Wayne Greene: Facts fail to convince when it comes to politics
BY WAYNE GREENE World Senior Writer
Sunday, December 09, 2012
12/09/12 at 5:08 PM
Read Bailey’s column: Read Ronald Bailey’s column about research
into how we deal with evidence
when it confirms and contradicts our
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Here's a brainteaser for you.
If a ball and a bat cost $1.10 and the bat costs $1 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?
If you said 10 cents, you might want to think about it a little bit longer.
Some scientists think there may be more than simple algebra to be discovered in your answer.
It helps them understand your attitudes toward public policy issues that rely heavily on evidence, things such as global warming, gun violence, nuclear power and whether fracking causes earthquakes.
It's a question of human nature: Do we listen to evidence and let it guide us to conclusions or do we start with conclusions and accept the evidence that backs us up and reject the rest? Most important, do we come to the conclusions on the basis of evidence at all, or it is the product of preconceptions or group think, and thus embrace "facts" that support our side and reject those that support the other side?
There's another line of thought out there - the so-called Republican brain hypothesis - that holds that your ability to use evidence to come to political conclusions depends on your bent. Conservatives reject evidence unless it confirms what they already are taught by their dogma, liberals vice versa. (Do you hear bias in that whole idea? Remember Stephen Colbert's line, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias.")
All those issues are synopsized in a fascinating column by Ronald Bailey in the Libertarian magazine, Reason. (I looked for Libertarian bias in the article, didn't find it, but I'm open to evidence to the contrary.)
Bailey first walks through some of the prevailing theories about how we come to our political conclusions.
Of course, we all want to think that we come to our own ideas independently on the basis of evidence. So for the purpose of this discussion, it might be best to think about how "the other guy" comes to his politics.
We all know the other guy who makes snap decisions about issues based on simplistic rules of thumb ("All taxes are bad" or "Poverty causes crime").
Then there's the other guy who blindly accepts the thinking of his pals - political parties, the blogosphere, cable television stations - without really thinking about them at all. It's not a question of evidence. It's a question of our side and their side.
I've got to tell you that I found a lot of those other guys out on Facebook during the recent presidential election.
Some scientists at Yale came up with an interesting test.
They gave 1,600 Americans a series of brainteasers similar to the $1.10 ball-and-bat question.
The actual questions weren't released, but they tested the participant's ability to use higher level systematic reasoning. Bailey came up with the baseball question from other sources.
The Yale guys also asked the participants about their party affiliation, how strongly they identified with their party and where they would put themselves on the liberal-conservative spectrum.
I might as well give you the punch line now: We're not very bright, and that's bipartisan. Sixty-four percent of the Republicans and 59 percent of the Democrats missed all three questions they were given.
But it wasn't a test of how smart Americans aren't. The interesting thing comes with what happened next.
The participants were divided into three groups. All three groups were told that the questions would help scientists judge how open-minded they were. So, everyone had the same preconception about the test.
One group was told that people who accept evidence of climate change tend to get more answers correct than those who reject that evidence.
Another group was told that people who reject evidence of climate change tend to get more answers right.
So, two-thirds of the participants were given some evidence that either would confirm or challenge their own thinking, and the third group would act as a control group for comparison's sake.
Then the participants were asked how valid they thought the test was for assessing open-mindedness. Would they reject the evidence or their preconceptions?
If the Republican Brain Hypothesis is accurate, then GOP participants should be much more likely to accept the test when it verifies what they already believed and reject it when it challenges their thinking.
If political decisions are the result of group think and don't rely on evidence at all, then people who scored low on the test on both sides of the spectrum would embrace the validity of the test at a higher rate if that evidence confirmed their way of thinking.
But if we really do make evidence-based judgments, you'd expect the people at the top end of the test to embrace the test's validity.
In fact, when Republicans were told their side did better on a test of open-mindedness, they thought the test was pretty smart.
But Democrats who were told that the other guy is more closed-minded also ate it up.
So much for the Republican Brain Hypothesis.
If the study is right - and you can make your own judgment on its evidence - ideology distorts the ability of people on both sides of the spectrum to deal with evidence.
And the smart kids don't get off easily on this one either.
The better that people - conservative or liberal - did on the test, the more likely they were to judge the test as valid when they had been told they could judge people's open-mindedness.
Or as Bailey put it: "People skilled at systematic reasoning use that capacity to justify their beliefs rather than seek out truth."
So, when it comes to politics, the dumb kids are easy to fool and the smart kids don't know what to do with their brains.
Still want to know how much that ball costs?
It's a nickel.
You can solve it algebraically by saying the cost of the ball = x. The bat costs $1 more, or $1 + x. The combined cost is $1.10. So, x+($1+x)= $1.10. Gather up your terms, and you find that two times the cost of the ball plus $1 equals $1.10 (2x+$1=$1.10). Subtract $1 from both sides of the equation and you'll see that two balls cost 10 cents (2x=$0.10), or one ball costs 5 cents.
Now that you know the truth, you can decide whether you want to play political baseball with the facts or not.
Original Print Headline: Judging from the evidence, bias trumps facts
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