The Jugglers’ Paradox: Kahan’s Latest Mistake

OK, this is getting out of hand. Kahan’s latest, widely celebrated publication is just wrong.

Marty Kaplan takes Dan Kahan to the next level, promoting Kahan’s latest publication in an explicitly depressing piece on the widely read Huffington Post site: “Most Depressing Brain Finding Ever“:

say goodnight to the dream that education, journalism, scientific evidence, media literacy or reason can provide the tools and information that people need in order to make good decisions. It turns out that in the public realm, a lack of information isn’t the real problem. The hurdle is how our minds work, no matter how smart we think we are. We want to believe we’re rational, but reason turns out to be the ex post facto way we rationalize what our emotions already want to believe.

Yes, indeed this is what Kahan wants us to take home from his paper. But his paper doesn’t actually show anything of the sort! Oddly, his position is somewhat vindicated by the reaction to his paper, as the media themselves display motivated reasoning.

Kaplan’s summary is a good start:

In Kahan’s experiment, some people were asked to interpret a table of numbers about whether a skin cream reduced rashes, and some people were asked to interpret a different table — containing the same numbers — about whether a law banning private citizens from carrying concealed handguns reduced crime. Kahan found that when the numbers in the table conflicted with people’s positions on gun control, they couldn’t do the math right, though they could when the subject was skin cream.

This much is true enough. But then Kaplan goes on to say that

The bleakest finding was that the more advanced that people’s math skills were, the more likely it was that their political views, whether liberal or conservative, made them less able to solve the math problem.

I would like to convince you that, while literally true, it’s unimportant. It’s like saying that flashing lights are more likely to make a competent juggler drop the the ball than they are to make someone like me drop the ball. That is because I cannot juggle; your attempts to distract me cannot work on a task that I already fail at.

It’s worse than that, though. Because Kahan is not measuring what he claims he is measuring. Not at all.


 

Going back to Kahan’s experiment, where “some people were asked to interpret a table of numbers about whether a skin cream reduced rashes, and some people were asked to interpret a different table — containing the same numbers — about whether a law banning private citizens from carrying concealed handguns reduced crime”, the “table of numbers” was set up specifically to be confusing. The table showed ratio of results A and not-A in cases of treatments X and not-X; thus four cases. The question was whether X was indicated to be effective in causing A by these data. Thus there were four entries in the 2×2 table:

(X,A) (X,not-A)
(not-X,A) (not-X,not-A)

To do this correctly you have to “solve the word problem” yielding a requirement to compare the ratios (X,A/X,not-A) and (not-X,A/not-X,not-A). If the former is larger than the latter, then the treatment can be called “effective”. But there is a trick – the sample sizes for X and not-X are different.

In a typical well-designed experiment, one could just compare (X,A) and (not-X,A). But the data presented are not like that. You have to do the ratios in your head. To make matters worse, the numbers are selected to make the arithmetic less than obvious to most people.

The “correct answer” is obtained by the less numerate far less than would be indicated by chance  in the case where there is no cultural bias. By chance half would be right. But the problem is set up so that less than 30% of the less numerate get the correct answer.

And even in those cases, one has to presume that the “correct answer” may not have been obtained by correct reasoning. 

Now you can set up the cultural bias so that culture pulls for the right answer or pulls for the wrong answer, and both treatments are tried. Sure enough, the left-wingers uniformly are pulled toward the answer expected by (contemporary American) left-wing ideology and vice-versa for the right wingers.

Kahan’s big result is that cultural bias is more effective in drawing an incorrect answer among the more numerate. That is what is making the headlines.

There’s no surprise that cultural bias reduces reasoning. Of course it does! So do loud noises, sexual stimuli, flashing lights, being hit over the head with a mallet. The fact that people can be distracted is not news.

The purported surprise is that a larger percentage of the more competent people were distracted.

But remember, it is a trick question! The success rate of the less competent is worse than chance! And some of that success is accidental!

In other words, a cultural distraction is more effective in reducing the competence of people who can do the task than that of those who are not competent to do the task in the first place. Stop the presses.


