Arguing With People Who Simply Do Not Care About Evidence

by Neil H. Buchanan

In a Dorf on Law post earlier this month, I noted an odd commonality between two very different policy issues.  In the oral argument regarding the Texas abortion case, specifically referring to the admitting privileges requirement in the challenged statute, Justice Breyer asked: "What is the benefit to the woman of a procedure that is going to cure a problem of which there is not one single instance in the nation?"  Not one single instance.  I then noted that Republicans repeatedly argue that family farms and businesses are frequently sold off and broken up in order to pay the estate tax, even though there is not one single instance in which that has been shown to have happened.

After writing that post, I started to think about other examples of this phenomenon, and about variations on this kind of fantasy-driven argumentation.  The concept of being "reality-based" became a meme among liberals after a political appointee in the George W. Bush administration brazenly brushed off people who care about evidence by saying: "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."  This accompanied his claim that "the reality-based community" is made up of people who foolishly "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality."  Where are we now, more than a decade into post-reality politics?

Some Republican positions follow the pattern described above, with empirical claims of a widespread problem being based on no actual examples, or at most on only a trivial handful of cases.  Most recently, the "toilet bills" that have been proposed in various states (one of which became law in North Carolina this month) are based on supposed dangers to women who must share public restrooms with people who were not born female.  As an editorial in The New York Times pointed out, however, "[s]upporters of the measures have been unable to point to a single case that justifies the need to legislate where people should be allowed to use the toilet."  Not a single case.

And then there is in-person voter fraud, the threat of which Republicans use to justify efforts to disenfranchise voters who are likely to vote for Democrats.  As one writer noted: "Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas says 'voter fraud is rampant.' It isn’t."  In fact, study after study has shown that of millions of votes cast nationwide in election after election, the number of verifiable cases of voter fraud is vanishingly small.  Has that taken the wind out of the efforts to make voting more difficult for targeted populations?  Of course not.

Then there are factual claims that are about something that supposedly happened that did not happen.  The recent attacks by Republicans in Washington and in the states on Planned Parenthood were motivated by a series of obviously doctored videos purporting to show the sale of "baby body parts" for profit.  Not only were the videos faked, but multiple investigations have shown that there is simply no evidence of anything happening that resembles the accusations.

It is heartening that Carly Fiorina's presidential campaign was unsuccessful, but she nevertheless felt comfortable repeating the general accusation about profiteering along with a completed fabricated story about what was in the doctored videos.  She not only refuses to believe that the videos were faked, but she insists on sticking to her story that she saw things in those faked videos that even the fraudsters did not claim.

Fiorina had a role model.  Sarah Palin's doomed vice presidential campaign in 2008 included daily claims that she had said "Thanks, but no thanks" to money from Congress for the Bridge to Nowhere, when she in fact accepted that money as Governor of Alaska.  (PolitiFact generously referred to that whopper as "half true," because Palin did finally kill the bridge, but only after it was impossible to save it.)

These lies have consequences.  The community group ACORN no longer exists because of similarly faked videos, with Republicans ignoring abundant evidence of a political hit job (and Democrats shamefully running for cover).  It looks like Planned Parenthood will survive, but Republicans nationwide -- including not-at-all-moderate Ohio Governor John Kasich -- have gleefully cut the organization's funding.

And then there are the false claims that have been studied to death, with Republicans simply ignoring the results even of their own investigations.  The "IRS non-scandal scandal" was originally based on an inspector general's report that made clear that there was no political aspect to the scandal, but Republicans insisted that the White House had used the tax agency to harass its political enemies.  Millions of dollars in Congressional investigations later, there was still no evidence to support Republicans' accusations.   Yet we are now approaching the third anniversary of the non-scandal, with no sign that Republicans are giving up the ghost.

The same pattern has been repeated with the Benghazi investigations.

In the category of broad assertions for which there is no statistical evidence, we also have the claims that the Affordable Care Act is failing, and that it is killing jobs.  This is not the same as the claims about voter fraud or the estate tax, but it fits the broader pattern of Republicans' making testable assertions and then not being able to support any of those assertions while failing to rebut the evidence that is actually available.

A reader of one of my recent posts also helpfully pointed out that there are still people in conservative think-tanks who are trying to debunk the empirical evidence that increasing the minimum wage does not (within the range of available evidence) lead to job losses.  These dead-enders are actually still going after two economists whose work on the issue became famous in the 1990's, as if discrediting that one study at this late date would change reality.  (And the study has not been discredited, in any case.)

Lest we forget, overwhelming numbers of Republicans are also still perfectly happy to deny climate change or man's role in it, despite mounting evidence.  And then there is evolution.  Yikes.

The standard answer to this is that Democrats and liberals are also guilty of shading evidence to their advantage.  Honestly, however, where is the Democratic equivalent of the Planned Parenthood craziness?  When evidence does not back me up, I adjust my views.  If a video on which I based a conclusion turned out to be fake, I would be embarrassed.  Maybe the difference is that the current Republican Party has lost the ability to feel embarrassment.  There once were honorable, evidence-based people who were in important positions in that party.  I disagreed with them, but I could respect them.  They are long gone.