Skip to main content

About a month ago, there was some discussion by the likes of Ezra Klein and Paul Krugman about Dan Kahan's work on what he calls "cultural cognition" (meaning something like "tribal bias").   This is right on topic for what I've been calling "social epistemology", so it's about time I write it up.

First, I'll present a summary of the discussion, then some more detailed references with links to sources.

Kahan has a series of experiments that show that people do a better job of interpreting numeric results if it's on a neutral subject, but when it concerns something where they're already committed to an opinon their biases take over (Ezra Klein's summary: "Politics Makes Us Stupid").  People with better math skills aren't immune to this effect (in fact, Kahan says they seem worse), and people with liberal/left opinions don't show any real immunity either.

I gather conservatives really like this result ("look, both sides do it-- so we don't have to stop!").  Liberals, on the other hand, don't like it: In recent years, the left's self-image has been that they are the "reality-based community", and the right is the province of lies and delusions.

Certainly Krugman feels that way, and he objected that Kahan's results contradicted his "lived experience", and asked the question "can anyone point to a liberal equivalent of conservative denial of climate change"?

A number of us objected that there really are some examples where the left prefers to argue against the consensus of expert opinon: GM food, nuclear power, and so on.  (Interestingly, it's not so clear that the anti-vaccination crowd is a good example-- Kahan has data showing it's not really a left-wing phenomena.)

In apparent response to this, Krugman then wrote a pro-solar column for the NYT: Krugman's take is that renewables are doing so well the nuclear power debate is now moot.

(My take: Solar power has certainly had some encouraging progress, but the idea that it's now the only thing we need stikes me as, shall we say, optimistic.)

However, getting into the details of the nuclear debate should probably wait for another day, and in any case, upon reflection, I think there are other examples of right-wing craziness that do a better job of demonstrating the left-right asymmetry Krugman pointed to: birthers and benghazi-ists aren't just the right-wing fringe, they're pandered to by members of Congress. I would suggest that it's difficult to find left-wing insanity that's both quite so obvious and yet still influential.

Kahan himself thought Krugman's reaction was extremely funny, a clear example of denial-in-action.  Kahan argues it's a matter of how you get the answer, not whether the answer happens to be right.  This is interesting, but not entirely satisfying: if the left has been calling multiple different issues correctly, and if it kept it up for years, it would seem peculiar to insist that this might just be luck.

Ezra Klein stepped in again, taking Krugman's side in this against Kahan, and I thought Klein's overall direction was very interesting, though perhaps not stated as well as usual for him.
The way I'd put it:

Kahan's work (in this case) comes from individuals tested in isolation from each other, but the collective intelligence of groups of people is a different case entirely.

For example, as most of us are aware at this point, scientific training does not turn human beings into perfectly objective, unbiased reasoning machines, and yet the scientific enterprise taken as a whole does a good job of converging on the truth.

For me, that's the existence proof that social groups can be smarter than individuals-- and it raises the question of what sorts of social institutions we might create that can increase our collective intelligence.

And it's at least possible that the left is already near there, with checks on internal craziness that function just a little better than those on the right.

And near the end of Ezra Klein's piece, he goes off into some demographic differences between liberals and conservatives that might support the idea that Democrats think differently than Republicans: Krugman's "lived experience" may yet turn out to be consistent with Kahan's laboratory data.

And now, here's an expansion of that exchange:

Dan M. Kahan posts frequently on his blog at the "Cultural Cognition Project" site:

Ezra Klein, "How politics makes us stupid", April 6, 2014:

  "To spend much time with Kahan’s research is to stare into a kind
  of intellectual abyss. If the work of gathering evidence and
  reasoning through thorny, polarizing political questions is
  actually the process by which we trick ourselves into finding the
  answers we want, then what’s the right way to search for answers?
  How can we know the answers we come up with, no matter how
  well-intentioned, aren’t just more motivated cognition? How can we
  know the experts we’re relying on haven’t subtly biased their
  answers, too? How can I know that this article isn’t a form of
  identity protection? Kahan’s research tells us we can’t trust our
  own reason. How do we reason our way out of that?"

Paul Krugman, "Asymmetric Stupidity", April 7, 2014 5:05 pm

  "... the lived experience is that this effect is not, in fact,
  symmetric between liberals and conservatives. Yes, liberals are
  sometimes subject to bouts of wishful thinking. But can anyone
  point to a liberal equivalent of conservative denial of climate
  change, or the "unskewing" mania late in the 2012 campaign, or the
  frantic efforts to deny that Obamacare is in fact covering a lot of
  previously uninsured Americans? I don't mean liberals taking
  positions you personally disagree with-- I mean examples of
  overwhelming rejection of something that shouldn't even be in

In the comments section you will see people like me bringing
up nuclear power:

  Joseph Brenner April 8, 2014:

 "'But can anyone point to a liberal equivalent of conservative
 denial of climate change' Yes, unfortunately: the nuclear power
 issue. You see a lot of the same phenomena: cherry-picking expert
 opinion that agrees with you, dismissing any experts that don't
 agree as obviously biased (how do you know they're biased? They
 disagree with you). The parallel [un-siq] is particularly apt, because if
 you take global warming seriously, ramping up nuclear power use is
 an obvious thing to do (and yes, sure, push solar too-- it's not in
 the same class, but why not?)."

Other commenters cited the case of GMOs and (possibly erroneously) the
anti-vaccination movement.

