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« Vaccine risk perceptions and risk communication: study conclusions & recommendations | Main | Finally: decisive, knock-down, irrefutable proof of the ideological symmetry of motivated reasoning »
Wednesday
Apr092014

More on "Krugman's symmetry proof": it's not whether one gets the answer right or wrong but how one reasons that counts 

Okay, I've finally caught my breath after laughing myself into state of hyperventilation as a result of reading Krugman's latest proof (this is actually a replication of an earlier empirical study on his part) that ideologically motivated reasoning is in fact perfectly symmetric with respect to right-left ideology.

Rather than just guffawing appreciatively, it's worth taking a moment to call attention to just how exquisitely self-refuting his "reasoning" is!

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.

The test for motivated cognition is not whether someone gets the "right" answer but how someone assesses evidence.

A person displays ideologically motivated cognition when, instead of weighing evidence based on criteria related to its connection to the truth, he or she credits or dismisses it based on its conformity to his or her ideological predispositions.

Thus, if we want to use public opinion on some issue -- say, climate change -- to assess the symmetry of ideologically motivated reasoning, we can't just say, "hey, liberals are right, so they must be better reasoners."

Rather we must determine whether "liberals" who "believe" in climate change differ from "conservatives" who "don't" in how impartially they weigh evidence supportive of & contrary to their respective positions. 

How might we do that?  

Well, one way would be to conduct an experiment in which we manipulate the ideological motivation people with "liberal" & "conservative" values have to credit or dismiss one and the same piece of valid evidence on climate change.  

If "liberals" (it makes me shudder to participate in the flattening of this term in contemporary political discourse) adjust the weight they give this evidence depending on its ideological congeniality, that would support the inference that they are assessing evidence in a politically motivated fashion.  

If in aggregate, in the real world, they happen to "get the right" answer, then they aren't to be commended for the high quality of their reasoning.  

Rather, they are to be congratulated for being lucky that a position they unreasoningly subscribe to happens to be true.

And vice versa if the "truth" happens (on this issue or any other) to align with the position that "conservatives" unreasoningly affirm regardless of the quality of the evidence they are shown.

That 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!

For in fact, "the 'other side' is closed-minded" is one of the positions that partisans are unreasoningly committed to. 

One of the beliefs that they don't revise in light of valid evidence but rather use in lieu of truth-related criteria to assess the validity of whatever evidence they see.

This proposition is supported by real, honest-to-god empirical evidence -- of the sort collected precisely because no one's personal "lived experience" is a reliable guide to truth.

That PK is innocent of this evidence is-- another element of his proof that ideological reasoning is symmetric across right and left!

As is his unfamiliarity with studies that use the design I just suggested to test whether "liberals" are forming their positions on climate change and other issues in a manner that is free of the influence of politically motivated reasoning.  Not surprisingly, these studies suggest the answer is no.

But does that mean that all liberals who believe in climate change believe what they do because of ideologically motivated cognition? Or that only someone who is engaged in that particular form of defective reasoning would form that belief?

If you think so, then, despite your likely ideological differences, you & Paul Krugman have something in common: you are both very poor reasoners.

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Dear trolls just for the record, I am not here to feed you. No peanuts from this writer. Sorry.

Mr. Kahan, I note that you haven't taken up my challenge. I will remain open to debate if any actual arguments are put forward. In the meantime I have to conclude that there don't seem to be any. Nobody has even remotely addressed the question why issues such as climate science or the age of the planet should at all be a matter of "ideological predispositions". They are not. They are questions of scientific fact. What is so peculiar about contemporary right-wing politics is not so much their ideological interpretation of facts as the flat-out rejection of facts (here's more evidence for you to hyperventilate on: http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/18/on-the-liberal-bias-of-facts/).

There are other problems with Kahan's position that deserve a closer look.

Kahan stated: "The test for motivated cognition is not whether someone gets the "right" answer but how someone assesses evidence." "If in aggregate, in the real world, they [liberals] happen to "get the right" answer, then they aren't to be commended for the high quality of their reasoning. Rather, they are to be congratulated for being lucky that a position they unreasoningly subscribe to happens to be true."

