Thursday, April 10, 2014

Persuasion and other myths...

I have struggled with disappointment for years over my inability to find arguments to persuade farmers and others with logic to share my views on topics from subsidies to inflation to climate change. But new research suggests I was born too late (or early) for this strategy to have much of a chance. In our era, a different belief dynamic is at work.

As I have pointed out before, empirical (observed) evidence - facts, if you will - just don't seem to pack the persuasive power I believe they should.
Presented with this problem a funny thing happened: how good subjects were at math stopped predicting how well they did on the test. Now it was ideology that drove the answers. Liberals were extremely good at solving the problem when doing so proved that gun-control legislation reduced crime. But when presented with the version of the problem that suggested gun control had failed, their math skills stopped mattering. They tended to get the problem wrong no matter how good they were at math. Conservatives exhibited the same pattern — just in reverse.Being better at math didn’t just fail to help partisans converge on the right answer. It actually drove them further apart. Partisans with weak math skills were 25 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology. Partisans with strong math skills were 45 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology. The smarter the person is, the dumber politics can make them.Consider how utterly insane that is: being better at math made partisans less likely to solve the problem correctly when solving the problem correctly meant betraying their political instincts. People weren’t reasoning to get the right answer; they were reasoning to get the answer that they wanted to be right.The skin-rash experiment wasn’t the first time Kahan had shown that partisanship has a way of short-circuiting intelligence. In another study, he tested people’s scientific literacy alongside their ideology and then asked about the risks posed by climate change. If the problem was truly that people needed to know more about science to fully appreciate the dangers of a warming climate, then their concern should’ve risen alongside their knowledge. But here, too, the opposite was true: among people who were already skeptical of climate change, scientific literacy made them more skeptical of climate change.This will make sense to anyone who’s ever read the work of a serious climate change denialist. It’s filled with facts and figures, graphs and charts, studies and citations. Much of the data is wrong or irrelevant. But it feels convincing. It’s a terrific performance of scientific inquiry. And climate-change skeptics who immerse themselves in it end up far more confident that global warming is a hoax than people who haven’t spent much time studying the issue. More information, in this context, doesn’t help skeptics discover the best evidence. Instead, it sends them searching for evidence that seems to prove them right. And in the age of the internet, such evidence is never very far away. [More of a must-read]

My problem is exacerbated by being pretty moderate and therefore wishy-washy on many ideological issues.  I don't have nearly as much problem changing my mind on issues, and since I have been shown to be wrong so many times, it's not new to me. But the larger factor is the blessing of friends who cut me some slack.  Not everybody has that these days.
Imagine what would happen to, say, Sean Hannity if he decided tomorrow that climate change was the central threat facing the planet. Initially, his viewers would think he was joking. But soon, they’d begin calling in furiously. Some would organize boycotts of his program. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of professional climate skeptics would begin angrily refuting Hannity’s new crusade. Many of Hannity’s friends in the conservative media world would back away from him, and some would seek advantage by denouncing him. Some of the politicians he respects would be furious at his betrayal of the cause. He would lose friendships, viewers, and money. He could ultimately lose his job. And along the way he would cause himself immense personal pain as he systematically alienated his closest political and professional allies. The world would have to update its understanding of who Sean Hannity is and what he believes, and so too would Sean Hannity. And changing your identity is a psychologically brutal process.Kahan doesn’t find it strange that we react to threatening information by mobilizing our intellectual artillery to destroy it. He thinks it’s strange that we would expect rational people to do anything else. "Nothing any ordinary member of the public personally believes about the existence, causes, or likely consequences of global warming will affect the risk that climate changes poses to her, or to anyone or anything she cares about," Kahan writes. "However, if she forms the wrong position on climate change relative to the one that people with whom she has a close affinity — and on whose high regard and support she depends on in myriad ways in her daily life — she could suffer extremely unpleasant consequences, from shunning to the loss of employment."Kahan calls this theory Identity-Protective Cognition: "As a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values." Elsewhere, he puts it even more pithily: "What we believe about the facts," he writes, "tells us who we are." And the most important psychological imperative most of us have in a given day is protecting our idea of who we are, and our relationships with the people we trust and love.Anyone who has ever found themselves in an angry argument with their political or social circle will know how threatening it feels. For a lot of people, being "right" just isn’t worth picking a bitter fight with the people they care about. That’s particularly true in a place like Washington, where social circles and professional lives are often organized around people’s politics, and the boundaries of what those tribes believe are getting sharper. [Same]
Outside a few close friends, I really don't have much of a tribe. In fact, you guys reading this are a big part of my community. Being a Methodist helps, as that group is certainly less concerned with orthodoxy. Working by myself on a farm is another stroke of luck since I don't have those links to damage.

