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Politics makes us dumb

A new paper by Dan Kahan, Ellen Peters, Erica Cantrell Dawson and Paul Slovic offers an ingenious test of an interesting hypothesis. The authors set out to test two questions: a) Are people’s abilities to interpret data impaired when the data concerns a politically polarizing issue? And b) Are more numerate people more or less susceptible to this problem?

Chris Mooney offers an excellent description of the study here. His entire post is worth reading but here is the gist:

At the outset, 1,111 study participants were asked about their political views and also asked a series of questions designed to gauge their “numeracy,” that is, their mathematical reasoning ability. Participants were then asked to solve a fairly difficult problem that involved interpreting the results of a (fake) scientific study. But here was the trick: While the fake study data that they were supposed to assess remained the same, sometimes the study was described as measuring the effectiveness of a “new cream for treating skin rashes.” But in other cases, the study was described as involving the effectiveness of “a law banning private citizens from carrying concealed handguns in public.”

The result? Survey respondents performed wildly differently on what was in essence the same basic problem, simply depending upon whether they had been told that it involved guns or whether they had been told that it involved a new skin cream. What’s more, it turns out that highly numerate liberals and conservatives were even more – not less — susceptible to letting politics skew their reasoning than were those with less mathematical ability.

Over at Salon, Marty Kaplan offers his interpretation of the results:

I hate what this implies – not only about gun control, but also about other contentious issues, like climate change.  I’m not completely ready to give up on the idea that disputes over facts can be resolved by evidence, but you have to admit that things aren’t looking so good for a reason.  I keep hoping that one more photo of an iceberg the size of Manhattan calving off of Greenland, one more stretch of record-breaking heat and drought and fires, one more graph of how atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen in the past century, will do the trick.  But what these studies of how our minds work suggest is that the political judgments we’ve already made are impervious to facts that contradict us.

Maybe climate change denial isn’t the right term; it implies a psychological disorder.  Denial is business-as-usual for our brains.  More and better facts don’t turn low-information voters into well-equipped citizens.  It just makes them more committed to their misperceptions.  In the entire history of the universe, no Fox News viewers ever changed their minds because some new data upended their thinking.  When there’s a conflict between partisan beliefs and plain evidence, it’s the beliefs that win.  The power of emotion over reason isn’t a bug in our human operating systems, it’s a feature.

I suspect that if Mr. Kaplan followed his train of thinking a little bit further he’d come to really hate what this implies. Mr. Kaplan’s biggest concern seems to be that the study shows just how hard it is to convince stupid Republicans that climate change is real. The deeper and more important conclusion to draw, however, is that the study shows just how hard it is for humans to solve problems through collective political action.

Myth of the rational voterTo understand why, it’s helpful to turn to another Caplan—Bryan Caplan of George Mason’s economics department. In The Myth of the Rational Voter that Caplan offers a convincing and fascinating explanation for why otherwise rational people might make less than reasonable decisions when they step into a voting booth or answer a political opinion survey. Building on insights from previous public choice thinkers such as Anthony Downs and Geoffrey Brennan and Loren Lomasky, Caplan makes the case that people are systematically disposed to cling to irrational beliefs when—as is the case in voting–they pay almost no price for these beliefs.

Contrast this the way people behave in a marketplace where they (tend) to pay for irrational beliefs. For example, as Brennan and Lomasky put it (p. 48), “The bigot who refuses to serve blacks in his shop foregoes the profit he might have made from their custom; the anti-Semite who will not work with Jews is constrained in his choice of jobs and may well have to knock back one she would otherwise have accepted.” In contrast, “To express such antipathy at the ballot box involves neither threat of retaliation nor any significant personal cost.”

This helps explain why baby-faced candidates often lose to mature-looking (but not necessarily acting!) candidates, or why voters consistently favor trade protectionism in spite of centuries of scientific data demonstrating its inefficiency.

Given that humans are less likely to exhibit such irrationality in their private affairs, this entire body or research constitutes a powerful case for limiting the number of human activities that are organized by the political process, and maximizing the number of activities organized through private, voluntary interaction.

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Update: Somehow, I missed Bryan’s excellent take on the study (and what the Enlightenment was really about) here.