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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

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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.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
Mark, the best part about this is that I don't think you understand any of the bigger words there.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
It's funny when liberals put on their rubber Spock ears and lecture the rest of us about Science.
30 weeks ago
30 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (81)
All Comments   (81)
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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.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks 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.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks 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."
29 weeks ago
29 weeks 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.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks 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.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
Is there a link to these tests?
29 weeks ago
29 weeks 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.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks 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.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks 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.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks 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."
29 weeks ago
29 weeks 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.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks 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.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
"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."

All manmade conundrums. You could add abortion and capital punishment to the list and lots of others, questions that will never have answers except inside individual minds in the way of "opinion".

Some Answers: :)...

Science has been reduced to Scientism, hocus pocus, by grant seeking Agendists.

Liberals are sick people, a summary of their collective beliefs (from The Closing of the American Mind...?):

In order to not discriminate, you have to become indiscriminate.

Utopia, under no obligation to produce results, is the only hope for mankind.

Indiscriminateness becomes a moral imperative. Any opposition to indiscriminateness = evil.

Success in and of itself is proof positive of some kind of chicanery/likely bigotry. If nothing is good or bad then what society recognizes as "good" must be the recipient of some kind of prejudice.

Inside the Cult of Indiscriminateness, good is evil and evil is the victim of good.

The only way not to be a bigot is to never think at all. If there's nothing to dialogue about, then there's nothing to fight about.

Well God knows, modern liberals don't think.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
"I keep hoping that one more photo of an iceberg the size of Manhattan calving off of Greenland, one more stretch of record-breaking heat and drought and fires, one more graph of how atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen in the past century, will do the trick."

Marty can prove the connection between human produced levels of CO2 and the planet's warming ? No one else can, in or out of the scientific community.

In the presence of a quiescent sun there has been no statistically significant global warming for approximately 17 years.

Does rational Marty subscribe to the irrational excuse offered by the "scientific community" that the heat that is really there is being absorbed by the deep ocean sink ?
29 weeks ago
29 weeks 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/
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
I never understand why we're obligated to prove whether or not Saddam had WMD'S or not, given all the rantings and ravings of John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and MANY OTHER democrats, declaiming Saddam's weapon awfulness, prior to the 2002 authorization of use of force in Iraq.

Each of those Senators voted "yea" for that authorization, but when the war went sour, withdrew their support and became highly critical of the Bush administration, just like the little wimps and weasels they all are.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
Marty Kaplan may well be a victim of his own borrowed thesis, his own ANAL-ysis...

"In other words, say 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."
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
Education and expertise can help a lot, provided it is not contaminated by leftism. Unfortunately far too many of todays academics are contaminated by leftism, thus making their expertise useless, because expertise only helps if it is objective, which leftism never is.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks 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.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks 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.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks 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.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
No worries, Mike, the editor will clean it up eventually. And the answer is "compared to what?"
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
"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..."

Or logic, in the case of politics. In science, you must scope the whole transaction, including the questions and inconsistencies, and account for all the facts, either positively or negatively.

Not so in politics. There, we have fictive realities, falsehoods that are so widely believed that they may as well be true as far as their effect on policy. A good example of this is that most accept that the 2007 meltdown was caused by Wall Street excesses and crookery. Few have the notion that it was caused by the federal government forcing banks under penalty of law to make bad loans. Sure, Wall Street flipped the mortgage-backed securities, but that's what they do, for commissions. What caused the crisis was that bad loans were made.

There are many such examples of where the political method has set sail, heading deep into fantasyland, with no requirement that all questions on a subject be asked, and that all facts of the matter be accounted for.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
And not just commissions. The point of securitization is to reduce aggregate risk. I went into it at great length at the time, (http://pjmedia.com/blog/making-sense-of-our-financial-mess/ and http://pjmedia.com/blog/did-we-really-waste-78-billion-on-tarp/). They were being forced to raise the risk without increasing the interest they charged; they had to do *something.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
Science proceeds like other wars.

Here is the stuff on what is called Global Warming but in reality is concern over the introduction of green house gases into the atmosphere sui generi and an emphasis on human activity that contributes its own green house gases.

In all of these concerns center on the claim that green house gases added to the atmosphere can cause an increase in temperatures.

in reality when the atmosphere heats up (the sun) the warmer atmosphere can hold more distillates and the increased heat promotes both evaporation and organic decay - more greenhouse gases.

When the atmosphere cools the distillates fall back to the earth - slightly altered.

Greenhouse gas accumulations do not cause increases in atmospheric temperature - increases in atmospheric temperatures cause green house gas accumulations.

As Global Warming intellectual wars advance Global Warmists start making more arguments. Our concern, they say, is that while that may be a correct nominal balance (always use snazzy language) still human activity is adding greenhouse gases above that nominal balance and that's the problem. I do not want to go into a long rebuttal here - I will give a short one. Krakatoa and the formation of the Mediterranean Sea Basin.

Remember in reality there is no evidence the earth is flat. That is no attribute you can observe about the earth is given rise to because of the flatness of the earth.

We know that because the earth isn't flat.

29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yeah, being forced by the government, which had no lawful basis for doing so. As you point out, this government intervention on free markets inverted the situation, forcing banks to raise aggregate risk to help (non-banker) bureaucrats attain their pick-the-winners dictate-economic-results goals. So point well taken that it wasn't just the commissions.

One thing that I learned in all of this is that the government further dictates that one of the three approved credit rating agencies be used. That, of course, proved to be a major point of failure. That's fakery layered atop fakery, like a toxic frosting ladled over a rotten cake.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
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