AN American writer and former editor of The American Scholar, Joseph Epstein says he has never lost a political argument; but, he adds, neither has he won one.
Tim Harford, in his latest book, “Data Detective,” mentioned a study published in 2006 by two political scientists, Charles Taber and Milton Lodge, who wanted to examine the way Americans reasoned about two very controversial political issues: gun control and affirmative action.
“Taber and Lodge asked their experimental participants to read a number of arguments on either side and to evaluate the strength and weakness of each argument. One might hope that being asked to review these pros and cons would give people more of a shared appreciation of opposing viewpoints; instead, the new information pulled people further apart. This was because people mined the information they were given for ways to support their existing beliefs. When invited to search for more information, people would seek out data that backed their preconceived ideas. When invited to assess the strength of an opposing argument, they would spend considerable time thinking up ways to shoot it down.”
Harford says Taber and Lodge’s experiment indicates that “expertise made matters worse. More sophisticated participants in the experiment found more material to back up their preconceptions. More surprisingly, they found less material that contradicted them — as though they were using their expertise actively to avoid uncomfortable information. They produced more arguments in favor of their own views, and picked up more flaws in the other side’s arguments. They were vastly better equipped to reach the conclusion they had wanted to reach all along.” (My italics.)
In other words, “giving people more information seems actively to polarize them…. People are straining to reach the conclusion that fits with their…beliefs and values — and…the more they know, the more ammunition they have to reach the conclusion they hope to reach.”
According to Harford, “presenting people with a detailed and balanced account of both sides of the argument may actually push people away from the center rather than pull them in. If we already have strong opinions, then we’ll seize upon welcome evidence, but we’ll find opposing data or arguments irritating. This biased assimilation of new evidence means that the more we know, the more partisan we’re able to be on a fraught issue.”
And this is why a lot of political debates can be compared to a ping-pong match that never ends.
We all say we want the truth, but as Harford points out, countless studies have shown that “some people will go to extraordinary lengths to reject ideas that are uncomfortable and unwelcome, even if those ideas could save their lives. Wishful thinking can be astonishingly powerful.”
But, we say, “What I have are political principles! You’re the one who’s politically biased! You’re the fringe conspiracy theorist!”
Based on research and studies, “we all think with our hearts rather than our heads sometimes…. Our emotions can, and often do, shape our beliefs more than any logic.”
Harford says we shouldn’t despair. He believes we can learn to control our emotions. The first simple step, he says, is to notice those emotions. For example, when we see a statistical claim involving a controversial issue, “pay attention to your own reaction. If you feel outrage, triumph, denial, pause for a moment. Then reflect.”
He says “the more we get into the habit of counting to three and noticing our knee-jerk reactions, the closer to the truth we are likely to get.”
If you succeed in doing this — to quote Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich — tell me how.
As for winning a political argument, let’s return to Joseph Epstein. Early this year, he was targeted for “cancelation” after he expressed his opinion that America’s first lady shouldn’t call herself Doctor Jill Biden because she’s an Ed.D. and not an M.D.
Several years ago, in an op-ed, Epstein recalled that his father, “like many Jews…was an ardent supporter of Franklin Roosevelt. So much so that in the 1930s he wouldn’t allow the then-isolationist Chicago Tribune in the house. My father’s dislike of the paper was so fierce that once, when he had a flat tire in a snowstorm and the driver of a Tribune delivery truck pulled over to help, my father told him to bu**er off. ‘That,’ he used to say when telling the story, ‘shows you how stupid politics can make you.’ ”
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