Laugh or Cry?

Our biases make it really hard to see things clearly.

Our biases make it really hard to see things clearly.

Ezra Klein (formerly of The Washington Post) has a new venture (Vox) dedicated to what he calls “explanatory journalism” and which offers consistently progressive “explanations” for various policies by a talented but ideologically pure staff. Klein’s big introductory think piece cites research (already familiar to regular readers here) showing that people understand the world in ways that suit their preexisting beliefs and ideological commitments. Thus in controlled experiments both conservatives and liberals systematically misread the facts in a way that confirms their biases.

Interestingly, if unsurprisingly, while Klein concedes the universality of the problem in theory, all of his examples point out the biased stupidity of his political opponents. Paul Krugman – a terrific economist but an often insufferable progressive shill – sees Klein’s bid and ups the ante, exhibiting classic bias blindness: “the lived experience is that this effect is not, in fact, symmetric between liberals and conservatives.” In other words, his “lived experience” trumps the research evidence (science at work!). In Krugman’s view, conservatives are simply much stupider than liberals because reality skews liberal. He even goes so far as to deny that there are examples where liberals engage in the “overwhelming rejection of something that shouldn’t even be in dispute.” If what is being expressed is perceived to be the unvarnished truth, bias can’t be part of the equation.

Yale’s Dan Kahan, who was Klein’s primary interviewee in the referenced piece and an author of much of the relevant research, found Krugman’s view “amazingly funny,” in part because the research is so clear. Biased reasoning is in fact ideologically symmetrical. Kahan puts it better than I could.

There’s the great line, of course, about how his “lived experience” (see? I told you, he’s doing empirical work!) confirms that motivated cognition “is not, in fact, symmetric between liberals and conservatives.”

But what comes next is an even more subtle — and thus an even more spectacular! – illustration of what it looks like when one’s reason is deformed by tribalism:

“‘Yes, liberals are sometimes subject to bouts of wishful thinking. But can anyone point to a liberal equivalent of conservative denial of climate change, or the ‘unskewing’ mania late in the 2012 campaign, or the frantic efforts to deny that Obamacare is in fact covering a lot of previously uninsured Americans?”

Uh, no, PK. I mean seriously, no.

Kahan hastens to point out that “[t]he test for motivated cognition is not whether someone gets the ‘right’ answer but how someone assesses evidence.” Indeed, “[t]hat Krugman is too thick to see that one can’t infer anything about the quality of partisans’ reasoning from the truth or falsity of their beliefs is … another element of Krugman’s proof that ideological reasoning is symmetric across right and left!” (Kahan’s emphasis). In other words, liberals assess the evidence and come to their conclusions using a process that is no better than that of the allegedly stupid conservatives (more here).

And while they aren’t strictly relevant, there really are numerous instances of liberal “stupidity” about things “that shouldn’t even be in dispute” (if not as well-known as those involving climate change). We can thank progressives for blocking the construction of new nuclear power plants, even though nuclear power is supported by 70% of the scientific community and much safer than other options. With the exception of Alaska, the states with the highest rates of vaccine refusal for kindergarteners are Washington, Vermont and Oregon — three of the most progressive states in the country. Despite broad scientific consensus that genetically modified food poses no greater risks than other types of food, Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to express concern and to argue that they pose “potential serious threats to human health…”. The National Science Foundation published a study showing that an astonishing number of Democrats – significantly more than Republicans – do not know that the earth revolves around the sun and that it takes a year to do so. Belief in the power of astrology has grown from 32 percent in 2006 and 35 percent in 2010 to 45 percent in 2012 and Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to believe in it.

Obviously, as an active partisan, we shouldn’t be surprised at Krugman’s convictions or his bias blindness. Overcoming inherent bias is exceedingly difficult. Moreover, Krugman makes a difficult situation much worse by failing even to consider opposing viewpoints, which is vital if one is to have a hope of beating bias.

Some have asked if there aren’t conservative sites I read regularly. Well, no. I will read anything I’ve been informed about that’s either interesting or revealing; but I don’t know of any economics or politics sites on that side that regularly provide analysis or information I need to take seriously. I know we’re supposed to pretend that both sides always have a point; but the truth is that most of the time they don’t. The parties are not equally irresponsible; Rachel Maddow isn’t Glenn Beck; and a conservative blog, almost by definition, is a blog written by someone who chooses not to notice that asymmetry.

You can’t make stuff like this up. Krugman’s piece definitively disproves the claims he makes therein and an earlier piece gives one pretty good reason why. It’s both hysterically funny and tragically sad. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

3 thoughts on “Laugh or Cry?

  1. Pingback: Ideological Through-and-Through | Above the Market

  2. Pingback: Sheldon Cooper Illustrates Bias Blindness | Above the Market

  3. Pingback: Beating the Bias Trap (Additional Resources) | Above the Market

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