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Why Are Science and Politics So Hard?

Complicated decision making is complicated. Trying to study how people make those decisions is even harder.

by
Charlie Martin

Bio

September 26, 2013 - 1:00 pm
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Climate change, the effects of the Affordable Care Act, environmental hazards of fracking, the effects of widespread gun ownership on crime — all of these are questions that should be answerable by science or mathematics. Somehow, though, they never seem to be.

Of course, the political left has had an explanation for this: conservatives are not grounded in reality like liberals are. Chris Mooney has made rather an industry out of this, with his books The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality, and of course the political left has tried for a long time to label themselves as “the reality-based community.” Recently, Salon reprinted an article by Marty Kaplan, originally published in Alternet, that is in turn based on an article by Chris Mooney in Grist, which was in turn based on a paper “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government,” posted on SSRN by Dan M. Kahan and others.

Here’s how Kaplan summarizes it:

[S]ay goodnight to the dream that education, journalism, scientific evidence, media literacy or reason can provide the tools and information that people need in order to make good decisions.  It turns out that in the public realm, a lack of information isn’t the real problem.  The hurdle is how our minds work, no matter how smart we think we are.  We want to believe we’re rational, but reason turns out to be the ex post facto way we rationalize what our emotions already want to believe.

Kaplan then goes on to summarize two papers by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler. I’m just going to quote a couple of his summary paragraphs.

  • People who thought WMDs were found in Iraq believed that misinformation even more strongly when they were shown a news story correcting it.
  • People who said the economy was the most important issue to them, and who disapproved of Obama’s economic record, were shown a graph of nonfarm employment over the prior year – a rising line, adding about a million jobs.  They were asked whether the number of people with jobs had gone up, down or stayed about the same.  Many, looking straight at the graph, said down.

Now, here’s the interesting thing about these: in both cases, the “right” answer can be confirmed to be factually incorrect.

Comments are closed.

Top Rated Comments   
yeah, exactly. the "reality based community" seems to mainly be interested in their own consensual reality, in which Sarah Palin really did say she could see Russia from her house, George Bush's lies about WMD in Iraq led to Congress passing the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998, and schools automatically get better if you spend more money.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Mark, the best part about this is that I don't think you understand any of the bigger words there.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It's funny when liberals put on their rubber Spock ears and lecture the rest of us about Science.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (75)
All Comments   (75)
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Good article. And the things that the article presented as being essential to good science, like making data and methods transparent, determination to honestly engage critics, and determination that their own research methods are not skewed to reinforce their bias, are the very things that leftist scientists, especially in the softer sciences and climate science, will not do. The basic integrity of science is now in question until this leftist pseudoscience cabal that has taking over many research fields is stopped.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Being that leftism is basically the Cluster B personality disorders cast into the form of politics, it is not surprising that the leftists have infiltrated science and violated its social contract. Because in the mind of the leftist, there is no social contract that should not be violated in pursuit of advantage; similarily, civilized behavior on the part of their opponents is merely a weakness to be exploited. Further, like all Cluster B's, leftists project their own personality flaws onto others; ergo, ordinary people are held to suffer from the Cluster B delusions while the Cluster B's themselves are the sole enlightened. In the 18th century, the self-appointed Cluster B elites held themselves to be annointed by God; in the 21st century, they claim genetic superiority.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The paper "Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government" is an example of a common line of psychological research:

1. Researchers give experimental subjects made-up data.
2. The subjects recognize the data as fabricated and ignore it.
3. The researchers cite this as evidence of irrationality.

It looks like cognitive scientists have defined rationality to mean "agree with anything you are told."
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Re: "Kahan et al. interpret this as showing that even more numerate people are likely to skew their decisions to match their already-held beliefs, if those beliefs have become important to one’s identification with one’s group.

To which I say “no kidding? Y’think?”

What’s absent is the obvious next point: that people hold those beliefs on what they consider to be a rational basis, and so when presented with a difficult decision problem, they unconsciously factor those beliefs into their decisions."

With the dismissive "Ya think?" comment, it is clear that the author misses a profoundly disturbing conclusion of the study. The participants were presented with several simple 2x2 tables of results, and asked to determine which conclusion was correct. The only thing the participants needed was an elementary knowledge of math, and there was only one correct answer. (Just as say on a Math SAT question).

The results of the study showed that the more numerate participants actually ignored the mathematically correct answer in deference to their preconceived notions. Now, the participants were not asked to gauge the validity of the test data nor were they asked to place the test data in a larger context of their knowledge. They were simply asked to perform a math calculation. And they failed.

To those of us vainly struggling against e.g. the "consensus" in Global Warming, this is profoundly disturbing, because it means that facts simply don't matter anymore. No matter how solid your evidence is, people who hold the opposing view are likely to ignore it, and even worse, the more educated ones are likely to wilfully misinterpret the evidence to bring them in line with their beliefs.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Have you considered the possibility that the subjects rejected the conclusions of the graph, not because they rejected simple numbers, but because they knew the researchers had presented them with a graph with bogus made up data, and rejected that. An honest researcher could have eliminated this possibility by presenting 2 alternatives:
1. Agree with the researchers interpretation of the data.
2. Disagree with the researchers interpretation of the data.
3. Agree that that particular data supports the researchers conclusion, but state their belief that other data, presented another way, would not support the researchers conclusion.

