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We’re All Reasonabilists Sometimes
Biased reasoning is ideologically symmetrical.
Fair Warning: I’m likely to tick everyone off this week.
But it’s for a good cause. And long. Linky, too. Sorry (not sorry).
Nothing is more important than truth. In academic writing, it’s often a placeholder for reality itself. Only the mad and the malevolent are against it. But truth is hard. Because the world is round, we can’t see far enough down the road.
We are all afraid of the truth sometimes – afraid of what it might reveal and afraid of what it might reveal about us. But sometimes it finds us and sometimes we find it. Our astounding success as a species is what makes our (often consistent) errors so interesting.
Chesterton got it right, as he so often did.
“The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.”
As I like to say, reality is an acquired taste. Then again, our values and desires make our search for truth harder still.
Nearing 400 years ago now, Thomas Hobbes noted and accounted for a crucial difference between geometry and ethics: We disagree about and dispute matters of ethics routinely but geometry almost never.
“[T]he doctrine of Right and Wrong, is perpetually disputed, both by Pen and the Sword: Whereas the doctrine of Lines, and Figures, is not so; because men care not, in that subject what be truth, as a thing that crosses no mans ambition, profit, or lust. For I doubt not, but if it had been a thing contrary to any mans right of dominion, or to the interest of men that have dominion, That the three Angles of a Triangle, should be equall to two Angles of a Square; that doctrine should have been, if not disputed, yet by the burning of all books of Geometry, suppressed, as farre as he whom it concerned was able.”
This phenomenon generally is, of course, confirmation bias, behavioral finance’s lead actor, whereby we see what we want to see, accept these desires as truth, and act accordingly.
“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” George Orwell warned.
We like to think we are like judges, carefully weighing the available evidence to adduce the best possible approximation of reality. Truth is, we’re much more like lawyers, scrounging for any plausible basis to confirm our priors.
As Scott Alexander wrote, overstating only a bit: “Of the fifty-odd biases discovered by Kahneman, Tversky, and their successors, forty-nine are cute quirks, and one is destroying civilization. This last one is confirmation bias.”
And when our deeply held values and desires are in play, we are exceedingly protective of them. They aren’t merely viewpoints or opinions, they are convictions. Accordingly, when false information is central to our sense of self and self-worth, it becomes almost impossible to correct.
“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”
So proclaimed the celebrated Stanford psychologist Leon Festinger, in a passage that sounds up-to-the-minute relevant yet was written in 1956, the year I was born. Nobody thinks they have joined a cult, as both research and real-world experience demonstrate.
Today’s highly polarized and politicized environment, where politics sees itself above all and provokes religion-like adherence in a world of receding religious relevance, ramps up the intensity and the devotion.
This week’s TBL focuses on the universality of confirmation bias, bias blindness, and the troubles they cause, across the political spectrum, especially when our core values and allegiances are at stake. I offer enough examples that everyone should have errors covered. I must also concede the likelihood that some of what I’m sure about is wrong, too, as I’m sure some of you will point out.
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We’re All Reasonabilists Sometimes
As Mark Twain is famous for perhaps saying, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” And we all know stuff for sure that just ain’t so.
We all think we’re reasonable, and we often are, but we all have “reasonabilist” tendencies, too, left, right, and center.
Denialism (denying reality) on the political right is well established. Prominent examples include the idea that climate change is a hoax, the claim that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, and assorted false beliefs about the recent pandemic and the vaccines created to deal with it. I’m not going to reinvent that wheel. These examples are often prominently displayed to support the idea that we are experiencing a crisis of truth – that we are in a post-truth age.
It’s a powerful argument.
Unfortunately, nearly all of those making that argument seem to think that it is exclusively a right-wing phenomenon and a Republican problem. Um, no.As Richard Feynman famously put it: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Here in the U.S., Democrats constantly declare themselves the “party of science” – history’s most powerful tool for ferreting out falsehood – and label Republicans as science-deniers. However, science today is inextricably tied to power and profit, diminishing truth’s position as its sole objective, which is at least partly why scientists aren’t any better at avoiding confirmation bias than the rest of us (not to mention science’s serious replication and ethics problems). There is far more than a whiff of moralism in this high-handed view, too, but that’s a story for another day.
Still, Democrats argue that there must be something better about liberalism because, as they see things, they consistently get the right answer while conservatives do not. The American cultural and political left thinks our truth crisis can only be fixed by making their opponents “like us,” even though they are as susceptible to poor thinking and falsehood as those they see as unwashed heathen.
