“Clueless bumblers”: Explaining the “noise” in a polluted science communication environment…

So the question is: what explains the resistance of some individuals to the sort of conformity effects that are the signature of cultural cognition & like forms of motivated reasoning?

To ground the question, I posed it as a challenge to come up w/ some testable hypothesis that would explain visible “outliers” in a couple of data sets, one that correlated environmental risk perceptions and cultural outlooks and another that correlated right-left political outlooks and “policy preferences” (positions on a set of familiar, highly contested political issues like climate change, gun control, affirmative action, etc.)

Quite reasonably, the first conjecture — advanced with palpable ambivalence by @Jen — was that the “outliers” are people with an independent cast of mind, ones who resist “going with the crowd” and instead form positions on the basis of knowledge of, and reflection on, the evidence.

Well, of course I have measures of “cognitive reflection” and “political knowledge.”

The  “cognitive reflection test” (CRT) is considered by many psychologists and behavioral economists to be the “gold standard” for measuring the disposition to use effortful, conscious forms of information processing (“System 2”) as opposed to intuitive, heuristic-driven (“system 1”) ones.

If the “outliers” are people disposed to critically interrogate intuitively congenial assessments in light of available information, then we might expect them to have higher CRT scores.

Indeed, consistent with this expectation, several papers (like this one, & also this, & this, & this too)  have now been published that use the negative correlation between CRT and religiosity to support the inference that those who are highly religious are less disposed to engage in the sort of critical reasoning associated with making valid use of empirical evidence. (These studies all seem pretty sound to me; but the reported effects always strike me as quite small & also much less interesting than those associated with the interaction of religiosity & critical reasoning dispositions.)

The standard “political knowledge” test consists of a battery of very elementary civics/current-events questions (e.g., “How long is the term of office for a United States Senator? Is it two years, four years, five years, or six years?”; “Which party currently has the most members in the U.S. Senate?  Is it the Democrats, the Republicans, or neither one?”).

One might think that such questions would have no particular value — either that “everyone” would know the answers or that in any case they are too simplistic to tap into the mix of motivations and knowledge that one might equate with a “sophisticated” understandings of matters political.

But in fact, “political knowledge” has shown itself to be a highly discerning measure of the coherence of individuals’ policy positions with one another and with their self-reported political outlooks and party attachments.  Use of the measure has played a very very significant role in informing the orthodox political science view that most members of the public are indeed intensely non-political and non-partisan, and hence motivating the project to understand how mass political preferences manage to display the sorts of regularities and order (such as “polarization” on various questions) that are so conspicuous in everyday life.

One answer to this question is that politically unsophisticated types “go with the crowd”– by using various types of “cues” to orient themselves appropriately in relation to others who they experience some sort of affinity.

As a result, we might think that the “outliers” — the individuals who resist forming the “off the rack” clusters of views that are in effect badges of membership in one or another cultural or like affinity group — would likely be high in political knowledge, and thus less dependent on “group views” to guide them in forming perceptions of risk or positions on largely utilitarian policy questions like whether “concealed carry laws increase crime– or decrease it.”

But as plausible as these conjectures are, they are wrong.  Or in any case, if we use CRT and political knowledge to test the “independence of mind” hypothesis, the data featured in the last post do not support that account of why the outliers are outliers.  On the contrary, those measures strongly support a conjecture that is diametrically opposed to it — viz., that the outliers are “clueless bumblers” who lack the knowledge & collection of reasoning dispositions necessary to rationally pursue an important element of their own well-being….

This is another scatter plot based on the data reported in the last post to illustrate the correlation between environmental risk perceptions and cultural worldviews.  But now I’ve color-coded the observations — the individual study participants– in a manner that reflects their scores on a “long form” version (10 items rather than 3) of the CRT.

As can be seen from the color of the observations inside the “outlier circles” (which are position in the same place as last time), the “outliers” are definitely not high in cognitive reflection.  On the contrary, they consist disproportionately of low-scoring respondents.

High-scoring ones — those in the 90th percentile and above — are more likely to be “conformers.”  Indeed, this can be seen from the regression lines that I’ve superimposed on the scatter plot. The effect isn’t super strong, but they show that CRT magnifies the polarizing influence of cultural predispositions on environmental risk perceptions (an impact the “statistical significance” of which is reflected in the regression analysis that you can inspect by clicking on the image to the right).

Next, consider this:

Using the data that I reported last time to illustrate the connection between right-left political outlooks and “policy preferences,” I’ve now color-coded the respondents based on their political knowledge scores.

Again, the “outliers” are not more politically sophisticated but rather considerably less so than the conformers.  The impact of political knowledge in amplifying the fit between political outlooks (measured by a scale that aggregates study particiants’ responses to standard liberal-conservative ideology and partisan self-identification measures) & policy preferences is pretty darn pronounced (and measured in this regression).

These results shouldn’t be a surprise– and indeed, @Jen’s trepidation in assenting to these ways of testing the “independence of mind” hypothesis reflected her premonition that they would likely be highly unsupportive of it.

