Ultra Vires


Politics Literally Makes You Stupid

David Pardy (3L)

Are differences in political opinion attributable to misunderstandings of fact? As in, if we all had the same, perfect information on every issue, and we could discuss it freely with each other, would we always come to the same decision?

Noooop! Actually, this “More Information Hypothesis” is completely backwards. Really, the more information partisans get, the more deeply they disagree. And the source of their disagreement? Mistaken reasoning.

Well thankfully we’re all smart enough that we can’t possibly make errors in reasoning, right? Noooop! In fact, the smarter you are, the more likely you are to make errors in reasoning when confronted with information about partisan issues.

Real World Example 1

Researchers have found a new skin rash cream. Sometimes creams make rashes better, sometimes they make rashes worse, and sometimes rashes just get better without treatment. To test the new cream’s efficacy, the researchers separated patients into two groups: one that used the cream for two weeks and one that did not use anything.

Rash Got Better Rash Got Worse
Patients who used the new cream 455 152
Patients who did not use the new cream 208 46


Q: Are the patients who use the cream more likely to get better or worse?

A: While it looks like more patients got better after using the cream, actually 82% of non-users got better whereas only 75% of users improved. Therefore, the new cream is more likely to make the rash worse.

* * *

Okay, okay, you probably got that right. This is a typical logic problem. Conservatives and liberals perform equally well on that type of problem.

Real World Example 2 (TRIGGER WARNING)

Researchers are investigating the suicide rate of pregnant teens in states in which abortion is legal versus illegal. Sometimes not having the option to abort an unwanted baby can be very traumatic, sometimes depression follows abortion, and sometimes pregnant teens commit suicide for reasons unrelated to the availability of abortion.

Suicides Non-suicides
Pregnant teens in states where abortion is legal 17 6,772
Pregnant teens in states where abortion is illegal 31 17,086


Q: Are the pregnant teens in states with or without legal abortion more likely to commit suicide?

* * *

Researcher and Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan ran hundreds of study participants through questions like the two above. He found that standard predictors for mathematical deduction were accurate in predicting the level of correctness for the non-politicized questions (ex. skin cream). But for politicized questions (ex. abortion legality and suicide), the standard predictors stopped working.

Instead, political leanings started being the predictors. Liberals were great at solving problems with data that proved liberal platform assertions, like gun-control legislation reduces crime, the availability of abortion decreases suicide rates, and carbon dioxide causes global warming. Conservatives exhibited the same pattern in reverse.

Interestingly, partisan participants (say that five times) with strong math skills were more likely than those with weak math skills to get the answer wrong when it contradicted their political ideology. Put differently, politics made smarter people dumber more than it made dumber people dumber. But, let’s not forget, it made nearly everyone dumber.

By the way, the answer to the abortion question is that 0.25% of pregnant teens committed suicide in states where abortion was legal, and only 0.18% committed suicide in states where it was illegal. These are the exact same proportions (scaled down by a factor of 100) as found in the skin cream question, and they prove that the availability of abortion increases suicide rates. Holy shit!

Also note that these numbers are totally fictitious. I lied when I said it was a real world example. Sue me.

I saw Dan Kahan speak this summer at the Royal Canadian Institute, which is an old, pretentious name for a room inside University College at the University of Toronto where scientists talk about things. Dan made a point there that went beyond the previous findings. He found that asking people political questions is akin to asking who they are. For privacy buffs, political inclinations form part of the biographical core. When confronted with evidence that contradicts one’s political ideology (read: personality), one is personally insulted and rejects the findings. The smarter one is, the more likely she is to notice these contradictions (read: personal attacks) and reject them.

So the smarter we are, the more reliably we reject views that contradict our political ideologies. This is bad news for people who support political opponents being constructive (i.e. people who are reasonable). Is there any hope? Yep! Partisans are more likely to accept the assertion of a fellow partisan, even if that belief is not part of the shared political ideology. When the assertion is seen to come from someone who shares in and respects one’s identity, one is more likely to accept it. So how do you get a conservative to believe that carbon dioxide causes global warming? Have Stephen Harper tell her. In fact, there are conservatives who live on the beach in Florida (which, if you don’t know, is a hotbed for stupidity) that rejected the liberal idea to reinforce their beach to prevent severe, global-warming induced weather from destroying the beach. But when a conservative person proposed the idea a few months later, they accepted it and implemented the reinforcements.

“But David,” you ask, “what does it all mean?” Well folks, I hate your stupid political alignments. Even though you happen to agree with what one party says more often than not, I still think political loyalty is inherently immoral. That’s right, immoral. We should promote what we think is right based on facts, and we should place our emphasis on determining what those facts are and how much they matter to us. To do otherwise is to obscure the truth and science says that political ideologies do just that. The smarter you are, the more likely you are to fall victim to this blindness. To me, yes, that’s immoral. You shouldn’t vote for a party because it is that party. You should vote for it because you took care to establish that the party shares your opinions on issues that matter to you. And if I were to bet, that party will change over your lifetime.

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