“OUR powers of logical reasoning,” says “The Data Detective” author Tim Harford, “are skewed by our political beliefs.” Or, as clinical psychologist and Democrat political strategist Drew Westen would put it: what passes for reasoning in politics is more often rationalization whose goal is an emotionally satisfying conclusion.
In his book, Harford mentioned a Yale University study involving students who were shown some footage of a protest outside an unidentified building.
“Some of the students were told that it was a pro-life demonstration outside an abortion clinic. Others were informed that it was a gay rights demonstration outside an army recruitment office. The students were asked some factual questions. Was it a peaceful protest? Did the protesters try to intimidate people passing by? Did they scream or shout? Did they block the entrance to the building?”
Harford says the answers people gave depended on their politics.
“Conservative students who believed they were looking at a demonstration against abortion saw no problems with the protest: no abuse, no violence, no obstruction. Students on the left who thought they were looking at a gay rights protest reached the same conclusion: the protesters had conducted themselves with dignity and restraint.
“But right-wing students who thought they were looking at a gay rights demonstration reached a very different conclusion, as did left-wing students who believed they were watching an anti-abortion protest. Both these groups concluded that the protesters had been aggressive, intimidating, and obstructive.”
Our politics — not logic or facts — guide us to the conclusions we want to reach. And “we reach politically comfortable conclusions regardless of the evidence of our own eyes.”
Hence, most political debates usually involve people talking to each other without actually listening to each other.
Harford says the experts, if politically inclined, are also likely to be afflicted with partisanship.
“Republicans and Democrats with high levels of scientific literacy are further apart on climate change than those with little scientific education. The same disheartening pattern holds from nuclear power to gun control to fracking: the more scientifically literate opponents are, the more they disagree…. ‘The greater the proficiency, the more acute the polarization,’ notes [Yale University professor Dan] Kahan.”
Harford says even some scientists who measure essential and unchanging facts filter the data to suit their preconceptions. “Our preconceptions are powerful things. We filter new information. If it accords with what we expect, we’ll be more likely to accept it.”
Happily, Harford says, Kahan and his Yale colleagues have stumbled upon a trait that can help “inoculate” us against “toxic polarization”: curiosity. Studies suggest that “the brain responds in much the same anxious way to facts that threaten our preconceptions as it does to wild animals that threaten our lives.” In contrast, a curious person will find “inconvenient” facts intriguing.
How do we cultivate curiosity? Harford says curiosity is fueled once we know enough to know that we do not know. That’s the good news. The bad news: “all too often we don’t even think about what we don’t know.”
But there’s no getting around it. If we want to make the world add up, Harford says, we need to keep an open mind. We need to look deeper. And we have to ask questions about many things, including our cherished political beliefs.
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