Will belief trump facts?
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.