Will belief trump facts?

By Chrystia Freeland
September 2, 2011

You might call it the cognitive divide — the split between an evidence-based worldview and one that is rooted in faith or ideology — and it is one of the most important fault lines in the United States today.

President Barack Obama called attention to the cognitive divide, and reminded us which side he comes down on, at the beginning of this week, when he chose the Princeton University economist Alan Krueger to lead his Council of Economic Advisers.

Krueger is a labor economist, and at first blush, that focus may seem the important part of his résumé. Unemployment, after all, is still above 9 percent, and the president has said job creation is his priority. But when you talk to the insiders about Krueger, what they emphasize is his mastery of data and his utter commitment to the truths it can be coaxed to tell.

Lawrence Summers, the former Treasury secretary and a Harvard economist, described Krueger, his former student, as a “total empiricist” and a “great data monger following the data where it went.” Lawrence Katz, a fellow Harvard economist and one of the pre-eminent labor economists, enthusiastically agreed: “Alan has an open mind and lets the data speak.”

Krueger’s passion for data runs so deep that one of his major professional projects has been, as Katz put it, “to actually improve the data.” Krueger was the founding director of Princeton’s Survey Research Center. When he can’t find the data he needs to answer a particular question, he goes out and gets it.

“Alan is almost unique among leading economists in that much of his work is based on additional data he collected,” said Justin Wolfers, a professor at Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Krueger’s devotion to data is a key to understanding a question that has been puzzling a lot of Americans as they reflect on the past three years, and start thinking about how they will vote in the upcoming one: What does Obama really stand for?

To his critics on the right, the president is a socialist with dangerous foreign antecedents. To his critics on the left, he is a waffler with no real point of view and a craven desire to be liked.

Krueger’s nomination points to an entirely different explanation: The president is an empiricist. He wants to do what works, not what conforms to a particular ideology or what pleases a particular constituency. His core belief is a belief in facts.

Obama the empiricist is not the man who surged from behind to win the 2008 presidential election. That candidate was the Obama of soaring rhetoric, who promised hope and change.

But the pragmatist has always been there. Writing in September 2008, several weeks before the presidential election, Cass Sunstein, who has gone on to serve in the White House, had this to say about his candidate: “Above all, Obama’s form of pragmatism is heavily empirical; he wants to know what works.” Word crunchers found that the president’s 2009 inaugural address was the first one to use the term “data” and only the second to mention “statistics.”

That cognitive approach is one reason Obama attracted so much support, especially among younger people, on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley. Obama is a data-driven technocrat, and so are the traders and the Internet entrepreneurs. As one insider, who is equally familiar with Wall Street and with Washington, told me: “You want your money managed by people who are responsive to evidence, who care about results and who understand that the world is an uncertain place. Obama wants to get his economic advice from the same sorts of people.”

But as the presidential campaign begins to heat up, starting with the Republican primary race, the empirical worldview that Obama embodies is taking a beating. The candidates who have made the strongest start are those with a proudly faith-based approach. According to a Quinnipiac University poll released this week, Governor Rick Perry of Texas is the Republican front-runner. He spoke at a Christian religious rally on the eve of entering the primary contest last month and has questioned the science of evolution and climate change.

The Republican Party has its own evidence-based candidates, and they are struggling to respond to the faith-based worldview that Perry so powerfully embodies. One of them, Jon M. Huntsman Jr., is playing up his credentials as the right’s empiricist. He has said he thinks climate change is a fact and warned Republicans against becoming the “anti-science party.”

Mitt Romney, who was the front-runner before Perry blazed onto the scene, has been more ambivalent. Romney’s business background puts him squarely in the camp of the empiricists: it is hard to make millions in private equity without appreciating the power of data. But Romney knows who votes in Republican primaries, and last week he hedged his previously explicit position on climate change.

The divide between the empiricists and the believers is also the fault line between the highly educated, technologically adept super-elite and the squeezed and scared middle class. But those hoi polloi voters, who, in 2012, as they were in 2008, seem to be drawn to politicians with big ideas and strong beliefs, may also be responding to something even bigger than this cognitive divide.

We are today, as we were in 2008, living through an unprecedented crisis. The economies of the Western world are sick, and the international balance of power is shifting. To be driven by data is an admirable thing. But when you find yourself in dangerous and uncharted waters, there is no data to guide you.



We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

I was struck recently by the parallel between the story of Noah and the Great Flood to our present deniers of the planet’s water (in which our Eastern and Gulf coasts are presently wallowing, with yet another tropical storm steering an apparent direct course for the Hatteras Light). Those who say it’s all “just a theory” or even “a fraud perpetrated by liberal scientists” might shut up for a bit and have a little conversation with the Almighty similar to the one in Bill Cosby’s comedy bit:

“How long can you tread water?”