The researchers refused to present alternative 3 as a possible answer, and thus revealed their own bias and irrationality, not that of their conservative research subjects.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Is there a link to these tests?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Yes. Here is a link to the study itself: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2319992

and here is a link to the original article where I stumbled across it.

http://www.livescience.com/39643-do-facts-matter-anymore-in-public-policy.html

The comments section is notable because it is depressingly clear that most of the commenters ignored the substance of article, never read the actual article, and contented themselves with stating their preconceived notions.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Well, it's a little bit of an understatement to claim those sorts of multivariate problems are easy. I think though we're mainly differing in degree of cynicism; I'm not surprised that when presented with a problem of that sort, where arithmetic differs from prior knowledge, a numerate person might sitll lean toward their prior knowledge.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It's a simple 2x2 matrix, though perhaps the fact that I had college stat biases my opinion. However, the point of the study was that exactly the same numbers were presented for the skin care test group as with the gun control test group. All things being equal, the greater the numeracy of the participants in the former, the more likely they were to get it right. Exactly counter to the gun control results.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"If you call the tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?"

"Four. Calling the tail a leg doesn't make it a leg."
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"People who thought WMDs were found in Iraq believed that misinformation even more strongly when they were shown a news story correcting it."

As if a media story "proves" anything..........

I don't automatically believe ANYTHING I read in the newspaper.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
As Mark Twain is reported to have said: If you don't read the papers, you're un-informed, and if you do read the papers, you're mis-informed. Hobson's choice. ' The truth is out there' but I hate having to go to the UK Guardian or worse, Pravda to find it.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
CM: "In the case of Iraqi WMD, specifically chemical weapons, while it was widely reported that none were found, in fact gas weapons were indeed found..."

Saddam Hussein also possessed infrastructure for the development of nuclear weapons.

"The last major remnant of Saddam Hussein's nuclear program — a huge stockpile of concentrated natural uranium — reached a Canadian port Saturday to complete a secret U.S. operation that included a two-week airlift from Baghdad and a ship voyage crossing two oceans. The removal of 550 metric tons of "yellowcake" — the seed material for higher-grade nuclear enrichment — was a significant step toward closing the books on Saddam's nuclear legacy. It also brought relief to U.S. and Iraqi authorities who had worried the cache would reach insurgents or smugglers crossing to Iran to aid its nuclear ambitions."

http://www.nbcnews.com/id/25546334/
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
(argh I accidentally reported one of Charlie's comments, very sorry. Total misclick.).

Good article, but... Charlie, could you please clarify what you mean on the employment issue? It's possible for the U-3 unemployment *rate* to go down, and there to be fewer jobs, but if a million *jobs* are added, as you quote, surely there are more jobs?

Is it the issue that the there was a large loss, X, of full-time jobs, but X+1m part-time jobs were added? Or was the graph misleading in some other way?

And on WMDs, yes, that's exactly what I thought when I read studies ridiculing conservatives for believing [correctly] that WMD's had been found.

Thanks and profuse apologies for accidentally clicking Report.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
You have to look at the totality of the sample and then plot it out. What the govt is crowing about is a spike along a descending curve. Yes, they changed the definitions of a whole bunch of parameters and data points.

Same way that the statists howl when a reduction in the amount of increase in the budget is suggested by rational people.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The easy answer is, when someone has been without a job long enough, you simply stop counting them as job-seekers. Long-term unemployment vanishes overnight! Voila! Of course, the number of working-age adults goes down to about what it was in 1960, but hey, that's not an official government statistic.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
No worries, Mike, the editor will clean it up eventually. And the answer is "compared to what?"
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Maybe an idea to run at this from another direction. Little of this 'hard stuff' is out of reach or new. Time to sow, time to reap, and all that. The mistake is to look down the wrong end of the telescope, because you see only the detail and miss the big picture.

If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of ten years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people. -- Confucius
...Meaning, among other things, that if you dumb down a couple of generations; abolish the rigor of 'the canon'; eliminate the wisdom of the generalist; punt and leave it all to God; or rely on credentialed-but-ignorant specialists from climatologists to 'campaign advisers' to J-school grads, well...you end up with what we have now.

Elderly 'traditional' Republicans and lightweight pundits panic too easily. All that's going on is it's now time to eat your own cooking, and you don't like it.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"Global warming" went from fact to myth but not before Al Gore was able to extract a lot of publicity and carbon credit cash to enrich his bank account. Money and political power are often found at the bottom of factual distortions therefore making it difficult to kill lies with facts.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Science used to be the focused pursuit of the truth as it pertains to the human experience.

A scientist went to work on an assumption, devised an experiment to prove or disprove the assumption. If the experiment proved repeatable to a statistical certainty (There is always an exception) then he could publish and feel good about his work.

Today, the scientist spends most of his time writing grants or feeding a grant or even worse tending to a patron by creating a "scientific" support mechanism for the patron's pet theory or concrete belief.

It seems we have not progressed as much as had been thought...
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"There will be no loyalty except loyalty toward the Party. There will be no love except the love of Big Brother... There will be no heart, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science." George Orwell - 1984
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The idea that the collective is smarter than the individual is simply wrong.

When faced with questions affection our own lives regarding which we are well informed and strongly motivated to choose correctly, we still often make the wrong decisions. Is it any wonder that politicians and bureaucrats, who have neither as much information nor as much motivation regarding the matters they deal with, make a high percentage of bad calls?

This is one of the reasons government should leave nearly all decisions - e.g., healthcare, education, personal safety - to individuals rather than inflicting their one-size-fits-all choices on society.

As for science, we should have learned by now that knowledge is in constant evolution - we gradually discover and refine principles but we really never have firmly fixed absolute truths about reality.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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