I gather from some of Krugman's later writings, he was not impressed
with these examples.  Notably, soon afterwards he wrote this New York
Times column which suggests that nuclear power is now irrelevant
because of the tremendous progress with renewable energy:

   "... Until a few years ago, the best guess was that it would
   proceed on many fronts, involving everything from better
   insulation and more fuel-efficient cars to increased use of
   nuclear power.

   "One front many people didn’t take too seriously, however, was
   renewable energy."

Krugman revisited the issue with "On the Liberal Bias of Facts",
April 18, 2014, where I think he gets the main thing right:

  "What I tried to suggest, but maybe didn’t say clearly, is that the
  most likely answer lies not so much in the character of individual
  liberals versus that of individual conservatives, as in the
  difference between the two sides’ goals and institutions."

Here I am in the comments again, though I note that I was trying on
some ideas that are a little different than what I'm saying here now:

   Joseph Brenner, April 18, 2014:

   "Start with an assumption of equivalent tribal bias (established
   by experiment) but combine that with an asymmetric need to reject
   reality, and you pretty much have the phenomena you're
   describing. This asymmetric need may be largely (I would guess not
   entirely) due to being in power-- if you're in control, you're
   responsible for what actually happens, and the potential for
   embarrassing cognitive dissonance increases, and the sense that
   you need to respond to criticism declines.

   "Myself, I'm one of the many people that keeps pointing to the
   areas where liberals are quite happy to reject expert technical
   opinion (the safety of nuclear power and genetically modified
   crops being two very apropos cases); but I really don't expect the
   anti-nuclear activists of the 70s to ever
   "mark-their-beliefs-to-market" and admit that they're responsible
   for the increased coal usage that's killed many and may have
   doomed the planet with CO2 emissions.

   "No more than I expect economists of the 90s to consider that free
   trade agreements may have undermined environmental controls and
   labor conditions."

(I gather I was annoyed at Krugman's dismissive treatment of my
particular sub-tribe, hence the dig at the end... Note that Krugman
has been relatively quiet about his pro-free trade stance since his
turn to the left.)

Dan Kahan commented on Krugman's "Asymmetric Stupidity" with amusement:

   "The test for motivated cognition is not whether someone gets the
    'right' answer but how someone assesses evidence."

    Kahan links to this on "motivated cognition": "Motivated
    reasoning & its cognates" by Dan Kahan, May 15, 2013:

    "Motivated reasoning refers to the unconscious tendency of
     individuals to process information in a manner that suits some
     end or goal extrinsic to the formation of accurate beliefs. "

Ezra Klein returns, taking up Paul Krugman's question:
"What’s the liberal equivalent of climate denial?", April 23, 2014:

  "...  Krugman isn't looking at the lab. Nor is he looking at
  individuals. He's looking at political coalitions. And that's
  trickier for Kahan's data to refute. His experiments don't say
  anything about how political coalitions reason. It's possible that
  liberals and conservatives have the same individual tendencies
  towards self deception but something in the composition of the
  liberal coalition provides a check that the conservative coalition
  currently lacks."

  "...  Political reasoning doesn't take place inside our heads. It
  takes place inside our parties."

In a recent post by Dan Kahan (who should really take it easier on
the snark until he learns to do it better) on June 11, 2014, Kahan
includes a graph of some of his data, showing that anti-vaxxers exist
across the political spectrum, so this is not a good example of a purely
left-wing craziness:

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  I don't think this has to do with "stupidity" (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    at all, or even with "cognition".  I think you and Klein are onto something when you look at the distinctions between individual beliefs and group-based interpretations of information informed by certain perspectives or ideologies (including an acceptance of the scientific method).

    I think the distinction is one of communication practices and communicative action a la Habermas.

    The underlying communicative principles of both science and democracy are the same, this is one reason why those more oriented toward democratic principles have an easier time accepting not only the scientific method and the introduction of dissent to the prevailing dogma whatever it may be, but also have mechanisms for understanding and sorting out what is noise, what is flack and what is a reasonable bit of information to add to the picture in order to arrive at a recognized truth supported by both evidence and a critical mass of the reasoned group membership.

    It's about the politics and poetics of interpretation be it the interpretation of findings, the interpretation of foundational documents, the interpretation of observed phenomena, the interpretation of social media trends...etc.

    Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. --Elie Wiesel

    by a gilas girl on Thu Jun 19, 2014 at 07:38:46 AM PDT

  •  Just this week (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    BP's annual world energy review came out (still one of the best sources for world energy data) and showed that, as a percentage of global energy usage, non-fossil energy has been stuck at about 13% for the last 20 years.

    The reason for this is that the recent increase in renewables has been balanced, almost exactly, by the decline in nuclear as old NPPs have been decommissioned. Renewables aren't actually reducing our fossil fuel use at all; they are replacing nuclear, not fossil.

    Renewables increasing (thanks to the left) and nuclear declining (thanks to the left) adds up to zero progress on emissions (thanks to the left).

    So Krugman's optimism over renewables is misplaced, and it will continue to be as long as we continue to make no progress on reducing GHG emissions, under the illusion that we're making progress when we're not. It's another case of ignoring the numbers we don't like.

    We are all in the same boat on a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty. -- G.K. Chesterton

    by Keith Pickering on Thu Jun 19, 2014 at 07:51:33 AM PDT

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site