Posted by Art_In_Seattle | Report as abusive

chrispa, there are less than 30,000 genes or alleles in the human genome. It is estimated better than 90% of the genetic material in each and every cell is unused( mitochondrial dna). All of the mitochondrial dna is unused. Why do you think that is.

For those of you who view evolution as a theory you are living in the “Victorian Age”. Simply charting the new strains of virus’ and other microbes that have emerged since the time of Pasteur bears this out.

Ie., measles in canines evolved in to distemper which in turn evolved into parvo virus. Until advanced electron microscopes were developed an explanation for the origins of distemper and parvo were unclear. We now know that these virus, are all related. They are mutations ostensibly from vaccination campaigns. However some of these virus produced a mutation that allowed them to proliferate despite our best efforts to render them extinct. If one were to call these observations the hand of god or satan at work, then the religious are merely engaging in an argument of semantics at best with the empiricists.

Posted by coyotle | Report as abusive

Will belief trump facts?

There is no need to ask this question. It can be replaced by the statement:

In America, ideology and religious dogma HAS REPLACED facts and rational thinking in all conduct of politics, policy, economics and social behavior. The American Idiot has trumped critical thinking.

It all started, slowly beginning in the 1990′s, but accelerated to dominate much of society by the 2000′s. Thus began the astounding policy errors, unfettered recklessness, upheavals and decline of the U.S.A.

Today, there is little sign of a let up of fictional or utopian thinking, especially as the economy goes sour and people gets more desperate. Even the Texas governor prays for rain as a normal conduct of executive function.

The whole ‘holy’ mess the county now experience is just a matter of dogmatic beliefs hitting the wall of facts.

Posted by TomKi | Report as abusive

One man’s data is another man’s religion.

How can you trust data that is so often manipulated with the intent to disguise important points? And upon which trillions of dollars of wealth held by the most powerful individuals and institutions on this planet? If you are rational, you cannot.

Unfortunately, neither politics nor economics is a simple dichotomy. And all the players on the stage work for the same, hidden side.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

@ GSH10

Actually 1 + 1 = 2 is not a fact, its truth. Mathematics are not factual, math is only a model we use to explain the Universe. (thats why you cant use Euclidian Geometry to accurately describe the orbit of Mercury around the Sun or the Moon around the Earth).
Whats 1 + .99999 continuing? its 2.

You’re right about Evolution though, its a theory, just like the theory of Gravity. When a scientist uses the word theory she means something quite different than when a creationist says it.

Posted by vintintin | Report as abusive

Thank you Chrystia Freeland for another insightful and provocative editorial. One thing missing here is any discussion on confidence. This is where empiricists and faith-ers intersect. It is also the element that makes economics more an art than a science.

As at least one poster pointed out, both camps have the same data but come to different conclusions. But no matter what your policy of choice is, improving consumer sentiment is paramount. Obama seems poised to respond to that need. He has postponed expensive EPA regulations and is working with the chamber of commerce to stimulate hiring. With stimulus money having run out with little effect and tax and interest rates at historical lows, removing government barriers is the next logical step.

The Tea Party’s demand for fiscal restraint while not raising taxes on the wealthy would be disastrous. This is truly a faith based initiative that is not founded on any empirical data. Not only would it put downward pressure on consumption and employment as most economists would tell you, but it would sour the mood of those who rely on the Government to do what it has traditionally done: educate, protect, and invest in our infrastructure.

So oddly, the failure of empiricists has been that they have relied too heavily on the macroeconomic data alone. And while the faith based policy advocates have not interpreted the data well, the empiricists have not been able to improve the mood of the people they are supposed to serve. Hopefully for the country, that is about to change.

Posted by LEEDAP | Report as abusive

Oh please… don’t tell me you are so stupid as to believe that someone looking only at the data will only come up with the truth…

Statistics have always been the favorite weapon of someone trying to manipulate the public. If I wanted to scare people from flying I would say that walking a tight rope is safer than flying in an airplane… The statement is true and can be supported by the numbers but so what? I could also say its safer to fly than to drive in a car… Also true…

Being a master at manipulating data is probably the worst choice you could make right now…. I’m sure if someone wanted to they could find numbers to make you think government spending was good, higher taxes were great and executing white people would be the best thing ever… The truth is we’ve seen people before that were master at manipulating data – fortunately after WWII they were put on trial and hanged… do we really need another Joseph Goebbels or Leni Riefenstahl?

Posted by Yirmin | Report as abusive

This is the same argument that was used in the old t estimate, where the Israeli boy interpreted the dreams of the Pharaoh…..He used old flood records to give his revelation….Was it from God or just man using what God gave him to work with…Namely, his brain….It seems today, we think of God as a mythical figure who has super powers we do not possess, when the truth is we do have it…it is our brain.

