Sunday, February 25, 2018
Opinion

How politics trumps math

When the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, "everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts," the scholar and statesman was issuing a prescient warning: • Watch out America, a self-governing society puts itself in danger when its people dismiss factual evidence that runs counter to their political biases. • Said another way: When the uninformed run a country, it's generally run aground.

This is how I feel every time I read another story of the tea party contingent in Congress, a tight-knit group that would rather drive the American economy over a debt-ceiling cliff than accept Obamacare as law. (Yes, that means you, Sen. Marco Rubio.)

What can they possibly be thinking? Some clues later.

Just about anyone would agree society is better off if public policy is based on well-reasoned conclusions drawn from sound data — Moynihan's world. But in the real world, and especially lately, people's political passions are crowding out the facts.

It is easy to see how this plays out with issues such as man-made climate change, the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only sex education, vaccination safety or even whether Iraq had WMDs. In each case, for some people, the overwhelming scientific or empirical evidence is not penetrating. Their reasoning takes a holiday.

If we can figure out why this happens there may be hope for change.

A new fascinating research project by Yale Law School's Cultural Cognition Project has some answers. In Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government Yale law school professor Dan Kahan and his colleagues used an ingenious test to determine if people reject discordant hard evidence because they have a weak understanding of science or because the political conflict itself impedes their ability to understand the science.

Test subjects were asked to solve a reasonably complicated math problem interpreting a scientific table. One group was told the data indicated the effectiveness of a new skin cream on a rash. Another group using the same data was told it illustrated the impact on crime rates in cities that had banned concealed handguns in public.

The researchers found that liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans did equally interpreting the skin-rash data. (Overall 59 percent of test subjects got the answer wrong.) But when the same data involved gun control, the people who were best at mathematical reasoning were also most likely to let their political biases affect their answers.

Highly math-literate liberal Democrats scored great when the right answer was that gun-control decreased crime. But in tests where the numbers were reversed and the correct answer was that crime increased when concealed weapons bans were imposed, they did poorly.

Flip that for strongly numerate conservative Republicans. They scored well when the correct choice indicated the ban failed and did badly when the right answer was that gun control was a success.

It was as if their mathematical skills had abandoned them.

Kahan says people have a large stake in staying within a certain cultural affinity group and will filter evidence in accordance with the group's viewpoint to maintain that relationship.

For individuals, this kind of ideologically motivated thinking is perfectly rational behavior. It's tribal. They don't want to be out of favor with people they depend upon for material and psychic support, and it typically isn't costly for them to misconstrue reality on large policy questions. But collectively, Kahan explains, it's disastrous. Society can't coalesce around sensible, evidence-based approaches to addressing public problems. For a self-governing society it could spell doom when we border on catatonic on climate change and economic inequality, the two most important long-range challenges facing the nation.

The bad news is that better science education and critical thinking skills — the logical prescription when people refuse to face facts — won't loosen the grip of those who cling to irrational political beliefs. Less polarization will. But that's nowhere on the horizon.

For tea party supporters, who claim to stand for individualism, group-think beats the truth every time.

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