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