Screen shot 2013-09-17 at 1.20.05 PM

 

Consider the comparable experiment with people who can juggle on one side and people who can’t juggle on the other. Set up a pair of juggling tests, one under ordinary conditions and the other in the presence of sudden, random, loud noises. The preformance of the adept will decline. The performance of those who cannot do the task under the best of circumstances will stay the same.

Can we therefore conclude that “highly dextrous people are more subject to distraction than clumsy ones”? Well, sort of, but it doesn’t really tell us very much of interest.

Can we conclude that “they applied their dexterity to the task of dropping the ball”? In this case that doesn’t even make any sense. Why should the analogous reason be relevant in Kahan’s?


 

Kahan defines his experiment as testing between what he calls “SCT” (his renaming of the “deficit model”) and his preferred “ICT”:

Whereas SCT attributes conflicts over decision-relevant science to deficits in science comprehension, ICT sees the public’s otherwise intact capacity to comprehend decision-relevant science as disabled by cultural and political conflict.

Again, there is the “deficit model”. It is a complete straw man. Nobody anywhere argues against the proposition that decision-relevant science can be disabled by cultural and political conflict.

Those of us who are cast as “defending the deficit model” are simply arguing against the proposition that once such conflict is put in place (often by malice) that all attempts at explanatory exposition are doomed to failure and should cease.

But here, I am arguing that Kahan completely misinterprets his data.

More numerate individuals are benefitted from forming identity-congruent beliefs just as much as less numerate individuals are, and harmed just as much from forming identity-noncongruent beliefs. But more numerate individuals have a cognitive ability that lower numeracy ones do not. ICT predicts that more numerate individuals will use that ability opportunistically in a manner geared to promoting their interest in forming and persisting in identity-protective beliefs.

No. The data do not support this at all.


 

The paper can be downloaded freely. Here is the link again:
http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2319992

Have a look at Figure 7, which admittedly is (ironically enough) a bit of a cognitive challenge.

Screen shot 2013-09-17 at 11.38.49 AM

What does this tell us?

There are sixteen curves, testing all possibilities of four conditions:
a) treatment is effective or ineffective according to made-up data presented to subjects (dashed vs solid)
b) ideological bias applies (top vs bottom graphs)
c) subject is more like a “democrat” or like a “republican” (red vs blue)
d) subject is mathematically more/less competent than average (left vs right graphs)

Kahan draws our attention to “increased polarization” of the more numerate population. The separation between the two blue curves on the lower right is wider than the separation on the lower left. The separation between the red curves is similarly widened. That is, the effectiveness of ideology in distracting the more numerate is stronger than the effectiveness of ideology in distracting the less numerate.

So much is clear from the data.

What doesn’t follow is Kahan’s conclusion that “more numerate individuals will use that ability opportunistically in a manner geared to promoting their interest in forming and persisting in identity-protective beliefs”.

I’m not saying such a thing is impossible. It just fails Occam’s razor quite horribly. There is a much simpler explanation – the less numerate people never had the required competence in the first place. Thus the ideological confound did them less damage. They had already failed to begin with.

Rather than looking horizontally across the bottom of the graph, compare vertically, within the competency groups.

You will see that in the non-ideological case, the less numerate group preformed worse than chance would indicate. In short, it is a trick question.

Of the small group that got it “right”, we can presume that a good section of those got it right by chance, either by compensating errors or guesswork. The small remainder can be considered experimental noise, and we can define the group on the left as basically incapable of solving the problem presented to them.

In this group, the republicans defer to ideology and split their vote in the ideological condition. Interestingly, the democrats do not, and indeed show a hint of improvement in their capacity. On the whole, though, we still see worse-than-chance in all conditions except the one where the facts accord with the republican bias.

On the other hand, in the competent group, we see significant decay of the actual real competence of the democrats presented with the ideological confound, and a huge decay in the actual real competence of the republicans. However, in no case was the performance WORSE than that of the less competent group.

We also see a bump in the performance of republicans when ideology favors the correct answer. This is the “erroneously correct” or “right for the wrong reasons” crowd.