If your hypothesis is symmetry in cultural cognition, you really ought to explain why the outcome is asymmetric. Hand-waving isn't enough. The outcome is a relevant piece of evidence and it seems that you Mr. Kahan draw on your ideological predispositions ("laughing myself into state of hyperventilation") to assess that evidence. Which is of course what your theory says you should do but it isn't actually the kind of confirmation that you'd want, if you follow me here.

The deeper problem however is this: Kahan conflates two very different issues:
1) How do people form their respective views - are they formed by careful consideration of the available evidence, by appeal to authority, by superstition?
2) How do people respond when they are confronted with evidence that challenges their dearly held views?

It is neither new nor surprising to observe that most people resist changing their views. After all, we have invested a lot of intellectual and emotional capital in our world view. That is true for left and right. It is also true for Galileo and Einstein as much as anybody else. It does not follow however that all positions are equally "unreasoningly subscribed to". It doesn't follow that Galileo and his opponents were all equally ideologically driven, and that Galileo just happened to be right.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTM

"climate science or the age of the planet should at all be a matter of "ideological predispositions". They are not. They are questions of scientific fact. What is so peculiar about contemporary right-wing politics is not so much their ideological interpretation of facts as the flat-out rejection of facts"

Was the hockey stick a fact? How about the 1000s of climate models that turned out to be wrong? All the wrong predictions about warming that haven't materialized?

What does the left do when confronted with these failures of their facts? No one rejects facts like liberals. Ask a liberal about public housing projects and they will still argue they were a great idea. Ask them about Clinton's welfare reform and they will still argue people will be starving in the streets. Typical Liberal projecting.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNate

You forgot to mention that Obama is a Kenyan Muslim.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTM

Nobody has even remotely addressed the question why issues such as climate science or the age of the planet should at all be a matter of "ideological predispositions".

I don't think Kahan claims that. His view seems to be that, most of the time, most Americans respect science and scientists and will be more likely to believe something if told it's the scientific consensus unless the issue is one they perceive as threatening to their group identity. So while conservatives are threatened by AGW or evolution, liberal group identity might be threatened by nuclear power, fracking, GMOs, vaccines, etc. (I'm not sure if anyone is saying that those issues are equivalent, I certainly wouldn't.) From his POV, if you want the public to evaluate science rationally, you have to prevent arguments from being "polluted" by these cultural encodings. (In one of his papers or posts he mentioned that in the early 90s, tradeable emissions seemed to be an acceptable policy to conservatives.)

I think it's fair to ask, though, how much control we could have over that when, some days, it really does feel like some old billionaire gets up on the wrong side of the bed and says "I've decided that we all hate Common Core and Bus Rapid Transit now!" and flips a switch to activate the hate machine. (Then tomorrow they could decide that because unions hate CC conservatives have to love it, and the affordability of BRT just goes to show what a wasteful boondoggle (they claim) trains are.)

And speaking as a stranger who showed up at some academic's blog because someone linked to and started posting comments, I certainly can't blame someone for not responding when a whole bunch of strangers show up at the same time and start posting comments.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterConsumatopia

"I don't think Kahan claims that."

Kahan writes: "A person displays ideologically motivated cognition when, instead of weighing evidence based on criteria related to its connection to the truth, he or she credits or dismisses it based on its conformity to his or her ideological predispositions."

This is written directly in response to the Krugman quote arguing that right-wing rejection of climate science etc. is evidence of a left-right asymmetry (*). Kahan dismisses this out of hand, not by denying the evidence but by claiming that it is irrelevant. Kahan clearly claims that climate change is an ideological issue and that liberals accept climate science not on the strength of the evidence but because it is ideologically convenient. Kahan doesn't even begin to provide any evidence for that claim. It simply follows from his, ahem, predispositions I guess is the term...

(*) Here's Krugman as quoted by Kahan: "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?"

