Vox.com, the new journalism website headed by ex-Washington Post writer Ezra Klein, formally opened for business on Sunday with a lead story/mission statement called “How Politics Makes Us Stupid.” It’s a clever way to challenge and flatter readers at the same time. Thousands of people will read it and thank their lucky stars that they don’t belong to the Stupid Party.
“Where you stand depends on where you sit” is an old saying that describes the tendency of people (and bureaucracies) to back policies on the basis of self-interest rather than the greater good. Klein’s article suggests a corollary: “What you see depends on where you stand.” Or: “Politics makes fools of us all.”
Klein cites an experiment in which political views determined whether subjects were able to properly interpret data: Gun control opponents were stymied by (made-up) statistics showing that gun restrictions reduced crime, while gun control supporters suddenly lost their analytical skills when presented with (also made-up) statistics showing that firearm restrictions had failed.
These findings were in line with similar studies on, for example, the evidence of climate change. Klein concludes, “the more information partisans get, the deeper their disagreements become.”
Recent research has focused on political views, but it’s old news that people will reject evidence that threatens longstanding beliefs. See “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe in Science,” a 2011 Mother Jones piece by Chris Mooney that begins with the example of an end-of-the-world religious sect. “We have other important goals besides accuracy,” writes Mooney, “including identity affirmation and protecting one’s sense of self — and often those make us highly resistant to changing our beliefs when the facts say we should."
Klein is not writing about the end of the world, but about things like tax and budget policy (where data can be endlessly spun to accommodate one’s views on tax cuts or stimulus spending). He still comes to a similar conclusion:
Perhaps there are some kinds of debates where people don’t want to find the right answer so much as they want to win the argument. Perhaps humans reason for purposes other than finding the truth — purposes like increasing their standing in their community, or ensuring they don’t piss off the leaders of their tribe. If this hypothesis proved true, then a smarter, better-educated citizenry wouldn’t put an end to these disagreements. It would just mean the participants are better equipped to argue for their own side.
This is a gloomy point of view for a website largely dedicated to stats, studies, and infographics about public policy. For example, another heavily promoted story on Vox’s first day debunks the idea that the legalization of marijuana would lead to higher crime rates in Colorado. But Vox is targeting wonks and highly educated readers who won’t recognize themselves in “How Politics Makes Us Stupid.” Klein’s article will no doubt be shared on Facebook and Twitter by people who want to increase their standing in their community. Whether they forward the marijuana story, however, may depend on how they felt about legalization in the first place.
Image: Groucho Marx shows his open-mindedness to new evidence by singing, "Whatever it is, I'm against it" in the film Horse Feathers.