with-stupidNoah Smith (@Noahpinion on Twitter) made an interesting assertion yesterday about the purpose of argument. Smith began by noting Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff’s op-ed in Forbes in which he acts as a concern troll toward New York Times columnist (and noted economist himself) Paul Krugman because Krugman allegedly called Congressman Paul Ryan stupid. To be clear, Krugman’s primary point was not that Ryan is stupid, but that he is crooked, especially as it pertains to his budget proposals. Smith uses this context for looking at arguments in general, and he makes an excellent point.

[A]s a society, we use arguments the wrong way. We tend to treat arguments like debate competitions — two people argue in front of a crowd, and whoever wins gets the love and adoration of the crowd, and whoever loses goes home defeated and shamed. I guess that’s better than seeing arguments as threats of physical violence, but I still prefer the idea of arguing as a way to learn, to bounce ideas off of other people. Proving you’re smart is a pointless endeavor (unless you’re looking for a job), and is an example of what Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset.” As the band Sparks once sang, “Everybody’s stupid — that’s for sure” [even though nobody wants to be called stupid]. What matters is going in the right direction — becoming less stupid, little by little.

But I think Smith’s ideal isn’t all that practical. To begin with, as Megan McArdle emphasizes, by calling one who disagrees with you stupid (even implicitly) “you have guaranteed that no one who disagrees with you will hear a word that you are saying.” Thus “calling people stupid is simply a performance for the fellow travelers in your audience” as well as a means of asserting superiority.

My sense is that the key element to this discussion is that most partisans see “their side” as not just true, but obviously true. It’s a by-product of bias blindness, or selective perception.  We tend to see bias in others but not in ourselves. Therefore, our strongly held positions aren’t really debatable — they’re objectively and obviously true. After all, if we didn’t think our positions were true, we wouldn’t hold them. And (our thinking goes) since they are objectively true, anyone who makes the effort to try should be able to ascertain that truth. Our opponents are thus without excuse. 

If they disagree with me, they are denying reality.

Accordingly, few partisans accept that their opponents are generally people of goodwill who simply disagree. They are deemed as necessarily being engaged in denialism.  Thus during the last election, to hear the Republican zealots tell it, President Obama was intentionally trying to ruin the country. Similarly, Democratic ideologues insisted that Governor Romney’s primary goals were to start another war and cut taxes for the rich so as to stick it to the middle class and the poor. And today Krugman thinks Ryan is a con man. Because the assumption — steeped in bias blindness — is that the “other side” is not generally acting in good faith, the necessary conclusion is that they must be stupid, delusional or dishonest to take the positions they do.

Sometimes it’s true that the “other side” (whatever side one chooses) is what I’ll call irrational with intent. But I doubt that it’s the usual case. We should never underestimate the power of confirmation bias and bias blindness. Interestingly, we have a recent example involving none other than Krugman himself.

Ezra Klein (formerly of The Washington Post) began a new venture earlier this year (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 cited 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 and that people with more knowledge and training are more susceptible to this flaw and better at rationalizing it.

Interestingly, if unsurprisingly, while Klein conceded the universality of the problem in theory, all of his examples pointed out the biased stupidity of his political opponents. Krugman saw Klein’s bid and upped the ante, exhibiting classic bias blindness in a piece quite astonishingly entitled, Asymmetric Stupidity, in which he claimed that “the lived experience is that this effect is not, in fact, symmetric between liberals and conservatives.” In other words, his “lived experience” trumped the emperical research evidence (science at work!). In Krugman’s view, conservatives are simply much stupider than liberals because reality skews liberal. He even went 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 Vox piece and an author of much of the relevant research, found Krugman’s view “amazingly funny,” in part because the research is so clear. The title of Kahan’s response was perfect: “Finally: decisive, knock-down, irrefutable proof of the ideological symmetry of motivated reasoning.” Kahan explains it far 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 and contributing to climate change, even though nuclear power is supported by 70% of the scientific community and much safer than other options. 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. As Smith so carefully noted, “Everybody’s stupid – that’s for sure.”

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 has made 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.

If we are to have any hope of seeing leaders with different viewpoints working together to solve problems, it ought to start with the idea that those who disagree are generally people of goodwill acting in good faith. Accordingly, we ought to treat them as such unless and until there is definitive evidence to the contrary. In other words, they may be wrong, but they aren’t necessarily (or even likely to be) stupid, delusional or evil. Not me, not Noah Smith, not Paul Ryan and not even Paul Krugman. Recognition of the reality and the power of our behavioral biases would provide at least a start toward making some progress in that direction.


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