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An unfair test

by Cyrille Tue Apr 8th, 2014 at 04:29:41 AM EST

Via Paul Krugman, I read Ezra Klein's opening tribune on his new, independent website venture.

And it purports to show that politics makes us brain dead because, when presented with a political problem that fits our prejudice (or goes against them), we tend to reply according to the prejudice rather than according to our abilities, in this case a simple maths proportions problem (yes, I am surprised that most people failed the problem in the first place, and that it be called "difficult", go take a look).

But the killer is that, while the study reports that it happened to liberals and conservatives alike, it also reveals that the question meant to go against the liberal prejudice (and thus that they would get wrong by answering against the data) used correct numbers presented incorrectly. That is, they showed crime rates to be higher in cities that banned handguns, whereas the actual data said the opposite.

Well, guess what, some of us know about the real world. Some of us have read reports and studies. And liberals are known to be more exposed to contravening data than conservatives (well, no wonder, when most of the media are conservative), so there is less echo chamber effect in any case.

So, I can see two possible explanations for that which do not fit Klein's argument: either the person, knowing well that the crime rate was much less where handguns were banned, simply mentally switched the proportions, or, knowing of so many other studies, reckoned that it was a trick case of not enough data to conclude against previous evidence.

I am well aware that partisan effects exist, and that they do for all. But if you feel the need to present factually wrong data on a well-known issue to test one of the groups, you cannot claim symmetry in the conclusions. Subjects highlighted where liberals tend to have views at odds with most of the published studies (most frequently, nuclear energy and GMOs) tend to be much more multi-dimensional and have much of the data published by actors that have a clear interest in the conclusions. They typically are not denial of a straight statistic of uncontroversial data. And indeed, Paul Krugman's post was moslty about the lack of simmetry in the issue, the fact that the overwhelming rejection of something that should not even be disputed is something that almost only comes from the right these days.

On a side note, Klein makes a false statement. He shows that maths skills fails to improve the chances of getting it right when the problem goes against your beliefs, but that being good at maths makes you 45% (as opposed to 25% for weak maths skills) more likely to get it right when it fits your ideology. He correctly states that maths skills increase the gap between various partisans, but then incorrectly states that being good at maths makes you more likely to get it wrong. No, not from this test at any rate. The increased gap is purely from being more likely (when good at maths) to get it right when it fits your ideology against an undifferentiated performance when it does not. Don't blame maths.

One think that I thought of when writing was that, clearly, there was a time when quite a few people on the left would have shown a marked tendency to refuse facts. However, they would probably not have called themselves liberal.

And it has been a well known phenomenon, in France at least, that many people formerly associated with the far left joined the far right as the left got weaker, largely with the problems experienced by Eastern Europe. Maybe they had a stronger attachment to simplistic slogans and anti-intellectualism than to the values they claimed to defend (it's hard otherwise to conceive going straight from internationalism to racism).

Nevertheless, the end point is that, at the moment, not only has the right become a magnet to attract almost all of the slogans crowd, this quasi-monopoly means that it is now a very strong part of their supporters. And this looks like a throwback to very grim times.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Wed Apr 9th, 2014 at 04:59:03 AM EST
One of the problems with the example in the article is that it is explicitly designed to fool people in a hurry. (Even if you know maths.) It exploits well known heuristic issues in it's presentation.

So I'm not all that impressed with it.

On the other hand, the "more info doesn't help" research is fairly well founded. What works is to find alternative narratives. And (unfortunately) what also works is brute force repetition of narratives, as practiced by the right wing media.

You point to the context problem with your objections, but I'd expand on that. The right-wing media have helped create a complete distrust of supplied information. Their dominance makes those on the left distrust information supplied by supposedly neutral sources. And of course Fox et al. spend plenty of time reminding right-wingers that info from other sources can't be trusted...

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Thu Apr 10th, 2014 at 02:26:22 PM EST
I wonder: were people in the developed world irrational on this level a few decades ago, or is this an effect of the fracturing of the public sphere into groups providing confirmation bias and quickly constructing whole mythologies with the advent of private media and the internet?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Apr 10th, 2014 at 02:55:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's a good question.
It's really hard to know - the flip side is that we don't have a record of what people thought so much. We know about politically active people, but not so much about ordinary people. At least not to speak generally, I'm sure we can all collect data points...
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Thu Apr 10th, 2014 at 03:11:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, to create this type of test at all, one probably has to use a heuristic, otherwise everyone would get it right all the time and you couldn't see the "more skill fails to help". So I suppose I could live with that.

My qualm is the false symmetry. Conservatives fail to detect the message from genuine figures, Liberals from false ones (I could maybe even suggest they filtered them).
It does not get better with the rest of the article: Liberals were more likely to say that a scientist was an expert in his subject if his research underscored the dangers of climate change, conservatives if he cast doubt on them. Well, most people cannot judge the resume of a top scientist, but many do know that pretty much no climate scientist reject global warming.
So a Bayesian view, at least, would lead to consider it unlikely that the person was a subject expert. Contrast that with the Conservatives who require one to trumpet lies in order to be given credibility. That is a very different dynamic.

I know that facts have a liberal bias, which might explain why researchers find it hard to come up with a simple case of a liberal belief that clashes with data. But could the causation not run the other way? Maybe facts have a liberal bias because Liberals tend to form their beliefs with consideration for facts. That would be the opposite of what Klein was talking about of course, and the artificial balance reflex is still strong...

As for doubting mainstream media, yes, I admit to that. Although not from a tribal reaction -I caught them red-handed twice in a single week back when I was 16. But my reaction is to seek peer-reviewed articles, independent and cross-examined websites, and check that publications that I read are particularly careful to conclude when they "like" the conclusion. Surely that is not the same as only watching Fox News and believing everything it says.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Fri Apr 11th, 2014 at 02:28:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
My point is that we've all learned to be suspicious of information - and the test simply presents information. It's a test, so I'm not (I presume) allowed to go Google for peer-reviewed articles on the topic. So my "Bayesian priors" are automatically to give priority to info I already know. Which I think pretty much gives you the results of this study...
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Sun Apr 13th, 2014 at 04:50:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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