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Mellman: Evidence and experts or common sense

Mellman: Evidence and experts or common sense
© Julia Nikhinson/Getty Images

In our hyperpolarized society, the left can’t talk to the right and the right can’t talk to the left.

Liberals and conservatives hold different values, worship different heroes, abhor different villains, respond to different vocabulary, trust different sources of information and tell different stories about the world, and their experience in it.

The gulf is real and dramatic.

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My lefty neighborhood is filled with signs praising Anthony FauciAnthony FauciNevada man present at Capitol insurrection announces gubernatorial bid Overnight Health Care: US surpasses 600K COVID-19 deaths | Federal watchdog to examine NIH grants, likely including Wuhan funding CDC labels highly transmissible delta strain a COVID-19 'variant of concern' MORE and proclaiming Black Lives Matter.

In other areas, people see the good doctor as a fraud and even a criminal while asking why white lives don’t matter.

Liberals and conservatives not only reach different conclusions, they arrive at them in different ways. One of the important distinctions is in who we look to for guidance.

We Democrats love experts. We think if we line up all the expert validators, we’ve won the argument. Whether it’s COVID-19, climate or criminal justice — we are frustrated as can be when expert opinion somehow seems inadequate to the task.

But this is one of the many differences between left and right. Liberals honor expert opinion, while conservatives trust the instincts of ordinary people and denigrate elite opinion.

Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of populism is its embrace of popular sentiment over experts’ views.

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Our former president was a sophisticated practitioner of this dark art. In a 2019 Atlantic article, analyst extraordinaire Ron Brownstein exposed “a far-reaching offensive against expertise—and the career officials who have it—that has unfolded throughout his presidency. Trump has repeatedly denigrated law-enforcement officials at the FBI, moved to evict scientists from the policy-making process, excluded the Central Command general with direct responsibility for the region from his abrupt decision to withdraw American troops from Syria, and even sparred with meteorologists over his mistaken insistence that Hurricane Dorian threatened Alabama in September.”

Professor Donald Kettl of University of Texas told Brownstein, “there hasn’t been a president in memory with such a firm commitment to rooting out expertise.”

But as our Soviet friends used to say, “this is no accident.”

Trump was not simply following his own personal proclivity, he was responding to and reflecting the attitudes of his core supporters.

Psychologists Flavio Azevedo and John Jost have documented the very different attitudes toward expertise expressed by right and left.

Conservatives value faith and feelings over science, while liberals put the premium on science.

In a national survey they conducted, by three-to-one conservatives agreed, “We believe too often in science, and not enough in faith and feelings.” Liberals disagreed by nearly the same margin.

That construction of the question treads perhaps too closely to religious views which, for some, may be more properly exempt from scientific rigor.

But another of their questions pins it nicely. By two-to-one, liberals would rather put their “trust in the opinions of experts and intellectuals,” while by a slightly lesser margin, conservatives repose their trust in “the wisdom of ordinary people.”

Part of the reason for this difference may be different beliefs about whether evidence should affect beliefs in the first place. 

A group of Canadian scholars studying American subjects found that Democrats and Republicans differed in their attitude toward evidence itself. Democrats recognize their beliefs should change based on evidence, while a significant number of Republicans, though certainly not all, took the opposite view, maintaining beliefs should be importantly impervious to evidence.

In short, if you are trying to persuade liberals, bring on the experts and their evidence, though that alone is not necessarily sufficient. But if your targets are conservatives, experts and evidence are not your best validators. Appealing to common sense, common beliefs and common people may prove far more fruitful.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.