since having an exhaustive understanding of public policy requires years of study and constant processing of news information, we use heuristics. A common heuristic is to parrot the opinions of someone with whom we have agreed in the past. Another heuristic is to construct an opinion based only on the information that you currently know, rather than actively looking for counterarguments and more information that might change your viewpoint. After a while, these opinions become dogmatic.

Objectivity Is Hard

I've been guilty of these sins and so have you, so I'd be hypocritical to wag my finger. But objectivity is still a standard that we should strive for, even if we fail hopelessly at achieving it. We should always strive to get out of the feedback loop as much as possible and try to see things from an objective viewpoint. If you're liberal, maybe you should spend a week reading the The Wall Street Journal and The Drudge Report, or watching Fox News. If you're conservative, maybe you should spend a week reading the The New York Times and The Huffington Post, or watching MSNBC. Better yet, read history, read philosophy, read books with opposing viewpoints. Read them cover to cover and keep an open mind while also being wary of rhetorical tricks and misleading information. Try to understand why the other person believes what they do, rather than constructing a caricature of their beliefs that helps to solidify your own pre-determined views.

Why? Because the implications of politics and policy are far more wide-reaching than those of a football game. Real issues are at stake and we should try as hard as we can not to treat them merely as debate weapons, conversation topics or opportunities to show how smart we are. How our government deals with recessions, climate change, foreign policy, and financial regulation imposes real impacts on the future of America and the world, in the present and in the future.

Policies can bring life or death. Policies can bring prosperity or ruin. Policies can bring comfort or discomfort. Policies can bring freedom or repression. Policies directly affect your life and your children's lives. Policies can lead to the perpetuation or extinction of the human race. All of this matters far more than our own egos. Our democracy, and our world, cannot function if citizens do not have well-informed opinions. There is no weakness in open-mindedness.

Let's try to make political debates more collaborative than competitive. Let's try to keep journalists accountable by checking facts and understanding their biases. Let's try to learn as much as we can from as many viewpoints as possible. Let's try to listen to what our political opposites have to say when we debate with them. When we think we have the right answer, we should protest, vote, and agitate for what we believe in — but we should always be open to changing our minds if we learn new facts or arguments.

While we should try not to be knee-jerk, we should also not be intimidated by the scope of the world's problems, nor should we refuse to take a firm position on an issue that we don't know every single detail about. We don't have to always be perfectly right about the issues facing our country, and we will always come up short. All we can do is constantly strive to better our understanding, challenge ourselves, and remain open-minded, regardless of whether we are conservative or liberal.

I will leave you with this quote from John Maynard Keynes:

"The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas."