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Facts Be Damned — At Least When It Comes To Politics

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re one of those people who believes in the power of human reason. You’re someone who thinks that with enough intellect, information, time, and reflection the human brain can rationally figure out “the truth.”

Sorry, but a new study powerfully argues just how irrational that belief in reason actually is. It finds that the smarter we are, the better we are at seeing things however we want to see them, the factual truth be damned.

The smarter we are, the better we are at seeing things however we want to see them.

Yale professor Dan Kahan and his colleagues first determined the “numeracy” of their study subjects. Numeracy is a measure of both mathematical ability and one’s willingness to think slowly and carefully in order to get the right answer. The subjects were also asked to place themselves on an ideological/political spectrum, somewhere between strongly Conservative/Republican and strongly Liberal/Democrat.

They were then asked to figure out, based on the following chart, whether a hypothetical skin cream was better or worse for helping with a rash.

rash final

Seems obvious, right? Using the cream is better. Only if you stop and think about the numbers, for the users, 75 out of a total of 298 people (75 + 223), or 25 percent, got worse. But among those who did not use the cream, 21 out of a total of 128 (21 + 107), or only 16 percent, got worse. So, in fact, not using the cream is better. Oops!

Predictably, the more numerate subjects did better on the quiz. But then the subjects in a different group, also rated for numeracy and their political beliefs, were shown a different chart. It had the same numbers, but the question was ideologically loaded: Is a city ban on the carrying of concealed weapons better or worse at reducing crime? (The subjects were told these were only hypothetical data about gun control.)

crime final

As with the math above, the answer is not obvious. It has to do with the ratios. Crime increased 25 percent with a ban but only 16 percent with no ban. In this hypothetical, “no ban” was better at reducing crime.

As with the first quiz, about the skin cream, the less numerate subjects jumped to the easy-but-wrong answer. And you would figure that the more numerate subjects did better, right?

Nope.

Not only did the more numerate subjects get this ideologically loaded (sorry, gun pun) question wrong, but the more numerate they were, and the more they had self-identified as either strongly Conservative/Republican (C/R) or strongly Liberal/Democrat (L/D), the more wrong they were.

Could there be anything more depressing about the hope for reaching intelligent evidence-based policy on guns, or climate change, or genetically modified food, or abortion, or any of the polarized issues of the day?

The more C/R someone was the more they miscalculated and overrated the “no ban” option, and the more L/D someone was the more they screwed up the math they were supposed to be good at and overrated the ban on carrying concealed guns. The supposedly smarter subjects were more wrong than the less numerate subjects about cold hard numbers.

Here’s how Kahan and his coauthors summed this up: “Individuals high in science comprehension have a special resource to engage evidence in a manner calculated to generate ideological congenial conclusions.”

In other words, the smarter we are, the better we are at seeing the facts the way we want to see them, rather than the way they are.

Kahan’s other research (into what is known as Cultural Cognition) has found that we develop our views not so they match the evidence but so they agree with those in the groups with which we most closely identify. That way, we will be accepted as a member of our group in good standing, which is profoundly important to social animals like us that depend on the group (the tribe) for our safety and survival. With this most recent study, Kahan has added evidence that the smarter we are, the better we are at contorting the facts so they work in our favor.

Could there be anything more depressing about the hope for reaching intelligent evidence-based policy on guns, or climate change, or genetically modified food, or abortion, or any of the polarized issues of the day? We don’t reason rationally, but emotionally, to find whatever truth suits our instinctive needs. That is truly frightening, in a world where increasingly complex problems and bigger threats demand more rational open-minded analysis, not less.

This program aired on October 2, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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