Ezra Klein (now of The New York Times) founded Vox Media in 2014 to establish and grow what he called “explanatory journalism,” whereby he claimed to “explain” the news. Apparently, journalists had never done that before. Who knew?
Vox features consistently progressive “explainers” for various policies by a talented but ideologically pure staff. Klein seems to make the case that many of our most bitter political battles are mere misunderstandings. If only the citizenry were more informed, the thinking goes, there wouldn’t be all this fighting. Accordingly, having the truth explained will cause the unenlightened to see the errors of their ways and bring them (or at least some of them) around to the truth of progressivism.
Of course, the more cynical and realistic among us will reject the premise. Confirmation bias and tribalism are much better explanations for the disputes than ignorance.
Klein’s big introductory think piece when Vox got started cited research (already familiar to regular readers) showing that people understand the world in ways that suit their preexisting beliefs and ideological commitments. Thus, in controlled experiments, both conservatives and liberals systematically misread the facts in a way that confirms their biases.
Irrespective of actual expertise or political persuasion, experimental subjects tend to equate “expert” with “credentialed person who agrees with me.” If some fact, policy, or belief threatens the tribe or threatens one’s social standing within the tribe, all rational bets are off. It’s what Yale’s Dan Kahan calls Identity-Protective Cognition. “As a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values,” Kahan explained. In other words, “What we believe about the facts, tells us who we are.”
A prominent study from Duke (disclosure: I went to school there) found that we evaluate evidence – even scientific evidence – based on whether we see its policy implications as ideologically palatable. If we do not, we tend to deny the problem even exists. “The more threatening a proffered solution is to a person, the more likely that person is to deny the problem,” according to study co-author Aaron Kay.
The researchers conducted experiments on three different issues: climate change, air pollution, and crime. The climate change experiment tested why more Republicans than Democrats deny its existence, despite strong scientific evidence that supports it. Participants in the study read a statement asserting that global temperatures will rise 3.2 degrees in the 21st century and were then asked to evaluate a proposed policy solution to address it. When the policy solution emphasized a tax on carbon emissions or some other form of government regulation, only 22 percent of Republicans said they believed the temperatures would rise at least as much as indicated by the statement they read. However, when the proposed policy solution instead emphasized the free market, such as innovative green technology, 55 percent of Republicans (two and a half times more!) agreed with the warming statement.
Interestingly, if unsurprisingly, Klein’s argument conceded the universality of this problem in theory, but all of his examples pointed out the biased stupidity of his political opponents. Democrats have long argued that reality skews left generally and that Republicans have a history of being willing to deny the obvious. These accounts draw a distinction between the “reality-based community” and Republican ideologues, in that they remain “worryingly untethered from reality as the impetus to satisfy the demand for red meat overtakes any motivation to report accurately.” It is a consistent trope among Democrats. They’re sure they’re superior in that respect.
Paul Krugman – a terrific economist but an often insufferable liberal shill – saw Klein’s bid and upped the ante, exhibiting classic bias blindness in direct response to the Vox piece: His “lived experience is that this effect is not, in fact, symmetric between liberals and conservatives.” In other words, his “lived experience” trumps the empirical research evidence. “The facts have a well-known liberal bias,” affirmed Krugman, quoting Rob Corddry, “and experience keeps vindicating his joke.”
In Krugman’s view, conservatives are simply stupider than liberals because conservatives have no “genuine interest in the facts.” He further denied that there are examples where liberals engage in the “overwhelming rejection of something that shouldn’t even be in dispute.” Think about that for a bit. Without a hint of irony, Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate and columnist for The New York Times, argues that everyone is subject to confirmation bias except for people who agree with him. For Krugman, conservatives are slaves to their heinous ideology while liberals are simply following the facts wherever they lead.
Those who disagree with Krugman are biased; those who agree, aren’t.
However, and consistent with the Kahan’s research, the solution aversion found by the Duke study referenced above cuts across ideological lines. In the gun control portion of the study, one set of participants read an article arguing that “strict gun control laws prevent homeowners from getting guns that they could use to protect themselves from intruder violence” and they then read an article espousing a pro-gun rights ideal. The rest read an article arguing that “loose gun control laws lead to more gun violence by intruders and more homeowner deaths” and then read an article espousing a pro-gun control ideal. All participants were then asked to read about “Intruder violence — the act of breaking into a home and attacking the resident, usually as part of a robbery. Intruder violence often ends in the death or injury of the resident.” Consistent with the solution aversion expressed by conservatives concerning climate change, liberal participants who had a strong pro-gun control ideology indicated a significantly higher belief in the severity of intruder violence when the solution was gun control friendly than when it was friendly toward the possibility of arming civilians to defend themselves.
Kahan, who was Klein’s primary interviewee in the referenced Vox piece and an author of much of the relevant research, found Krugman’s view “amazingly funny,” in part because the research is so clear. Biased reasoning is in fact ideologically symmetrical. Kahan puts it better than I could, even though he did not resist ridiculing Krugman.
“There’s the great line, of course, about how his ‘lived experience’ (see? I told you, he’s doing empirical work!) confirms that motivated cognition ‘is not, in fact, symmetric between liberals and conservatives.’
“But what comes next is an even more subtle — and thus an even more spectacular! – illustration of what it looks like when one’s reason is deformed by tribalism:
“‘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?’
“Uh, no, PK. I mean seriously, no.”
Kahan hastens to point out that “[t]he test for motivated cognition is not whether someone gets the ‘right’ answer but how someone assesses evidence.” Indeed, “[t]hat Krugman is too thick to see that one can’t infer anything about the quality of partisans’ reasoning from the truth or falsity of their beliefs is … another element of Krugman’s proof that ideological reasoning is symmetric across right and left!” (Kahan’s emphasis).In other words, liberals assess the evidence and come to their conclusions using a process that is no better than that of the allegedly stupid conservatives (more here).
For Krugman, as for all of us, believing is seeing.
“...what a fool believes he sees No wise man has the power to reason away....”
Klein got to his desired tribal conclusion (Democrats good; Republicans bad) by recognizing (as the research demands) that Republicans and Democrats are similarly prone to partisan self-deception (confirmation bias) on the individual level, but suggested that the weakness of the Republican Party establishment has left the Democratic Party much more capable of checking its worst impulses. He then asked a follow-up in an effort to buttress his point: “So the question, then, is for conservatives: on what major policies is the bulk of the Democratic Party establishment ignoring…the evidence?”
As it happens, there are plenty of examples – none of which Klein (or Krugman) can see.
For liberals who believed a certain type of narrative about white privilege and preppy rich-kid high-handedness and misadventures at elite universities, the Duke lacrosse scandal was too good not to be true, facts be damned. It checked every box. Three wealthy Duke student-athletes, all of them white, part of a team known for its hard-partying, aggressive jocks, were charged with raping a poor black stripper during a spring break party at an off-campus rental that regularly served as the team’s party house.
Particularly egregious examples of this attempted rush to judgment can be seen narrated by Jon Stewart here.
Even after the comprehensive dismantling of the accuser’s claims and after the prosecutor was disbarred for multiple acts of blatant misconduct, the underlying narrative remained largely intact because the false accusation “was a virus that landed in the most hospitable petri dish imaginable, a culture rife with unresolved racial, sexual and class tensions and grievances.”
Thus, for a particular tribe of true believers, the people for whom Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons was written, the players were bad guys despite their exoneration (and the prosecutor was merely overzealous for a good cause). Civil libertarians and activists who typically oppose government overreach in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion bent over backwards to support a corrupt public official committed to withholding and hiding evidence and to railroading innocent defendants. Meanwhile, “law and order” conservatives were eager to denounce a system they had so often supported in the face of dreadful disconfirming evidence in the past when the conflicting narratives on offer demanded an either/or conclusion. But you did not see them taking up the struggle of others who may have been wrongly convicted by a corrupt prosecutor but who didn’t have the money and the platform to fight back the way the Duke defendants did.
Rolling Stone’s specious report of a gang rape at the University of Virginia provides another example.
There are plenty of similar instances of the left getting it wrong. Liberals looked to cancel those on the right who claimed – rightly, it turned out – that with respect to the pandemic, masks probably didn’t help, that Covid may have come from a Chinese lab leak, and that natural immunity wouldn’t help.And some on the left still refuse to acknowledge that they had ever been wrong. In related news, the left was wrong about Hunter Biden’s laptop being Russian disinformation (and worked to censor a press outlet for getting the story right) and wrong about how the Trump administration’s alleged regulatory failures led to the East Palestine derailment (notice how the Post’s headline leads with a ridiculous “So far” qualifier instead of honestly and unequivocally admitting that there was no evidence for the claim?).
These very public and clear examples ought to establish the universality of our tribalized bias blindness. Yet it does not deal specifically with Klein’s question: “So the question, then, is for conservatives: on what major policies is the bulk of the Democratic Party establishment ignoring…the evidence?” So let’s take up the challenge. There are plenty of examples, all driven by ideology.
Belief in the mind as a “blank slate” shaped almost entirely by culture, has been mostly the mantra of liberal intellectuals, who led an all-out assault on the now uncontroversial idea that human thought and behavior are at least partially the result of heredity. “The left-wing view is that everyone’s born the same and you can make everyone achieve the same way. From genetics research, we’ve shown that’s not true,” Saskia Selzam, of King’s College-London, said.
Belief in the power of astrology has grown significantly and Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to believe in it.
Liberals tend to deny the overwhelming consensus in psychological science that intelligence is moderately heritable.
Implicit bias testing has been a staple of diversity programs, the subject of countless glowing articles, and championed by left-leaning academics and HR departments hoping to rid the world of prejudice. However, this testing has repeatedly failed to meet basic scientific standards (see here, for example).
Progressives tend to deny or obfuscate the data suggesting that single-parent households lead to more behavioral problems among children.
Overwhelmingly progressive university schools of education deny the strong scientific consensus that phonics-based reading instruction facilitates most readers and especially those struggling the most.
Despite the lack of any scientific support for either claim, most Americans (and significantly more Democrats than Republicans) think organic foods are beneficial to their health while 40 percent of Democrats (slightly more than Republicans) think that genetically-modified foods are worse for their health.
Thousands of studies and meta-analyses have confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt that homeopathy is nonsense. Homeopathy is so ineffective that science geeks across the world have staged massive collective “overdoses” of homeopathy in order to demonstrate its impotence. Yet, more than a quarter of Americans continue to believe in its efficacy, with liberals being the worst offenders.
Ironically, one of the environmental movement’s biggest victories over the past five decades – crippling the expansion of nuclear power – has done irreparable harm to the environment. Nuclear power is responsible for exactly zero – none, squadouche, nada – greenhouse gas emissions. It is unquestionably the safest form of energy in existence, even safer than wind or solar, and is supported by 66 percent of working research scientists. Yet only 39 percent of Democrats support increased use of nuclear power, compared to 60 percent of Republicans.
And if you thought the nuclear power example was controversial: There are two biological sexes – not one, not three, not some other number (which, it needs to be emphasized, says nothing about anybody's right to live the way they choose and to possess the same rights as everybody else). The two sexesare delineated by whether their bodies are set up to produce large, immobile gametes (“females”) or small mobile gametes (“males”). Indeed, it is one of the fundamental rules of biology from plants to humans. Large gametes (reproductive cells) occur in females, small gametes in males. In humans, an egg is 10 million times bigger than a sperm. There is zero overlap. It is a full binary. There are no intermediate gametes, and thus no third sex. This is not a matter of significant scientific controversy. Here, as elsewhere, ideology is preventing people from teaching, studying, and learning scientific reality, which impedes our understanding of the world.
Liberals and conservatives alike react negatively to dissonant science communication. No matter our politics, no matter how smart we are,we “know” things that just ain’t so because our convictions trump our analysis.
“What people ‘believe’…doesn’t reflect what they know,” as Kahan explained. “It expresses who they are.” Therefore, as the Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Fixing a problem requires recognizing there is a problem. The current truth crisis afflicts and affects each and every one of us. It’s time everybody recognized that.
Totally Worth It
America does not have a monopoly on stupid politicians; see below.
Feel free to contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright) and let me know what you like, what you don’t like, what you’d like to see changed, and what you’d add. Praise, condemnation, and feedback are always welcome.
Of course, the easiest way to share TBL is simply to forward it to a few dozen of your closest friends.
Spain’s government spent a fortune on trains that don’t fit through its tunnels. In June 2020, Spanish railway giant Renfe commissioned the manufacturing of 31 trains – paid for by tax dollars – with dimensions that do not conform to the railway network on which they were going to travel.
In a piece for Granta Magazine, Marina Benjamin, a former professional gambler, reflects on why she spent several years touring the world playing blackjack. “Gamblers get into trouble, not least vortices of debt, because they cannot help pitting themselves against fate. They know that luck is capricious, evasive, flighty, which is part of its dangerous appeal; but they’re also convinced that they can somehow divine it,” she writes. “Those who study the phenomenon of loss aversion point out that what someone is willing to lose is always related to a reference point, and usually that reference point is the status quo: most people will put up with some degree of loss if it doesn’t upset their world too much. But if the point of reference is less stable the logic shifts. If you believe, as my father did, that you were born to have riches beyond compare then you will risk much more to lessen the gap between reality and expectation. If like me, however, the bar of your expectations is set differently, calibrated for reality, then your approach to risk is more calculated.”