Posted by tudognight | Report as abusive

The US feels like it is a divided country. The president passed an unprecidented healthcare law that feels fairly European. Then we have a mid-term election that puts a fresh new wave of ultra-conseratives in office.

I realize the country has had larger divisive issues in the past, slavery being the most significant. However, I keep picturing a joke map I saw of the US after the 2000 elections. It depicted the east and west coast as part of Canada, while the middle section of the US was renamed “Jesusland”.

The US generally tends toward divided government, and with Democrats and particularly Republicans becoming more ideologically extreme, it would seem that we are doomed to worse and worse gridlock in Washington. It took a world war to bail us out of the economic crisis of the 1930′s. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that this time.

Posted by mcoleman | Report as abusive

If you’re too lazy to fathom, you can always take the easy way out and believe. The subsequent problem is that debates with the religious rarely satisfy, which is made clear by looking at the influence of tea party believers on the political discussion: it becomes a shouting match without middle ground.

Posted by Lambick | Report as abusive

Speaking of just the facts, sad that Christia Freeland is actually so ignorant of them. In closing her essay she says, “The divide between the empiricists and the believers is also the fault line between the highly educated, technologically adept super-elite and the squeezed and scared middle class.” So she suggests that higher education is assiciated with an empirical world view. Well this may be true as far as wester Academia and politics goes, but on the broader scale, it fails to be true. Top sociologist of religion, Rodeny Stark, (who is known for his use of hard data) has demonstrated that statistically religious faith based participation goes up as education increases. In fact he has shown statistically that women who are raised in a faith tradition attain both higher education and higher job success. Check your hard data Chrystia. See “What Americans Really Believe” by Rodney Stark (Baylor University Press).

Posted by TMurphy | Report as abusive

“The divide between the empiricists and the believers is also the fault line between the highly educated, technologically adept super-elite and the squeezed and scared middle class.”

I’m trying to get my head around that statement. I’m a scared, squeezed middle class citizen – definitely not super-elite, fairly technologically adept, holding a Bachelor’s degree and am not religious at all. Oh, and I’m a working-full-time part-owner in a small “green” business in an historically red-voting state. Where do I fall in the author’s statement?

I agree with the author, but think the divide is far more simple than she’s brave enough to write: It’s between the open-minded and the over-religious Christians.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

The fault seems to be with those who refuse to accept the empirical data on which the Christian faith is based. If the historical or proto-historical events depicted in the Bible have no historicity, the Christian faith is meaningless. Therefore, while I agree with the author that the president’s empirical approach is appropriate, sweeping other data aside undermines the force of her argument.

Posted by timinvator | Report as abusive

Science is ONLY as good as all the factors it takes into consideration. Science is constantly changing and going back on itself. Data has been manipulated for personal gain in self interests forever. How do you put your faith in that? On the flipside for us that have tried and succeeded in just making a relationship with God, we have seen our lives transformed in ways we had no hand in. I say try science out and try actually building a relationship with God and see for yourself.. Or just sit in your computer chair and continue to judge… Whatever works for ya.

Posted by Staplehawk | Report as abusive

It appears that Christia Freeland “believes” her data. I use the word carefully, because belief is a human characteristic that cannot be denied. People who don’t have religious beliefs have beliefs in something – maybe “data”, maybe “the good of mankind”, whatever. But this doesn’t mean the “belief” is right (or wrong). Only the outcome of that belief validates it. I don’t see the outcomes of the past three years validating anything. For those who think it was the 2008 elections that are holding the economy back, what about the Obama/Democratic super majority for two years? They had plenty of time to turn the economy around. They applied their beliefs (big government, big spending, social programs, regardless of cost), and only accomplished getting the country further in debt.

Posted by stevedebi | Report as abusive

Amen. And most economists are in the “faith” category. The notion that we can borrow our way to prosperity is laughable, but that is precisely what we hear from Paul Krugman, Larry Summers and Nouriel Roubini. My New York Italian wife looked at me over dinner and asked: How can we have stimulus when we’ve got no money?” How indeed.

Posted by rcwhalen | Report as abusive

Unbelievable to me that in this day in age an author would say something so ignorant. To name one approach “cognitive” and “empirical” and say the “other” view is based on faith or religion is so ignorant. Seriously? People of faith, whatever their faith, are unable to have an empirical worldview? Are you soooooo blind that you think it has to be one or the other? Are you really that foolish?

Come on, people, wake up. Don’t be one of those stupid people who stands on one side of an imaginary aisle and drinks the kool-aid. How offensive and shallow do you have to be to say “But as the presidential campaign begins to heat up, starting with the Republican primary race, the empirical worldview that Obama embodies is taking a beating?”

Right, way to go! It’s either Republican or it’s empirical. That’s right… all republicans believe in a zero-evidence-all-faith view of the world. Wow…you’re AMAZINGLY blind. And all democrats and the President have a reason-based view of the world. How can you be so ignorant?

