Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Perceiving political and policy facts

David Dayen at FireDogLake commented on the following two articles, both of which raise sobering questions about the prospects of developing a strong progressive politics:

Joe Keohane, How facts backfire: Researchers discover a surprising threat to democracy: our brains Boston Globe 07/11/2010

David A. Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin, Historic oil spill fails to produce gains for U.S. environmentalists Washington Post 07/12/2010

David Dayen's comments are found in Environmentalist FAIL: Why the BP Disaster Hasn't Moved the Needle on Climate and Energy 07/12/2010 and Exposed to Facts, the Misinformed Believe Lies More Strongly 07/12/2010. Digby also comments on the Joe Keohane article in How Do We Think? Hullabaloo 07/12/2010.

The most interesting line in Keohane's article to me came in his last paragraph. Following a reference to Meet the Press, he writes:

Fast-talking political pundits have ascended to the realm of highly lucrative popular entertainment, while professional fact-checking operations languish in the dungeons of wonkery.
The observation itself is unremarkable. What is remarkable is to see it in a major article in the mainstream press.

This is a thought-provoking article. But Keohane is dealing with a complex subject, and he covers a lot of ground. His topic is a number of studies that indicate that political partisans are often particularly resistant to accepting factual corrections to their assumptions on facts related to their political opinions. As he summarizes it:

Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters - the people making decisions about how the country runs - aren't blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper. ...

These findings open a long-running argument about the political ignorance of American citizens to broader questions about the interplay between the nature of human intelligence and our democratic ideals. Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we're right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote. [my emphasis in bold]
I'm tempted to say that Keohane is both more and less that what it appears. I'm just not so sure about the "more" part.

My ambiguity on the point comes from the fact that the set of issues he addresses is an important one, the ways in which people evaluate factual information in general, and what factors affect that process in particular with relation to politics and public policy. Freud's pessimism about the future course of humanity, expressed in books like Civilization and Its Discontents, had to do with the ways in which unconscious drives, feelings and thoughts toss around our relatively feeble intellects like ships in a big storm. As he saw it, as society becomes more and more complex, the psychic mechanisms through which people conform to social demands become more and more demanding. In psychoanalytic terms, it makes the superegos of individuals more and more punitive by increasing guilt feelings, which in turn give rise to more aggression.

He's also addressing the question of the qualitative increase in the amount of information on politics and public affairs that the Internet has provided. The suggestion that this increase has made partisan allegiances more significant as a tool for screening and prioritizing information seems very plausible to me.

On the other hand, it's not a novel recognition in 2010 that people's perceptions of politics are driven by emotional and group-affiliation factors such as partisanship.

There are hints in Keohane's article at some of the possible problems with the research assumptions. For instance:

It's unclear what is driving the behavior — it could range from simple defensiveness, to people working harder to defend their initial beliefs — but as Nyhan dryly put it, "It's hard to be optimistic about the effectiveness of fact-checking."

It would be reassuring to think that political scientists and psychologists have come up with a way to counter this problem, but that would be getting ahead of ourselves. The persistence of political misperceptions remains a young field of inquiry. "It's very much up in the air," says Nyhan. [my emphasis]

And Keohane is comparing apples and oranges to a certain extent. He cites a 2007 study, for instance, showing that being corrected on their information about the number of immigrants in the US (not specifically about undocumented immigrants) didn't change the subjects' "views on immigration."

But that's not the same as saying they refused to accept the factual correction. It's not clear from his summary whether they did or not. But the result seems to me to be a confirmation of an obvious expectation. White people who get agitated at all the "Mexicans" they see around and start worrying about immigration aren't working from an analysis of national demographic data to begin with. It's not surprising that hearing about numbers that never mattered to them in the first place wouldn't change their opinion on policy.

This also points to a serious problem in designing this sort of study. I'm married to an immigrant, and I couldn't tell you off the top of my head what proportion of the US population is immigrant. And if I made a guess and someone corrected me, I would have some questions before I was convinced. For instance, we hear 12 million being commonly used right now as the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States. But that is an estimate, and a softer one than general population projections. In fact, the US Census - which some Republicans and Radical Rightists tried to sabotage this year with a lot of scare talk to discourage people from cooperating - is the most comprehensive measure of the US population. And its only done every 10 years, as the Constitution requires. The Census Bureau does periodic updates based on more limited surveys.

In other words, the more you know about how the US population counts are done, the more reluctant you would be to accept a factual correction without knowing some details about how it was derived.

And voters also don't need to know whether the actual count of undocumented workers is 12 million or more like 11 million or 13 million to be able to understand the basic structure of the immigration issue today. In other words, you can be a responsible, well-informed citizen on the immigration issue without knowing that count. The larger number of the proportion of all immigrants within the US population is even less relevant to the comprehensive immigration reform issue currently on the country's political agenda.

I intentionally didn't look up the original studies Keohane cites before writing this post, because I wanted to react to his report itself. It's a good, thought-provoking article and well worth reading, much more substantial than the usual fare in our national press these days. But it does strike me that he's drawing large conclusions from what may be more limited findings.

And I suspect there may be similar qualifications that need to be made on other issues as there are on the immigration question. I would think, for instance, that if someone cheered in 2002-3 for invading Iraq based on their belief there were "weapons of mass destruction" there, there would be a different set of emotional commitments to holding on to the false belief than there would be in the question of, say, climate change. Cheering for war and killing based on lies is a particularly ugly thing. I can certainly understand why people wouldn't want to admit to themselves that's exactly what they had done.

A quick comment on the article on environmental issues. Fahrenthold and Eilperin word the article in common Beltway Village framing, in which what happens in Congress and what the chatter is among the Villagers is a reflection of what Real Americans are thinking. But it seems to me that the lack of urgency in Congress has to do with the Republicans' obstructionism, the Democrats' chronic defensive crouch, and, of course, the influence of industry lobbies' whose clients are opposed to improved environmental protection. The poll results they cite have to do with global climate change, not specifically with the BP oil disaster. I'm guessing that the scale of the BP oil catastrophe has made a lot of people more aware - "raised their consciousness", to use a New Agey phrase - of the magnitude of our environmental risks. But polls asking about global climate change in general are not going to get at that effect.


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