But that’s the point here. The horizontal axis on the graphs is labelled “probability of correct interpretation of the data” but that isn’t what is being measured! What’s being measured is, instead, probability of answer in agreement with correct interpretation. By adding a distraction, the performance of the competent deteriorates, but the performance of the less competent improves!

This latter effect should be discounted. The graph on the lower left is essentially noise.

Kahan wants us to believe that the more competent group is using mental resources to fool themselves. Since this has a lot of similarity to subjects in my wife’s PhD thesis about divided attention under hypnosis, I am not unfamiliar with the idea. It is conceivable.

But he hasn’t shown us that at all.

He claims he has shown us that because the effect is smaller among the less mathematically competent. Leaving aside the interesting question of whether mathematical competence enhances or suppresses capacity for self-delusion, his evidence is misinterpreted.

His argument is based on the idea that ideology can disrupt a competence that doesn’t even exist. It conflates “getting the right answer” with “correct interpretation”. The data tell us nothing about “correct interpretation”, despite the claims.


 

People can get the test question wrong for multiple reasons including:

1) They can fall for the arithmetic trap
2) They can pay no attention to the numbers whatsoever and vote at random
3) They can get the reasoning wrong and come up with the wrong answer
4) In the ideological challenge condition, their bias can sway them to contrive complex delusional arguments in defense of their preferred outcome (Kahan’s explanation)
5) In the ideological challenge condition, their bias can sway them to pay less attention and settle for the politically congruent answer
6) In the ideologicalchallenge condition, their bias and their perception of the social context (“demand characteristics”) of the experiment can cause them to ignore the data altogether.

In the case of the right answer there is similarly:

1′) Get the reasoning right
2′) pay no attention to the numbers whatsoever and vote at random
3′) They can get the reasoning wrong and come up with the right answer anyway
4′) In the ideological confirmation condition, their bias can sway them work harder at the problem
5′) In the ideological confirmation condition, their bias can sway them to pay less attention and settle for the politically congruent answer
6′) In the ideological confirmation condition, their bias and their perception of the social context (“demand characteristics”) of the experiment can cause them to ignore the data altogether.

Jumping to the conclusion that phenomena 4 and/or 4′ are key to the shift seems woefully premature. It is clear that the proportions are certainly different in different groups and treatments. The construction of the experiment does not isolate those phenomena from the others.

To the contrary, if this tested ideological interference in both groups, both groups would have had to perform better than chance. In the present case, the performance of the weaker group improved in the ideologically weighted conditions, moving them closer to (and in one favorable case beyond) pure chance.

To really justify #4 you’d need a case where the more both groups performed significantly worse, the more competent worst of all. Conceivably you could construct such a case. But even then all you could say is that such an effect measurably exists, not that it dominates in the real world. This particular example doesn’t even show that.


 

It is also notable that in all cases numeracy improved performance all else equal, though in one case (Republicans under ideological stress) not much and perhaps not significantly.


 

Kahan’s claim is that

1) Ideology interferes with reason MORE among those with better reasoning capacity
2) This argues against the proposition that conflicts over decision-relevant science are due in large measure to deficits in science comprehension

While I have argued here that point 1 is not supported at all, it is also notable that point 1, even if demonstrated does not lead to point 2. Skill and comprehension are mangled in reaching point 2. But since point 1 is not supported, point 2 is moot on present evidence.


 

This all said, nobody disputes that ideology can interfere with reason. That it would not is just a straw man position. The dispute here is over his claim that he has shown that technical competence makes it worse.


 

The reason this is all important is not because it amounts to the celebration of weak research. This wouldn’t be the first time such a thing happened.

It’s important because people are using it to suggest that once a problem is politicized, nobody has any obligation to provide balanced evidence. That this offers a clear path for the malign manipulation of the press somehow is not raised. In this case the press isn’t just trumpeting some marginal evidence to get eyeballs. In this case they are looking for absolution. Ironically, their embrace of Kahan’s work has all the signs of motivated reasoning.


UPDATE: Eli links. Twice.


