The Rationalist Party

Miles Pilitus, Agnostic Paladin makes this suggestion:
I have a suggestion for a new political party, the Rationalists. A party that analyzes what has worked in society and doesn't and looks to apply what works. The process of government being decided and carried out by some semblance of the scientific method. The goal of the group would be to try promote America as a solid nation and drive forward the human experience.

Part of the problem I can see is the goal, but that can be argued out. What doesn't need to be worked out is what methods work and what methods don't. Both sides are holding on to ideas to don't work.
Given the irrationality that is dominating our political discourse today, particularly the antiscience attitudes among the religious right, this idea has much appeal to skeptics like myself. Certainly, on the face of it, it would almost have to be better than the administration that is running the nation right now, whose party has turned into what I'd like to call the "Irrationalist Party." I have to disagree, however, that we actually do know what "works" and what "doesn't work." In some cases we do, but in all too many cases we don't. On the other hand, Miles is quite correct that agreeing on the goal is the most important part. That's the biggest problem with his concept, and he seems to recognize that. Even the most "rational" people can have pretty violent disagreements over what direction we should be going.

More of what gives me pause about the concept of a Rationalist Party is my knowledge of what similar approaches to politics and governance represented as rooted in science and rationality have led to in the past. For example, take the eugenicists in the first three decades of the last century. They enthusiastically advocated the compulsory sterilization of those whom they deemed to have genetic derangements, based on what they considered "rational" and even "scientific" reasoning based on "Darwinian" natural selection combined with the emerging understanding of the inheritance of phenotypic traits and genetics. In essence, eugenics and "racial hygiene" were the bastard offspring of social Darwinism, which was in turn a misapplication of Darwin's work. Many politicians were persuaded based on the supposedly "scientific" nature of such laws, such that mandatory sterilization became law in many states. These sorts of seemingly scientific considerations were behind anti-miscegenation laws as well. Also, our understanding of which diseases had genetic components was sorely lacking, leading to the mandatory sterilization under eugenics laws of the deaf, the blind, epileptics, and even homosexuals. In essence, in the U.S. and elsewhere, eugenics led to policies that had the veneer of scientific "objectivity" to support them, but were in reality rooted in prejudice and misunderstandings of what conditions had genetic components and how great those components were.

I'm not saying that that's what Miles was advocating. My intent is merely to cite such examples as a cautionary tale of how easily "rational" or "scientific" approaches to policy can become divorced from morality and a respect for human rights, particularly when our understanding of the science is so incomplete. The other problem with this approach is the very fact that whoever is in power gets to define what is "rational," whether it is, in fact, rational or not. Finally, even the most "rational" among us have biases and beliefs that could interfere with any sort of objective hypothesis testing, particularly when it comes to testing policies, deciding on measures of outcomes to verify that they "work," and actually quantifying those outcomes. That does not mean we shouldn't try to insist on more objective determinations of what policies succeed and fail, merely that doing so would be highly unlikely to decrease the level of disagreement and conflict in our political system.

Although Miles' idea has appeal to me, it is probably too utopian ever to work. Human beings are not, at heart, rational creatures. We have to work at it. Part of the reason that the scientific method came to be accepted is because scientists are human prone to the same tendency to believe what they want to believe and discount what doesn't fit in with what they want to believe. It also probably won't work for the reason Miles states:
But it probably won't work. We don't like logic in this country. We like strength and displays of power and faith.
Indeed we do, sadly, more so than rationality and science, that's for sure. In any case, given that politics is about government providing for people's wants (which are usually not strictly rational), I doubt such an idea will ever catch on enough to challenge the two dominant parties. Besides, we had such a party before that claimed to be based on scientific principles, the Natural Law Party (now the U. S. Peace Government) and it didn't go very far. No, I'm afraid skeptics and rationalists will, for the foreseeable future, work within the two parties we have.


  1. Perhaps I'm misreading something here, but are you suggesting that the NLP was a rationalist party? It was well-known to be a political front for the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's "Transcendental Meditation" movement. The people who claim you can learn to fly by meditating.

  2. What's really telling is that we feel the need to have a new political party based on rationality, because the existing ones are so lacking in it. That's like founding a party based on not lying. Shouldn't all parties be rationalist parties?

  3. Rather than a new political party, I suggest a rationalist caucus should be formed within each party.

    I floated the idea several months ago in both a democratic party forum, and at the JREF Forum. In both cases, the only response was the sound of crickets.

    I think the trouble is that most people are satisfied with the current job and hobbies they have and don't really want to take on the task of forming a caucus, developing an charter which will attract people without offending them, and getting involved in the political arena which is necessary in order to make change.

    I'm planning on entering politics myself in a few years. So I'm spending a good bit of my free time studying Michigan laws and the nature of township government. Added to that is my full-time job as an automotive engineer and two classes a term toward an MBA at U of Michigan. I like the idea of a democratic party rationalist caucus, but I can't start and promote one myself for a couple years yet.

    If anyone else wants to take the idea and run with it, I'll be urging them on.