Posted by ReasonableFaith | Report as abusive

What a great article! Well written, informative and balanced. Is this why more and more Americans are turning away from faith-based solutions….even though they are only a small, victimized minority?

Posted by dbarrs | Report as abusive

I think that looking only at data or past data can lead you to only look at the wrong way you went, because you may never get back to place where you started to go wrong. Looking at data means, like running a car into the ditch, that you know what the ditch looks like, how much water is there, and how deep it is. Getting out of the ditch requires vision, thought, searching for resources, and first of all, admitting that you were amiss in running into the ditch. You can’t get out of a ditch by blaming other drivers, the road, the car, or the government who built the road. Sometimes you also have to admit you need help and that you alone cannot likely take credit for the towtruck that pulls you out.

Posted by fred5407 | Report as abusive

What everyone here, including the author is either denying or totally missing is there are those of us who know that religion and science CAN and DO mesh, and BOTH are based on fact. It’s not an either/or situation. You CAN be a “empiricist” AND a “believer” at the same time. There are many of us out here. (She also disregards the fact that not it’s just the “elite,” but many of the “middle class” actually are “highly educated” and “technically adept” and by denying this she is insulting an entire “class” of people.)

To say that the problem with the world today is that religion has replaced facts is beyond ridiculous. Religion has been around since the beginning, and it’s actually more likely that the problems we are facing are actaully a result of our turning AWAY from that religion, because many in this day have taken on the EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF attitude, which goes totally against the fundamentals of most religions.

My grandparents came to “the new world” from an oppressed land, excited at the prospect of WORKING HARD to create new lives for themselves. They learned that by taking RESPONSIBILITY FOR THEMSELVES and WORKING HARD they could reach whatever heights they wanted to. This mentality has been replaced in the past few decades by one where people expect their government to take care of them and plan their every move from birth to death. THIS is what is creating the problems, not religion or denying facts.

Another FACT is that everything Obama has “tried” not only goes against common sense, but it also all plays into condoning a government ruled society. Our nation “worked” and prospered and was stronger when we DIDN’T have so much government oppression. This is a proven FACT.
Wouldn’t it be a bit more intelligent, instead of basing things on predictions and manipulating numbers, to try to make a president look good and be accepted (Bill Clinton anyone?) to instead return to the ideology of something that has been PROVEN to work?

I know where I’ll place my bets, and it won’t be with Obama and his “highly educated” number manipulators.

Posted by boardwalkcat | Report as abusive

Drawing a distinction between the President Obama of 2008 as any different then the ‘empiricist’ of today is way more provocative then need be.

Obama using a rhetoric of belief, as was done in 2008, can surely be aligned with a strategy based on empiricism: at the time, the American people, especially the GenerationY proponents, needed to be spoken to in a way that appealed to beliefs and emotions. Not to assume anything disingenuous, but certainly strategic.

Posted by MissKendraV | Report as abusive

The term “ideology” serves to obscure whether someone’s principles of politics or economics are well supported by history (and theory) and simply involves indicting principles one doesn’t consider sound. For President Obama the right ideology, then, is John Maynard Keynes’ idea that creating artificial, government driven demand for work projects is a sound approach to public policy. For his critics the right ideology is that such infusion of phony money is far worse a “cure” than the disease it aims to remedy.
So both ides are ideologically driven and Obama’s are ideological principles no less than are the principles of those who find his views unsound. So what then does it add to call them “ideological”?

There was a time, a century or so ago, when many intellectuals (e.g., Marx) used “ideology” to impugn the honesty of someone’s ideas, implying with the use of that term that the ideas were mere rationalizations, invented, consciously or subconsciously, so as to give them the appearance of seriousness. Just as a rationalization is a corrupted reason, so ideology is corrupted philosophy, or so it was widely believed.

But this view about ideology was founded on a very complicated and highly dubious philosophy, worked out by the likes of Hegel and Marx, so it soon fell into disrepute. After a while “ideology” came to mean, instead, “simplified philosophy” and lost its critical bite apart from that. Since most of us lack the time and patience to always lay out our full case for the positions we hold, nearly all of us are mainly ideologically driven. Our principles, too, are ideological ones, be they those of Barack Obama or Ronald Reagan, since those in public office simply have no time and opportunity to develop the foundations of their thinking. Some choose to buttress this with claims to being pragmatic or flexible, as if these didn’t involve elaborate theoretical foundations in order to given them solid footing.

So it looks like “ideology” is a term of derision that has lost its conceptual foundations and now is used merely to express one’s plain dislike of certain ideas. They are ideological principles if one doesn’t approve of them but genuine–empirically supported–principles if one does. Maybe calling attention to this fact will in time stop the pointless use of the term.

Posted by tibikem | Report as abusive