Image Special Effects Maiko via Flickr user Okinawa Soba is in the Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Comments:

  1. Thanks for writing this. Kahan's interpretations of his own findings seem to be getting worse and worse. In his previous work, he conflated scientific literacy with the ability to answer a handful of pub trivia questions correctly:
    http://www.easterbrook.ca/steve/2012/05/what-is-science-literacy/
    ... and his work was seized on by the news media to build a case that people who deny climate change understand the science just as well as those who don't. Of course the study showed no such thing.

  2. I know that social scientists have to simplify their experiments to get a meaningful result, so please don't interpret the following as a generic moan about reductionism. But...

    People simply do not get their information in the form of skill-testing math quiz questions. Typically, they will see a TV or newspaper report that gives the answer upfront, reported as "scientists say", which will either be an accurate report of the consensus view of scientists, or, in the case of the Murdoch press, a cherry-picked fringe view. If the actual statistics are reported at all, they will be buried several paragraphs later.

    Not only that, but this message will be repeated on other media, ad nauseam, if it's an important one. And then it will be validated or rebutted by personal experience or testimony from trusted informers. In other words, in the real world, attitudes are confirmed or changed after serial experiences, including repeated exposure to reports of what experts think (97% of experts say....).

    So, while it is undoubtedly true that people will be prone to err on the side of their prejudice when analyzing numbers, this has almost nothing to do with how real humans make up (and change) their minds on real problems in the actual world over extended periods, where they are subject to repeat information from various sources, some trusted, some not.

    Kahan's experiment provides some useful corroboration of the kind of cognitive biases already well documented by Kahneman et al, but it does not, in my opinion, constitute an in vivo refutation of the deficit model or any other means of communicating the information that people use to make up their minds.

  3. > There’s no surprise that cultural bias reduces reasoning. Of course it does! So do loud noises, sexual stimuli, flashing lights, being hit over the head with a mallet.

    Do we get to choose?

    If I do, I choose blog comments.

    Wait. Was it among the choices?

  4. I hate to be that person who only interacts to disagree (I promise I read your other posts, too, honest!) but...

    "It’s important because people are using it to suggest that once a problem is politicized, nobody has any obligation to provide balanced evidence."
    I don't think I've ever heard this suggested by anyone.

    "In this case they are looking for absolution. Ironically, their embrace of Kahan’s work has all the signs of motivated reasoning."
    I want to push back on this, as last time, and say I think this is an incredibly unfair thing to posit about a large number of people who work very hard and care very deeply about that work. I still don't see why one would be predisposed to believing that one's work is pointless. Again, I worry that you're conflating writers of lousy, let's-get-the-skeptics'-perspective journalism with the science writers/communicators wrestling with things like the "deficit model". In reality, I think there's extraordinarily little (if any) overlap in that Venn diagram.

    Hopefully I've made my points without sounding like a jerk.

    • I very much welcome intelligent disagreement; I just don't usually rush to turn around to agree with it!

      You question: “It’s important because people are using it to suggest that once a problem is politicized, nobody has any obligation to provide balanced evidence.”

      Consider this Twitter exchange:

      https://twitter.com/RogerPielkeJr/status/374242375565991938

      ===
      Roger Pielke Jr. @RogerPielkeJr 28 Aug

      What do journos think of the revolving door bt environmental
      journalism/activism?
      http://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2013/aug/28/era-climate-change-denial-over

      ===
      A Siegel @A_Siegel 1 Sep

      Maybe -- like @BillMcKibben -- learning about #climate science drives
      one to activism ...

      ===
      Roger Pielke Jr. @RogerPielkeJr 1 Sep

      @A_Siegel Ye Olde Deficit Model

      ===

      I read Roger here suggesting that it is impossible for a journalist to turn activist because of evidence as a consequence of the information deficit fallacy; i.e., the fallacy that learning does happen and it's not all politics all the time.

      To the contrary, the deficit model fallacy in this view demonstrates that there is no learning in any case, that there is only politics, therefore that explaining is a waste of time.

      These guys try to teach this in classrooms, too. I can't imagine the rhetorical gymnastics to justify that.

