Posted by: Michael Logan | October 9, 2010

Real Or Imagined Equivalence?

People Are Allergic To Facts

I was reading about this interesting study on the cognitive biases found in liberals and conservatives, and the thing I found most fascinating was the determination the author showed in trying to portray the findings as equally damning of both sides.

In the first question, participants were predisposed to believe that a majority of experts agreed with their personal point of view. Among those with an egalitarian/communitarian mindset (i.e., liberals), 78 percent reported (correctly) that there is a scientific consensus that climate change is occurring.

But among those with a hierarchical/individualistic attitude (i.e., conservatives), only 19 percent said there was a scientific consensus that climate change is real. Fifty-six percent reported the scientific community is divided on the issue, and another 25 percent insisted that most scientists agree with them that climate change is not real.

Before you start cursing close-minded conservatives, consider this: When it came to the issue of safely storing nuclear waste, the opposite effect was found (although the differences between the two groups were not as large). Thirty-seven percent of those on the right reported, correctly, that the scientific consensus supported their view. In contrast, 35 percent of those on the left inaccurately believe the scientific consensus reflects their opinion.

When it came to assessing the imaginary expert, the attitude he purportedly held “dramatically affected the responses” of the participants, Kahan and his colleagues report. If his writing sample reflected the belief the planet is at high risk from global warming, 87 percent of those on the left agreed he was trustworthy and knowledgeable, compared to 23 percent of those on the right. The numbers reversed when the expert, with the exact same credentials, stated that climate-change risks are low: 86 percent of conservatives called him knowledgeable and trustworthy, compared to 47 percent of liberals.

The first numbers (78% right on the Left, 81% wrong on the Right) only tell you that those on the Right are factually wrong on that particular issue (that there is a scientific consensus supporting the occurrence of climate change); where the strangeness begins is the 3rd paragraph, when the author tries to negate the results of the 1st question by pointing out that only 35% of those on the Left accurately believed that nuclear waste could be stored safely. The problem is that only 37% of those on the right got the same question correct, and the author’s use of language tries to obscure the fact that statistically speaking, both sides got the question wrong equally.

Now consider the 3rd result; while true that both sides assessed the integrity of the “expert” based on their concurrence with the participant’s own views, but the left was 24% more likely to accept his claims even though they went against their own beliefs, twice that of those on the Right. Consequently, I feel it is a fair conclusion to state that while all people demonstrate this tendency to trust those sources that reinforce their own opinions, the right is more likely to do so, and gets a greater number of things wrong as a result.

My biggest contention with this article is not the findings, but the shameless and dishonest way in which the author attempts to misrepresent the findings to support their own position, that Left and Right are equals (2 sides of the same coin, if you will) on the issue of intellectual integrity. Clearly, there is a difference. Less clear is whether the author intended the irony found in this piece.

Michael

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