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Dealing with Uncertainty

In Critical Voter, I used Daniel – hero of the 1984 movie Karate Kid – as a role model for would-be critical thinkers. In that film, Daniel masters a few key karate moves deeply enough to allow him to defeat a host of ruthless foes. So what critical thinking “moves” have you learned by following this site that might help you navigate days of uncertainty regarding who serves as president for the next four years?

I hope discussions of the gap between human faith in numbers and their uncertainty in the real world helped you get a good night’s sleep on November 3rd when many state vote-counts were still up in the air. Counting things accurately is a time-consuming and potentially mind-numbing process (tote up the number of books on your shelves or words in this post to see what I mean), and machines can only do so much (especially when they are being operated by humans). So the fact that tens of millions of votes were tallied by the time polls closed on election night should be considered remarkable.

Once all votes are finally in and counted, we have to hope that whoever wins does so with a margin of victory larger than the margin of uncertainty I described last time as inherent in any large-scale voting process. We saw in 2000 what kind of chaos results from a vote that falls within the uncertainty range, but we also saw in 2004 and 2016 that even a close race can provide the winner margin enough overwhelm ambiguity over who is President. Given the state of nerves in the country after so much 2020, a little certainty that does not involve lawyers and judges would be a welcome respite.

Before leaving the topic of mathematical fallacies, the big surprise of the night was that the race ended up much tighter than polls suggested, which provides further guidance for what critical thinkers should make of data in which supposedly perfect numbers inherit all the messiness of the real-world things those numbers are supposed to represent. Even with all the effort pollsters put into learning from past mistakes, consensus predictions seem to have failed once again, which should confirm how difficult it can be to make confident claims about tomorrow.

While we cannot fact-check the future, we can make arguments over which options we should pursue and check those arguments for strength and weakness. Arguments about the future are deliberative – the most effective type of arguments – and the process of constructing and evaluating such arguments is called "critical thinking."

For example, every close election in which the popular and Electoral vote diverge has led to arguments to disband the Electoral College. Arguments to get rid of it focus on its archaic nature and how Electoral weighting favors low-population states, thwarting popular will. Arguments in favor of keeping the College locate it within a host of institutions (including the Senate and Supreme Court made of lifetime appointees) deliberately created to avoid rule by a tyrannical majority.

These are arguments worthy of analysis, but there is also an argument to be made that frustration over the nation’s system for selecting presidents is based on politics versus principle. Such an argument cannot be proven definitively one way or the other, but we can set up an experiment that uses scientific reasoning to make a case.

How might such an experiment work? Well if calls by Democrats to disband the College die down if Joe Biden wins election through a successful Electoral strategy, that would provide evidence that the conclusion (debate over the Electoral College is driven by who it benefits politically) is likely true. Better still would be a scenario in which Trump won the popular vote but lost due to not reaching 270 Electors.

While that latter scenario seems unlikely, if it did happen and party positions on Electoral College voting switched entirely, with Democrats favoring the institution and Republicans criticizing its unfairness, that would be strong evidence that debate over how we select presidents is about who wins and who loses, rather than principle.

In both cases, we have an hypothesis (the debate over our election system is primarily political) and evidence that could prove that hypothesis false (the position of one or both parties on the matter based on who wins the presidency), just like a science experiment. Since the reasoning behind this argument is inductive, it would not prove anything conclusively, but it is an example of how we can use critical-thinking principles to make arguments about the future and analyze the strength of the reasoning behind them.

Such an experiment requires specific things to happen, but even as a thought experiment it helps to expose one of the main things critical thinking helps defend us against: biased reasoning. As you read previously, bias is not a character flaw, but rather the result of how the human brain is wired. Given this, we cannot eliminate bias from our lives entirely, but we can control for it by identifying when it might be impacting how we think about a subject, especially one bound up with our identity.

In many ways, our national politics suffers not from a crisis of fake-news, post-truth or tribalism, but rather a crisis of bias, particularly confirmation bias that causes us to accept as true facts and evidence that confirm what we already believe and reject as false facts and evidence that contradict pre-existing beliefs and values.

Our ability to lock ourselves into bubbles in which our beliefs are constantly reinforced is demonstrated by how little we interact with (and thus understand) those who voted differently than we did. Why should the 2020 electoral map come as a surprise if we have never spoken with anyone who doesn’t think and vote the same way we do?

I’ve frequently talked about how our biases can lead us to make choices that sabotage goals that are all-important to us. For instance, even if Trump loses the White House, the Democrats did far worse in this election than expected in Congressional and state-house races. Might their campaign choices have been different if they were not under the impression – confirmed by potentially biased polls and media – that this was about to be a “Blue Wave” election?

Perhaps, and I’ll leave it up to you to come up with arguments for and against this position.


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