      Consider, too, this article in Ensia by Greg Breining which Andy Revkin recently endorsed. ( http://ensia.com/voices/when-science-communication-backfires/ )

      Breining's advice:

      "Science and the pursuit of knowledge are terrific stories to tell —
      stories that shed light on human nature and the nature of the world.
      They are too good and too interesting in their nuance and
      complications to leave to the black-and-white world of activists and
      propagandists. And they are important for creating the critical
      agreement needed for collective decision making."

      "As communicators, we can frame issues in ways that let people see
      them in a new light that is less threatening to their political
      predisposition. For example, we can discuss a move away from coal
      power plants in terms of the public health threats of emissions rather
      than climate change. And we can portray carbon taxes as a way to
      reduce the tax burden elsewhere while reducing the conflicts of land
      use and pollution associated with fracking for gas, drilling for oil
      and slicing off mountaintops for coal. In both cases, the climate
      would benefit even though it’s not the primary motivation for change."

      I submit, with the evidence that I read this article on Revkin's enthusiastic endorsement, that this is conventional wisdom in the journalistic culture. (As always in these discussions, I hope everybody reading has read Jay Rosen's famous View from Nowhere self-interview, which shows the phenomenon is not particular to science journalism.)

      Further, when I confront Revkin or Fleck or Kloor with the idea that the current predicament is to some extent the fault of journalism's failure to convey it effectively (I have done so in all three cases) I am met with a rather dismissive attitude, that I "don't understand the social science literature". In short, they are hiding their failures behind the evidence of polarization, rather than acknowledging their share of the blame for allowing that polarization to happen.

      • With your permission, I'll decline to attempt interpretation of Pielke's quip. I'm not exactly sure what he means, or that he's a good representative of this discussion.

        Let's take Breining, though. I think he's exaggerating his "so shall I despair?" when he writes "In fact, Kahan raises the possibility that communicating science in a politicized environment will only serve to further polarize." Kahan would certainly vehemently oppose that idea, for what that's worth. Discussions about this sort of thing at, say, science communication conferences revolve around "so what can we do to make this work?" rather than "and that's why we can all go home".

        And I think the section you quoted here probably could be considered representative of the "conventional wisdom", to the limited extent that one exists. I'm not sure why that would bother you. (Perhaps you can elaborate? It seems like a separate point to me.) Framing is huge. Not in some fake, marketing kind of way, but in a fundamental and obvious one. If I set up a story with "Republicans are so stupid for ignoring Al Gore's brilliant documentary. A new study shows it was right about..." how is that going to play with half of the country? If you instead avoid referencing the culture war, and maybe mention progress made (and money saved) in energy efficiency or something, you're likely to have more readers whose minds are still receptive when you get to the new science.

        Far from hopelessness about the deficit model, I think this is just an admission that we can communicate better when we understand what the reader takes away from a story. I don't think there's any way around recognizing that "but wait- maybe *this* graph will change your mind!" isn't effective when people already recognize that those graphs are something liberals like and conservatives should sneer at. As you say, that shouldn't shock anyone. If it weren't true, why would the contrarian movement still exist? Put another way, if the data didn't cause the divide, why expect the data to solve it? I don't think that abandoning communication of the facts follows from the deficit model. What does follow is the understanding that more than the facts are in play, and more than the facts are going to have to be addressed to get people on board who aren't already. That means *adding* very different kinds of communication, not replacing information with propaganda or silence.

        Basically, I disagree that Breining's post supports your contention.

        Now, as for assigning blame, I certainly wouldn't argue that the media hasn't given skeptics a far larger place in the public debate than appropriate. But I truly don't think the evidence supports the idea that this was the source of the political divide.

        Did CNN initially go seek out opponents because they always like to bring skepticism and context to new scientific results? (I'll wait while you finish laughing...) Obviously they did so because the political divide was already there, and therefore recognizing it became the "politically impartial" thing to do. (Plus arguments make for good TV.)

        Now, the question of whether that lousy media treatment amplified the polarization *to a large degree* is an interesting one that I don't think should be answered simply. There is a lot of evidence (that has caused me to change my thinking) that this is more about an "appetite for misinformation" caused by the formation of the divide than a successful and continual misleading of the public by the shyster elite. I think that's a serious argument you can make, and it shouldn't be disregarded out of hand.

