Why is the front page of the NY Times full of Palin’s daughter’s pregnancy and New Orleans near miss, when the second major political convention is about to start and there are extremely important issues facing the United States about health care, clean energy, poverty and others? Just after Jender drew our attention to the way in which we were so easily distracted from issues we think are much more important, I read an explanation of why the distraction was so easy.
Now, of course, that’s just where the philosophical mind is supposed to go, difficult through it may be. That is, we’re supposed to ask, Why? And now there’s an answer from – you guessed it! – the evolutionary psychologists. And we can know without reading any of it what it will say. Here goes. Long, long ago it was much more important to know and understand specific social facts than the general policies governing countries. After all, there weren’t countries with general policies. So we evolved with minds full of modules to issue conclusions about who is trustworthy, healthy and so on. All these important things. And of course they are very important to everyday life.
As many readers of this blog will also know, one of the things philosophers do is to critique claims in other fields. Sometimes without, it has to be said, much training in those fields. It can be the PhD form of “I don’t know anything about X, but I know what I like.” And today might not be the day to go down that route, since there’s a much more important question to be raised. So let’s just note that we are social, after all, social creatures and, despite books like The Selfish Gene, the evidence is mounting that we are social to the depts of our being and the inner swirls in our brains, or at least most of us are. Not all the manifestations of our intense social interests are all that pleasant; many of us like to look at car accidents, for example. But cool indifference to others’ pain is probably worse.
A second thing we know is that the sort of skills required to assess, for example, national health plans do not come automatically to us. Spoken language may have a strong innate component; written language comes on the scene much later and convenient though it is, it doesn’t seem to come automatically. And mathematical skills involve coordinating a number of different kinds of thought and a fair amount of it requires language and boring memorization. There’s little natural about “12×12=144.” This is why we need to school children and also why democracy benefits greatly from a critically trained electorate.
So it is harder to debate the comparative merits of various national health systems than it is to empathized the difficult situation a 17 year old girl must feel herself in with a nation focused on her pregnancy and pending marriage. And click our tongues at McCain for getting his candidacy intertwined with the resulting issues. But the much more important question is: how are we going to get the important issues back in the spotlight? Is the press even going to raise the question of who has plans to pay for his policies? Are we going to know what models are being followed, for example?
We can individually try to put pressure on the press to be responsible and produce an informed electorate. We can work for individual campaigns.
What do you think? Do you have any ideas?