    There is no reason a republican rationalist caucus can't be formed. But getting to the point of help to decide policy in either party is going to take ten years of work.



    P.S. The verification word is ieqzxn, or iegzxn. The font makes it hard to tell whether it's a 'g' or a 'q'. Something to think about.

  4. The problem with forming a rationalist caucus within a party is that political parties are comprised of individuals looking to advance themselves within the party. The successful individuals use whatever leverage they have and make bargains in order to gain power within the party.

    Unfortunately, there is not much incentive in appealing to rationalism.

  5. There is no chance in hell I was talking about things like Social Darwinism or eugenics. There is such as a moral code, and we have the the base principle in this country, "All men are created equal," meaning each man and woman is given equal right to life and liberty. I was trying to suggest having people try to look past calls to emotion that blind what's happening. Even things like you suggested I think are the product of people hiding an excess of emotion, superiority in this case, with a coating of science.

    And I suppose what I meant in certain respects was that we have some idea of what doesn't work, but we still cling to some of these even though they don't provide any benefit. I know we all have biases and such, but we have to try and look at them and try to work at them.

    It was an extreme call, but at its heart it was a simple idea, that we try and work to overcome their own blinders and try and look at what works and what is right.

  6. I think that it takes way too long to form new parties. I've come to the realization that if we are going to get what we want, we have to take over one of the existing parties, and that's not going to be the republicans. And, ironically, we've got a perfect vacuum forming to start a process like that. I suspect we'll have a whole new crop of younger leaders swept into office in 2006 and 2008.

    I think that a "rationalist" movement would not be complete without an ethical emphasis too (which pretty much corresponds to a Humanist point of view).

  7. While I agree with Tim that both political parties are rife with self-promoting individuals, that doesn't mean that there isn't a chance for rationalists to have a caucus and promote a rationalist agenda.

    In the last Michigan Democratic Convention, the Michigan Democratic Party Veteran Caucus was formed. The goal was not necessarily to elect officials from within the caucus, but instead to be a focal point where a large group of citizens could efficiently communicate their collective concerns to politicians.

    And if you have a large group of citizens, the politicians will listen.

    The caucus elects officals to represent the caucus from it's members, not the public at large. I also think, although I'm less sure about this point, that elected officals can be excluded from being officers or voting members of the caucus. Thus a budding politican could use a caucus to start a career, but could not rely on the caucus through force of his personality but through his actions.

    There would be quite a few things to consider. The biggest barrier to entry would be over religious beliefs. This suggests to me that a statement in the charter of the caucus would have to address this problem. I suggest that such a caucus would have to state that the caucus recognizes that many religous questions are by their very nature not rational and the caucus will make no statement regarding the truth of religous beliefs.

    This clause may offend some atheists, but practically the only way to attract members, and thus political clout, is by being as inclusive as possible.

    I agree that such a caucus would be wise to have an ethics statement in order to avoid arrogance and moral mistakes.

    There must be a better place to discuss this idea rather than on Orac's comment section though. Any suggestions?


  8. I agree, Orac, that the problem with rationality is its tendency to reductio ad absurdum itself. Rationality is a method, not a goal in itself; a "Rationality Party" makes about as much sense as a "Hermenutical Party."

    A while back, there was a "New Liberal Vision" meme running around: I think my response, though you might not agree with the content, is a pretty good model for what a political movement needs: Values rather than constituencies, methods which do not become ideologies, and meaningful metrics of success.

    Tim: The verification word changes every time you log in: that's how it keeps out spammers. Also the visually impaired.

  9. Jonathan,
    That was Flex, not me. :)

  10. A new party - my wildest dream would come true.

    How true the line Orac writes: We don't like logic in this country. We like strength and displays of power and faith. Indeed we do, sadly, more so than rationality and science, that's for sure

    One merely has to go to blogs such as Kos or LGF and read the comment sections to see how crazed, irrational and power mad the left and right have become. On the left (Kos) Bush is the cause of everything wrong in the world ranging from Katrina to oil price increases. He is the leader of a world wide genocide and the one true evil in the world. It's a place where Jews are an evil race (the neocon cabal) of people and terrorist (oops "freedom fighters") suicide bombers have good reasons for blowing up innocent civilians. All the while on the right (LGF) Bush has never been wrong about anything, it's all the MSM's fault and Hillary is the anti-Christ. Where all liberals are loons and anyone that dissents from the party line is a troll and hates America. A place where school prayer and the teaching of creationism would help to eliminate all the evils in society.

    Sign me up for a party that is rational - a group of people that actually thinks through a problem and does what is right rather that what is expedient. Utopian - you betcha but it is a great idea. All we need is a billionaire to sponsor us (anyone in Warren Buffett's will?)

  11. Actually, I didn't write that line; Miles did.

    Miles: I didn't mean to imply that you were for eugenics. I merely meant to point out that "rationalism" can easily be coopted by racism and other -isms and used for evil.

  12. Check out David Faigman's Legal Alchemy which talks about the difficulty the law has with dealing with science. One of the case-studies that he discusses is the reintroduction of the wolf to Yellowstone. Both sides thought they had science on their side.


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