        Anyway, that's not really part of the point I wanted to make, and I recognize that you have reasons for the opinions you express unlikely to be addressed by an over-simplified paragraph or two.

      • My contention is not, and never has been, that one should ignore framing; my contention is not, and never has been, that mere facts without rhetoric can win a debate.

        My contentions are:

        1) The "deficit model" is a strawman position that nobody holds. Arguing against it is pointless and boring.
        2) The fact that the public is unaware of the balance of evidence is a problem
        3) The problem is due only in part to malfeasance by a small group of oil and coal barons, and only in small part due to compulsive and shallow libertarianism at their pet think tanks.
        4) A large part of the blame goes to those whose job it is or ought to be to communicate science, who have failed
        5) Kahan explicitly excuses the role of the press
        6) Not surprisingly they like him
        7) The quality of his work does not justify the attention he gets
        8) I suspect motivated reasoning on the part of the press for Kahan's prominence

        Your "not the point I wanted to make" goes exactly to my point.

        Now, the question of whether that lousy media treatment amplified the polarization *to a large degree* is an interesting one that I don’t think should be answered simply. There is a lot of evidence (that has caused me to change my thinking) that this is more about an “appetite for misinformation” caused by the formation of the divide than a successful and continual misleading of the public by the shyster elite. I think that’s a serious argument you can make, and it shouldn’t be disregarded out of hand.

        I think there's a third factor - there's an appetite in the press for polarization that they can stand above and sneer at. I think this is key, and it is this to which Kahan panders.

        The polarization constitutes an explicit and clear failure of science communication. Whatever the obstacles to this communication, and they are indeed significant, it is explicitly somebody's job to keep the public informed, and that somebody is the press.

        The "formation of the divide", the selection of MyFacts vs YourFacts, the utter confusion on all sides, is, above all, a failure of the press to do a good job of distinguishing between information, misinformation, and willful disinformation. The reason I try do what I try to do is because the press has, on the whole, spectacularly failed to do what I am trying to do.

        For every Chris Mooney or Elizabeth Kolbert there are a dozen hacks calling Judith or Roger up every time they need a dash of confusion to make their stories come out even, and another couple of dozen on each side of the stupid political fence squawking absurd paranoid narratives that are at best occasionally half true by luck.

        We lack for competent communicators and we lack for people arguing for a sane, unparanoid, informed, collaborative discourse.

        Polarization, I suggest, is not an innate feature of the human psyche. It's an accident of culture. At least we have to hope so, because if it isn't, then we have to wonder what Jefferson was going on about. If polarization is inevitable and facts are to be divided up into red facts and blue facts before they hit the ground, then the whole principle of democracy has to be wrong. Forgive me for not being eager to give it up.

        Until we see better-designed studies that compare across cultures, we have a big nature vs nurture question. To the extent that we have nurtured our monstrous discourse (and I'm old enough and Canadian enough to remember when it worked better) we have to consider the contemporary media to be part of the problem.

      • I'm going to skip a couple points that are frustrating me, and focus on one portion.

        1- If this basically all boils down to "science communicators/journalists are incompetent boobs who lazily lean on false balance", why are there so many scientific issues that never become politically divided, even when communicated by said boobs? Why is it that the select few (climate, evolution, GMOs, vaccines, et al) have become divided?

        2- Given the improvement in "false balance" type coverage over time (ref, ref) why hasn't public opinion followed suit? (To be clear, I can imagine answers to this question but am curious about yours.)

        3- If all other journalists had avoided false balance completely, would NewsCorp & friends still have screwed the issue?

      • False balance is only part of the story; my complaint is not "false balance" but simply focusing on controversy in the first place.

        Nobody seems to know that we really are serious about reducing net emissions to practically zero. Why? Not why do or don't they oppose it; why don't they grasp it?

        Nobody seems to understand that carbon accumulates in the system. Why not? Why does everybody talk about emissions and concentrations interchangeably? (I note that economists have the same complaint, that people cannot seem to distinguish between debt and deficit. These are not difficult distinctions. Is everyone on the science and economics beats completely innumerate?)