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTM

@TM, er, yeah, you're basically right. I guess what I mean is that while Kahan is saying that individual liberals are engaging in ideologically motivated reasoning just as much as conservatives, I'm not sure that he's saying that liberal or scientific institutions as a whole have only reached the conclusion they reached for ideological reasons.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterConsumatopia

I don't know Mr. Kahan's views in much detail, I am just responding to a blog post and some of the comments.

There's a related blog post by John Quiggin on the topic of left-right-symmetry:

"I’ve written many posts and articles making the point that the political right, in most English speaking countries1 has been taken over by a tribalist post-truth politics in which all propositions, including the conclusions of scientific research, are assessed in terms of their consistency or otherwise with tribal prejudices and shibboleths. ...
But, far more often their response takes the form of a tu quoque or, in the language of the schoolyard, “you’re another”. That is, they seek to argue that the left is just as tribalist and anti-science as the right."

http://crookedtimber.org/2014/04/21/tu-quoque/

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTM

From TM:

"Dear trolls just for the record, I am not here to feed you. No peanuts from this writer. Sorry.

Mr. Kahan, I note that you haven't taken up my challenge. I will remain open to debate if any actual arguments are put forward."

But he refuses to confront the issue before him.

"But tell me this: If we're told a given set of inputs should result in an outcome, and that outcome does not result, is it illogical to conclude we have not collected the proper inputs? Is it beyond reason to ask that models actually predict something remotely accurate before imposing drastic efforts on the basis of those models?

If this is shoddy reasoning, I'd like to be told exactly how."

This, somehow, is trolling. But actual science, actual reason is accepting what we're told and ignoring common sense? And guys like TM wonder why we're not buying...

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterspongeworthy

@spongeworthy, if you didn't notice when I responded to that argument the first time, that's not very promising for further discussion. Maybe some other time.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterConsumatopia

I am an independent. Both sides of the political divide have their own cognitive problems, both have their science denial, and both, more than anything, like to shift costs to the future generations.

Krugman himself will never escape the fact that his economics are heavily dependent on pushing costs incurred today on future generations and dependent specially on relentless growth to pay the bills incurred today and shifted to tomorrow

Krugman's own economic modeling explicitly requires major US population growth, which is more consumption of everything, more cars, more paving, more housing, more high intensity farming, more water use, more energy use, more use of everything and more stresses on ecology than ever.

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKC

"You forgot to mention that Obama is a Kenyan Muslim.
April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTM

I guess you would have a heart attack at finding that trope was first nationally flogged by Hillary's primary campaign against Obama.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/barackobama/8478044/Birther-row-began-with-Hillary-Clinton.html

Or that in 2006 Scripps Howard found the majority of Democrats believed the Bush administration was complicit in 911 WTC attacks.

I suggest your read Professor Kahan's work more carefully. He completely took apart Krugman's blind and childish partisanship.

Why are Democrats more likely to believe the sun revolves around the earth, and why are Republicans less likely to believe in evolution? Why do most Democrats think gun murder is up when it has plummeted? Why are Republicans less likely to subscribe to AGW? Why are Democrats more likely to believe 911 was a Mossad or Bush operation? What is going on with anti-science fear of vaccines and GMOs?

The first step in understanding and addressing these issues is to drop the vitriolic partisanship that harms both understanding of the issues, and the understating of how people understand them. Krguman's own bias is ironically an example of the problem itself.

April 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKC

He completely took apart Krugman's blind and childish partisanship.

No, he completely misunderstood what Krugman was saying. See comments above.

That's not to say that Kahan's work isn't worth studying in detail, or that Krugman wouldn't learn a lot from it.

April 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterConsumatopia

@TM:

Just read the studies linked in the post. That's my argument. Be delighted to hear what you think of them -- and to entertain alternative conjectures you or others might have that can be tested with the data the studies comprise)

How about you try this challenge.

April 22, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Mr. Kahan writes:

[I]f we want to use public opinion on some issue -- say, climate change -- to assess the symmetry of ideologically motivated reasoning, we can't just say, "hey, liberals are right, so they must be better reasoners."