On political knowledge, all I’ve done here is reproduce the conventional political-science wisdom that I referred to earlier.  “Political knowledge” amplifies the coherence of ordinary individuals’ policy preferences and their fit with their self-professed political leanings.  So necessarily, those higher in political knowlege will display greater conformity in this regard, and those lower less.

But why exactly? This is an issue on which there is interesting debate among political scientists.

The traditional view (I guess it’s that, although the scholars who started down this road were clearly departing from a traditional, and psychologically crude understanding of mass political opinion) is that those higher in “political knowledge” are “better informed” and thus able more reliably to connect their policy views to their values.

But another approach sees political knowledge as merely an indicator of partisanship.  People who are disposed to form highly coherent — extremely coherent — policy preferences to gratify their disposition to experience and express a partisan identity are more likely to learn about current events, etc.

But they aren’t necessarily making “better”use of information.  Indeed, they could well be making worse use of it, if the coherence that their policy positions reflect derives from some species of biased assessment of evidence.

This is now a position gaining in strength.  It is reflected in the very interesting & wonderful book The Rationalizing Voter by Taber & Lodge.

But the impact of cognitive reflection in mangifying this form of coherence is not what one would expect under T&L’s “rationalizing voter” view.

Without reflecting on the possibility of any alternative, T&L embed politically motivated reasoning in the conventional “system 1/system 2” dual process theory of cognition.  For them, the tendency of partisans to fit evidence to their political predispositions reflects their over-reliance on heuristic-driven and bias-prone “system 1.” “Political knowledge” magnifies motivated reasoning because, on their view, it is a measure of partisanship, and thus of the strength of the motivation that is biasing information processing.

If this were correct, however, then we should expect partisans who score higher in CRT to show less conformity or coherence in their views.  Those who score high in CRT are more disposed to use effortful, conscious “System 2” reasoning, which reduces their vulnerability to the cognitive biases that plague system 1 thinking.  If, as T&L posit, politically motivated reasoning is a system-1 form of bias, then its effects ought to abate in those who score highest in CRT.

Or in other words, on T&L’s view, our “outliers” should be high in CRT. But they aren’t. On the contrary, the outliers have the lowest CRT scores!

But this shouldn’t come as a surprise either, at least to the 14 billion readers of this blog.

The reason CRT amplifies cultural cognition is that cultural cognition & like forms of motivated reasoning are not a bias at all. They are elements of information processing that predictably and rationally advance individuals’ interests.

What an individual believes about the impact of carbon emissions on global warming, the safety of nuclear power, etc. has zero impact on the risk that person or anyone he or she cares about faces.  That’s because the influence that that individual (pretty much any individual) has as consumer, voter, public conversant, etc. is too inconsequential to have any measurable impact on the activities that generate those risks or the adoption of policies intended to mitigate them.

But if an ordinary person makes a mistake about a “fact” that has come to be viewed as a symbol of his or her membership in & loyalty to an important affinity group, then that person’s life could be miserable indeed. That person can expect to be viewed with distrust by those he or she depends on, and thus ostracized and denied all manner of benefit, material and emotional.

Perfectly rational for a person in that situation (the situation is not rational–it is collectively irrational; it is not “normal”– it is “pathological“; it is tragic) to use his or her knowledge and reasoning abilities to give appropriate effect to evidence that promotes formation and persistence in beliefs that express her identity.

And if he or she is more adept at cognitive reflection or some other element of critical reasoning, then we should expect that person to do an even better job of such fitting.

This, of course, is the “expressive rationality thesis” that informed the CCP studies on the relationship between cultural cognition and science comprehension.

The studies consist of observational ones demonstrating that cultural polarization increases as people become more “science literate” & experimental ones showing that the reason is that they are using their critical reasoning dispositions–including cognitive reflection and numeracy–in an opportunistic way that more reliably fits their beliefs to the ones that predominate in their group than to the best available evidence.

My surmise is that the “political knowledge” battery does measure (even if crudely) elements of knowledge (or at least the disposition to attain it) that individuals need to have in order to form identity-congruent beliefs on disputed issues of risk and like facts.  Political knowledge magnifies coherence in policy preferences, on this view, not because it generates a biasing form of motivation — the T&L position — but because rational people can be expected to use their greater knowledge to promote their well-being.

So what about the outliers?

On this account, they are sad, clueless bumblers.  They lack the knowledge and reasoning dispositions to reliably form beliefs that advance their expressive interests.

They aren’t reflective and independent thinkers; they are “out to lunch.”

And I bet their lives are filled with misery and solitude….

Mine is, too, when I reach this sort of conclusion.

So give me some more hypotheses.

Give me some alternative measures for “independence of mind” and alternative strategies for using them to test whether there might still be some as-yet unidentified element of critical reasoning that resists cultural cognition, or at least its complicity in the effacement of reason associated with a polluted science communication environment.

And better still, use your reason to formulate and test and implement strategies for removing the pathological conditions that divert to such a mean & meaningless end the faculties that make it possible for us to know.

Leave a Comment