        Recent coverage focuses on severe event attribution and the global mean surface temperature trend. Why aren't other aspects of the climate problem given any attention?

        Almost nobody has any idea what a climate model does or what it is for, including some of the people most involved in arguing. Why not?

        Awareness of ocean acidification is near zero. Even most climate scientists cannot explain it coherently. Why?

        Just about everybody seems to believe that the problem stops in the year 2100. Why?

        These questions are not about polarization. They are about competence regarding the issue.

      • Yet, if they oppose it, they are largely incapable of grasping it. (Just restating something we've already agreed on.)

        And I think I'm about to use an argument Dan Kahan has made (I'll duck for the flying tomatoes), but if most of the public really did fully understand all those points, they would likely be more knowledgeable about this scientific issue than they are about many others where no cultural divide exists.

        (Just to be certain I've made this clear, I'm certainly not saying that trying to help people understand those concepts isn't a good idea. I'm an educator who does some writing- teaching stuff is what I'm all about. I just think this stuff is all wrapped up together.)

  5. Eli, being a dumb bunny, would like to point out the interesting dog in the data that is barking madly. Specifically the results in all cases for the dumb liberals stayed about the same. In fact, if there is any significant change there is motion against ideology (they did better on the crime increases data than on the rash increases).

    What Kahan has really shown is don't trust anything a conservative republican tells you. Sadly so.

  6. While agreeing strongly with mt's points, and Eli's simplifications, what struck me about this when I took a close look was the high proportion of people who were guessing. Since the result was a matter of fairly simple arithmetic, what fails here at a massive scale is education.

    It seems people are in such a hurry these days they rarely take long enough to look at the problem and consider it in a straightforward manner.

    I return to my irritation with a culture that values the appearance of knowledge so much that they are unwilling to accept "I don't know" as a place to start.

    It is annoying to have Kahan front and center on this for weeks, with all the bloviating hypocrisy of talking heads avoiding the fact that this isn't rocket science.

  7. MT: "Whatever the obstacles to this communication, and they are indeed significant, it is explicitly somebody’s job to keep the public informed, and that somebody is the press."

    A laudable ideal for the press, perhaps, but a realistic one? I've often wondered about the adaptive feedback process that takes place between headline stories, advertising revenue and paper sales - not an original theme, very Chomskyish, but there's a bit of a sad moral involved. Paper revenue underpins their direction: their advertisers are after the eyeballs so competition is fierce. There are specific niches to target: I'm a Guardianista and I get my Guardianista sandal-wearing tofu-knitting buttons pressed plenty.

    Other papers end up calibrating to different public erogenous zones - but this is of course describing a system absolutely at odds with the `responsible public information' role you want the press to have. I'm not saying it's nice or good, I'm just wondering whether blame isn't more diffuse than you suggest. The public choose what they want to read, daily - the press adapts daily and has become highly adept at what it does.

    I can imagine (but have no evidence) that climate skepticism became locked in to e.g. the Daily Mail in the UK for precisely this reason: they discovered it sells well to their key demographic and, as it stands, their advertisers are not frit by it.

    Also: even in wartime the press' role isn't as clear-cut as you suggest - in fact in some ways its role becomes even less to do with straightforward `public information'. The neutral truth about events during the two world wars while they were happening? Not what the press was doing.

    I guess I'm just saying the relation of the press to a `public information' role is not what scientists might want it to be. I don't know how that should change one's response, if at all. It partly goes back to what role we think `public opinion' may play in outcomes.

    • MT: "it is explicitly somebody’s job to keep the public informed, and that somebody is the press." I hardly need to remind you that whether it's the press's "job" to keep the public informed depends on who you ask. From my point of view, the job of the press is to sell me accurate information about what's happening in the world. From the point of view of the advertisers who keep the press in business, it's to sell them the attention of as many potential customers as possible, and to keep the customers in the mood to spend money.

      When I thought of it that way, I better understood why so much of the news I read seems manufactured, and why it's so hard to find out anything about the important stuff.

      • Do try Al Jazeera if you have more than network TV (or on the web). It's been a few short weeks, but they deliver real news.


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