I don't believe that Mr. Krugman is trying “to assess the symmetry of ideologically motivated reasoning”. Rather, it seems to me that he is trying to reconcile:
1) The research result that ideologically motivated reasoning is held symmetrically by individuals regardless of ideology, with
2) His observation that there is an asymmetry between the institutions of the two major political parties with respect to basing their proposed policies on well-established facts.

Krugman proposes two possibilities for reconciling the perceived asymmetry in fact-based policy on the institutional level with the observed symmetry in ideologically motivated reasoning at the individual level.

The first possibility is that the perceived asymmetry at the institutional level is not real. That is, Krugman acknowledges that it might be that case that he is not recognizing examples where liberal institutions are taking positions that are as much at odds with the facts as the three conservative positions he cites.

The second possibility is that the asymmetry at the institutional level is real. In that case, there must be some mechanism situated between the individuals and the institutions that is different for the two political parties.

Mr. Kahan, do you believe that the asymmetry at the institutional level is real? That is, do you believe that there exist the 'liberal equivalent[s] 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?'

If you believe these liberal equivalents exist, do you believe that they can be identified in principle? In practice?

Best
Jim Bales

April 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJim Bales

@Jim:

These are good questions.

I think the exchange has become disoriiented & disorienting b/c (a) how individuals of diverse cultural outlooks make sense of evidence on disputed facts-- the only matter I am addressing -- is being run together with (b) the positions that political parties take & (c) the magnitude or some other measure of the mistakes about the best available evidence relating to public policies.

To think (b) foillows from (a) is a mistake. Ezra Klein is making it.

To believe one can infer (a) from (b) is a mistake. People make this error all the time. KIrugman did here, I think (but I'll look again in light of your comments).

I don't know how to think about (c); I think the question "is there a liberal equivalent of climate change" is ill-formed. But I should & will try to explain myself on that,, but as I said the post, and I as address in this post, the manner in which most people who have "liberal" outlooks reason about climate change is itself is the liberal equivalient to how most conservatives reason about it. That is, they both fit in a motivated fashion all manner of information to the position that predominaties in their cultural group; neither's views reflects what they know--it reflects who they are.

Under these circumstances, being "right" doesn't show one side is "reasoning" better. It shows that it is lucky the position is us unreasoningly committed to happens to be the correct one.

April 26, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

Mr. Kahan writes,

"I think the exchange has become disoriented & disorienting b/c (a) how individuals of diverse cultural outlooks make sense of evidence on disputed facts-- the only matter I am addressing -- is being run together with (b) the positions that political parties take ... To think (b) follows from (a) is a mistake. Ezra Klein is making it." (typos fixed)

I think the nub is here: "To think (b) follows from (a) is a mistake."

Rather than speaking of the mistaken position, let me recast as something like:
"(a) does not determine (b)"

That formulation leaves open the possibility that:
"(a) can influence (b)"

I believe that Messrs Krugman and Klein presumed at least the weaker formulation:
"(a) [how individuals of diverse cultural outlooks make sense of evidence on disputed facts] can influence (b) [the positions that political parties take]".

If there is absolutely no connection between (a) and (b), then there is no conundrum for Krugman to resolve, for party positions are independent of how individual members make sense of evidence.

And now I was about to type something like,
"But intuitively shouldn't we expect (a) to influence (b)?"

At which point three thoughts immediately entered my mind.
1) "Intuition" sounds an awful lot like "lived experience", and will get the same treatment.
2) Despite (or, perhaps, because of) my PhD in Physics, my ways of thinking have repeatedly been shown to not work well when applied to topics in the social sciences.
3) Given the recent finding by Gilens and Page that "economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence," then why should we expect (b) to be shaped by (a)?

I wonder if (3) may be a fruitful response to Messrs Klein and Krugman. That is:
“If citizens have very little influence on policy, and policy is legislated and implemented by parties, why should anyone expect the positions of the parties to follow from how individuals make sense of evidence?”

Best
Jim Bales

April 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJim Bales

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