I'm not blaming the rest of the world - those are just the ground rules now for policy debate, and after reading about it I have realized I've wasted a lot of breath/words. It's a good thing I enjoy the process, because measured by results, I don't have much to show for decades of lobbing my opinions out there.

I read this article right after it was published and frankly it bummed me out for days, but it also seemed to confirm suspicions already lurking in my mind. Tribalism rules.

The obvious follow on question is why is this true now?

Maybe we are all looking for community and a sense of belonging. We already know that is a key factor in happiness, long-lives and satisfaction. And old communities are struggling. The geographical community of proximity, especially in rural areas is depopulated and bifurcating into large farmers and lots of low-income residents. These two groups don't have much in common.

Our civic, fraternal, and recreational organizations are fading as well. Lions and Elks are endangered species. VFW is literally dying off. Masonic lodges are closing. Bowling leagues are lame. And all the time TV and Internet offer a pseudo-community without leaving home or risking the exact social problems Ezra details above. Even work has at best a more fragile sense of inclusion, as layoffs have made everyone anxious, and lifetime employment a joke from the past.

So any real-time, fact-to-face contacts we do have are extremely important. Why not arrange your beliefs to make sure those connections stay in place? After all, what will you replace them with?

The future has hazards ahead for many of us, as well. It appears white Americans get more conservative as we slip toward a minority. So will moderates and liberals bend to go along?
Near the top of the list, they found, was a deep consciousness of being “white in a country with growing minorities.” One participant described his town as such:
Everybody is white. Everybody is middle class, whether or not they really are. Everybody looks that way. Everybody goes to the same pool. Everybody goes—there’s one library, one post office. Very homogenous.
For most of their lives, these people could ignore the country’s demographic change. But the election of President Obama was a clear sign that things were different.The result was fear and anxiety. A fear, for instance, that comprehensive immigration reform would begin a tidal wave of dependency, as Democrats won their votes with the allure of government programs such as Obamacare. “Every minority group wants to say they have the right to something, and they don’t,” said one Tea Party participant. “There’s so much of the electorate in those groups that Democrats are going to take every time because they’ve been on the rolls of the government their entire lives. They don’t know better,” said another. [More]

These issues are magnified to extremes simply due to smaller numbers in our profession and rural life. The fact that farmers overwhelmingly agree on any number of arguably illogical political issues says far less about reasoning power, and far more about fear of loneliness, perhaps.

This too will pass, I think, for the reasons illuminated toward the end of the article. Convictions grounded in ideology eventually fail to cope with reality that doesn't care. I don't know how those moments will unfold - its been 20 years and people are still adamant rampant inflation is a threat. So that would suggest it won't be overnight epiphanies and conversions.

Maybe we will rebuild new communities I can only try to imagine to give us the social assurance to change our minds in the face of evidence. I know one thing for sure: the first step is to give friends slack to consider a new position. Dancing in the end zone after an undeniable election result, for instance, is not just rude, it is an unkindness that destroys connections we need to be happy and pollutes the atmosphere of social discourse.

I still think it all began with Cassius Clay and the death of the Good Winner, but that's a theory for another time.


Anonymous said...

OK, my question is:

If Dr. Kahan and his team had a hypothisis that smart people come up with results that conclude whatever view they are supporting, how can they justify the results of their survey in a manner that does not disprove their own reasoning?

John Phipps said...


As Ezra puts it in the source article: "Reason yourself out of THAT box"

John Phipps said...


Let me correct myself - what Ezra actually said was:
"Kahan’s research tells us we can’t trust our own reason. How do we reason our way out of that?"

I thought I remembered it exactly - which kinda adds to the point...

Anonymous said...

The problem does not appear to be new. F. Scott Fitzgerald said something like-It's hard to get someone to understand something that is his job not to understand.
Notwithstanding Dr. Kahan's findings, the problem he describes has no rational solution. Such things as climate are made up of random variables.