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Obama Atttacks Conservative Anti-Empiricism

Last Saturday, President Obama said this at a fundraiser:

In some ways what is remarkable is how despite this body blow that the country took, the country once again has proven more resilient and more adaptable and more dynamic than I think a lot of folks give us credit for. But it's also to remind you that we've got so much more work to do. People out there are still hurting very badly, and they are still scared.
And so part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now, and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time, is because we're hard-wired not to always think clearly when we're scared. And the country is scared, and they have good reason to be.

Cue up the conservative outrage. National Review editor Rich Lowry:

Is that really what he thinks of us? We’re driven into the arms of his opponents as a matter of sociobiology? Obama can’t bring himself to take the American people on their own terms. He has now explained religiosity, gun ownership, and opposition to his policies (or as he puts it, “facts and science”) all as the products of economic deprivation and fear.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page:

[I]t's telling that the President is blaming the lousy economy that he was elected to fix for his party's electoral predicament. Democrats blamed John Kerry's 2004 defeat on the culture war, and now they're pre-emptively blaming November on the false consciousness of economic worries. They might as well be asking, "What's the matter with America?"

Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson:

Obama clearly believes that his brand of politics represents "facts and science and argument." His opponents, in disturbing contrast, are using the more fearful, primitive portion of their brains. Obama views himself as the neocortical leader -- the defender, not just of the stimulus package and health-care reform but also of cognitive reasoning. His critics rely on their lizard brains -- the location of reptilian ritual and aggression. Some, presumably Democrats, rise above their evolutionary hard-wiring in times of social stress; others, sadly, do not.
Though there is plenty of competition, these are some of the most arrogant words ever uttered by an American president.

I can see why conservatives would be insulted at the suggestion that they don't have facts and science and argument on their side. But, well, they don't. (At least not facts and science.) That was the central theme of my review of Arthur Brooks's book, "The Battle," which is a conservative manifesto and, in part, an argument against empiricism that itself demonstrates total indifference to the facts. I wasn't picking on some marginal figure or even a widely influential blowhard like Rush Limbaugh. I was analyzing the work of the president of the most influential conservative think-tank.

I think the critique of Brooks applies fairly well right now to the conservative movement writ large. This is a movement that rejects the science of climate change, that is wallowing in economic illiteracy, and budgetary fantasy. Now, to say that Obama's policy-making process take science and empiricism seriously is not to say it always reaches the correct conclusion, or even that there is such a thing as a "correct" conclusion, disembodied from ideology. But while empiricism is not sufficient to produce good policy outcomes, it is necessary. And I do think Obama's basic critique of the conservative movement as anti-empiricist is dead on.