You can buy a first edition Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), among other Johnson-related items, at this auction (Estimate: £1,000 - £1,500, fees also apply).
Reporting from Moscow, Kyiv, and Washington, Financial Times journalists Max Seddon, Christopher Miller, and Felicia Schwartz attempt to tell the definitive story of how Vladimir Putin blundered into Ukraine a year ago, and then doubled down. “The idea was never for hundreds of thousands of people to die. It’s all gone horribly wrong,” a former senior Russian official told them. “He tells people close to him, ‘It turns out we were completely unprepared. The army is a mess. Our industry is a mess. But it’s good that we found out about it this way, rather than when NATO invades us.’”
The Biden administration offered an equivocal response on Monday when asked about Sunday’s WSJ report indicating the Energy Department has shifted its assessment of COVID-19’s origins to conclude the virus most likely originated from a laboratory leak. “The intelligence community and the rest of the government is still looking at this,” White House spokesman John Kirby said. “There’s not been a definitive conclusion.” Officially, the intelligence community remains split on the virus’ provenance: The FBI and DOE believe it came from a lab, four other agencies and a national intelligence panel believe it was the result of natural transmission, and two additional agencies are still undecided.
Warren Buffett published his highly anticipated annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders last week. The letter has been an annual tradition for the 92-year-old “Oracle of Omaha” for more than six decades and it has become a must-read for investors around the globe. Read the full letter here.
You may hit some paywalls below; most can be overcome here.
This is the best thing I read this week. The funniest. The happiest. The sweetest. The most inspiring (but so sad). The most important. The most interesting. The most intriguing. The most incredible. The most insane. The most ridiculous. The most stimulating. The most powerful. The most promising. The most absurd. The best thread. The best forecast. The longevity of pop culture stardom. The terrorist heiress. How to win an Oscar. Shrinkflation.
Please send your nominations for this space to rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or via Twitter (@rpseawright).
The TBL Spotify playlist, made up of the songs featured here, now includes 250 songs and about 17 hours of great music. I urge you to listen in, sing along, and turn up the volume.
My ongoing thread/music and meaning project: #SongsThatMove
The great Iris DeMent has released her first album of original material in over a decade. It’s “like a parade on a stormy day, a celebration beneath increasingly ominous skies.” The title track is this week’s benediction.
Now I'm workin’ on a world I may never see I'm joinin’ forces with the warriors of love Who came before and will follow you and me I get up in the mornin’ knowing I'm privileged just to be Workin’ on a world I may never see
To those of us prone to wander, to those who are broken, to those who flee and fight in fear – which is every last lost one of us – there is One who offers grace and hope. And may love have the last word. Now and forever.
Thanks for reading.
Issue 144 (March 3, 2023)
NYU’s Jay Rosen posted a powerful thread about how bias impacts Fox News, especially as it relates to the ongoing Dominion Voting Systems case. It was excellent. In my first-ever interaction with him, I lauded the excellence of the thread and suggested he perform the same analysis on The New York Times (as its various newsroom debates make clear, the differences are much more of degree than kind). Rosen didn’t respond and blocked me.
Obviously, as an active partisan, we should not be surprised at Krugman’s convictions or his bias blindness. Overcoming inherent bias is exceedingly difficult. Moreover, Krugman makes a difficult situation much worse by failing even to consider opposing viewpoints, which is vital if one is to have a hope of beating bias.
“Some have asked if there aren’t conservative sites I read regularly. Well, no. I will read anything I’ve been informed about that’s either interesting or revealing; but I don’t know of any economics or politics sites on that side that regularly provide analysis or information I need to take seriously. I know we’re supposed to pretend that both sides always have a point; but the truth is that most of the time they don’t. The parties are not equally irresponsible; Rachel Maddow isn’t Glenn Beck; and a conservative blog, almost by definition, is a blog written by someone who chooses not to notice that asymmetry.”
You can’t make stuff like this up. Krugman’s piece definitively disproves the claims he makes therein and this earlier piece gives one pretty good reason why. It is both hysterically funny and tragically sad.
Some on the right have used these errors as the (entirely wrong-headed) basis for claiming that Covid wasn’t a big deal and that Covid vaccines don’t work.
People who are hermaphrodites, having both male and female gonadal tissue, are almost always sterile. They, along with intersex individuals, comprise only about 0.018 percent of the population. That’s about one per every 5,600 people. For all intents and purposes, this describes a binary. To claim otherwise is quibbling.