Believing is seeing

Nice little piece by Brendan Nyhan at the New York Times’ “The Upshot” about how ideology and factual beliefs collide.  Here’s a taste:

Mr. Kahan’s study suggests that more people know what scientists think about high-profile scientific controversies than polls suggest; they just aren’t willing to endorse the consensus when it contradicts their political or religious views. This finding helps us understand why my colleagues and I have found that factual and scientific evidence is often ineffective at reducing misperceptions and can even backfire on issues like weapons of mass destruction,health care reform and vaccines. With science as with politics, identity often trumps the facts.

So what should we do? One implication of Mr. Kahan’s study and other research in this field is that we need to try to break the association between identity and factual beliefs on high-profile issues – for instance, by making clear that you can believe in human-induced climate change and still be a conservative Republican like former Representative Bob Inglis or an evangelical Christian like the climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe.


The deeper problem is that citizens participate in public life precisely because they believe the issues at stake relate to their values and ideals, especially when political parties and other identity-based groups get involved – an outcome that is inevitable on high-profile issues. Those groups can help to mobilize the public and represent their interests, but they also help to produce the factual divisions that are one of the most toxic byproducts of our polarized era. Unfortunately, knowing what scientists think is ultimately no substitute for actually believing it.

All of this seems right to me.   The last point is especially interesting.  It reminds me (somewhat tangentially) of a paper (by Marcin Lewinksi and Mark Aakhus) on polylogical reasoning I saw at ISSA last week.  Though perhaps not the point of the research (I’m only vaguely familiar with it), the problem is that we have fora for dialogues (or di-logues), but none for the poly-logues that more satisfactorily represent the actual dialectical terrain.  This forces ideological alliances such as the GOP one, where you’re pretty much forced to take positions on factual issues in order to belong to the club.  I imagine the Democratic position then forms in contrast (or t’other way round).  If you want to be in the game, you have to be on a team.  Well, it’s a stupid game.