Why Do Leftists Never Learn?

by Your Raving Roving Science Correspondent

Photograph by Kevin Bauman

I’ve long been vexed by this question. How many times must liberals step on a rake before reality intrudes, and they realize that stepping on a rake is not a good idea? The answer must be on the order of Avogadro’s number, because we’re still far from that goal.

Consider the policies and perspectives to which liberals/leftists cling, despite contrary evidence right before their eyes.

We’ve all seen this many times: liberals propose some policy to mitigate a perceived problem, implement the policy, and find that they’ve inadvertently aggravated the original problem manifold. So they propose another policy to fix the now fulminant problem they’ve caused, and the problem gets even worse.

Examples abound. Rent control leaps to mind in this connection. Rent control was initiated (IIRC) in NYC during WWII, i.e., under exigent circumstances. Apparently it exists to this day. Does it work? No, of course not. Rent-controlled apartments tend not to go on the market, but rather to be sublet by the present occupant, who collects some of the payment that rightfully should have gone to the landlord, in effect benefiting from the arbitrage between the controlled rent and the market value rent.

That’s the best case. If rents are artificially set low enough, the landlord cannot afford to maintain his property and so lets it decay. If he’s actually losing money on it, and therefore cannot possibly sell it as a rental property, he may try to “encourage” tenants to leave so he can convert the property to condos. In extremis, he may just insure the building and then have it torched for the insurance money.

So all in all, a policy that historically has not only failed, but failed miserably, and could easily be foreseen to be a failure beforehand. Does that stop leftists from proposing it? Hell no. To this day leftists agitate for rent control, most recently in California (handily turned down by the voters – even California voters aren’t that stupid, apparently, but the legislature passed a rent control measure anyway) and Oregon followed suit.

Why do leftists keep going back to the well? They say they support rent control to deal with the perceived shortage of housing, but then promote a policy that absolutely guarantees a more severe shortage of housing.

Same thing with the “homelessness” problem. First, “homelessness” is a misnomer; the long-term “homeless” are typically mentally ill and/or drug-addled. Their problem is not lack of a home; that’s a consequence of their problem(s), not the source.* Yet leftists persist in the threadbare fiction that the problem is a lack of housing, inviting the conclusion that if the “homeless” were just provided with a home, all would be well. Any honest person with eyes to see knows that that is not true.

And so it is with so many leftist policies. Why do they not learn from experience, from observation?

My considered answer: it’s because they eschew empiricism. They are convinced that their perspective on reality is correct, quite apart from what they see around them. Their ideology trumps their experience.

Which brings me to the scientific method, so much more honored in the breach than the observance.

This is largely because it is not a natural way to think. It takes graduate students years to learn to adopt it reflexively to attack any problem, and some never get it. (The latter group we put in charge of science policy, as far as I can tell.)

Here’s the process. First, observe the phenomenon, in what might be called the “taxonomic phase.” (As Sherlock Holmes famously said, “I cannot make bricks without clay.”) Then generate a conjecture (i.e., a guess) on how the phenomenon works (or what controls it). Firm up the conjecture by predicting from the conjecture what should happen in a given circumstance, i.e., a way of testing the conjecture, thereby advancing the conjecture to the “hypothesis phase.”  Next, conduct the test and evaluate the results: do they comport well with the prediction, or no? In the latter case, the hypothesis needs to be at least modified, if not rejected outright. The former case does not “prove” the hypothesis; that is impossible. It merely shows that the hypothesis is consistent with the observations to hand thus far.

Auto mechanics and electricians, to name two, are generally very good at the scientific method, whereas most college graduates (in any subject) are appallingly bad at it. (Even physicians are often terrible at it.) As indicated, it’s not a natural way to think. In trying to solve a problem most people naturally tend to take pot shots in hopes of hitting the answer, instead of approaching the problem systematically.

The keystone of the scientific method is, of course, empiricism. If your beliefs about something are not borne out by observation, then your beliefs are wrong. Simple, really. And no lifting your failed hypothesis by its sagging shorts, either, by adding ad hoc provisions. If your model says the climate should be getting warmer, but the climate does not cooperate, then your model is wrong. No rescuing it by lamely claiming that the heat must be lurking in the deep ocean, there biding its time, waiting … waiting … (cue theme from “Jaws”). That flunks Ockham’s Razor.

At the next level of abstraction is epistemology, the philosophical field that deals with knowledge. What does it mean to “know” something? How do we come to “know” what we “know?” In epistemological terms, leftists favor a priori knowledge, i.e., knowledge acquired by pure reason (as they see it), whereas the scientific method looks to a posteriori knowledge, i.e., knowledge deriving from empirical observation. In a nautical metaphor, those looking to a posteriori knowledge sail hugging the coast of Reality, keeping in sight, whereas those favoring a priori knowledge strike out across the open sea. Now some of the greatest thinkers in human history – mathematicians, theoretical physicists, philosophers – generated a priori knowledge, e.g., Aristotle, Newton, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Bohr, Dirac, Einstein, Descartes, Voltaire, Kant, and Locke. (On the other hand, Galileo, Kepler, and Faraday, to name three, generated a posteriori knowledge based upon observations.)

I think that this is where leftists go astray. (As did, e.g., Aristotle, whose natural history is now considered largely risible, and Newton, who believed in the occult. Losing sight of the coast of Reality can come with a price, even for those of such superior intellect.) Leftists consider that they have reached their views through pure reason (I’m not laughing), when in fact they’ve merely adopted the views that have been made fashionable (the “community-based reality”).

They place their beliefs and feelings (or as they would characterize it, their pure reason) above their observations, and that makes their intellectual carapace impenetrable. (Graduate students sometimes said to me, “It’s X.” “But your experiment shows it’s not X.” “But … but I know it’s X.” “Do you have reason to believe the experiment is flawed?” “No.” “Then your experimental results say you’re wrong.”) I suspect that this is why leftist policies never work: it’s because they are scratching where it doesn’t itch, and why it is so difficult to get them to recognize objective reality.

Just for fun, try this in a debate with a leftist: “What would it take to get you to reconsider your views?” (Note: not change them, that’s asking too much, but just consider whether they should be reconsidered.) I’ve never received a substantive answer to this question from any leftist. They usually just dismiss the question out of hand.

I’ll play. If someone accurately predicts (predicts; none of this after-the-fact “we would have predicted” crap) the climate (by some mutually agreed measure) over some (mutually agreed) period, in the near future (not 100 years from now, thank you very much; try the next, say, five years), then I’ll reconsider my skepticism regarding the “climate change” models. Until then, no dice.

*Those who do not fall into this category seem to believe that they should be able to live wherever they want, regardless of whether or not they can afford it. For my part, I want to live in Malibu, but don’t – because I can’t afford it.

One comment to “Why Do Leftists Never Learn?”
  1. Great post, Jay, to which I would only add: has anyone ever noticed that this sort of thinking has been paralleled by the rise of women in government, academia, and corporate America? Feelings over facts, and they are actually proud of it. They’re combatting what they call “logocentrism”.

    Of course, that’s only MY feeling. Would have to test empirically to determine for real.

Comments are closed.