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Why Are Science and Politics So Hard?


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.