Noted for Your Evening Procrastination for April 8, 2014
Wednesday Hoisted from the Archives: Me on Tim Burke on "Exactly How Do the Cossacks Work for the Czar?": For April 9, 2014

Motivated Reasoning and the Launch of Vox.Com: An Ongoing Discussion

Kudos to Ezra Klein and company for the highly-successful launch of their http://vox.com. But no sooner does he launch than Ezra Klein worries about whether it might be a hopeless enterprise, and Paul Krugman comes to two conclusions: (1) That Ezra's is not a hopeless enterprise. (2) That nevertheless his technocratic policy debate can only be carried out within the philosophical-liberal community: that conservatives either cannot or will not participate, and those of us who are not conservative should not try to get them to do so as that will be a fruitless task.

Me? I'm down with Byrhtwold here:

Hige sceal þe heardra,
heorte þe cenre,
mod sceal þe mare,
þe ure mægen lytlað...

It doesn't matter whether our reasoning is inevitably motivated or not, or whether non-liberals cannot participate in a technocratic dialogue, we have to try as hard as we can to mark our beliefs to market and construct such a dialogue:

Paul Krugman: Asymmetric Stupidity: "Ezra Klein’s new venture Vox is up, and so far, so OK....

I am troubled by Ezra’s big inauguratory think piece, but that’s because I think the piece raises a genuine intellectual puzzle. What Ezra does is cite research showing that people understand the world in ways that suit their tribal identities.... But here’s the thing: the lived experience is that this effect is not, in fact, symmetric between liberals and conservatives. Yes, liberals are sometimes subject to bouts of wishful thinking. But can anyone point to a liberal equivalent of conservative denial of climate change, or the “unskewing” mania late in the 2012 campaign, or the frantic efforts to deny that Obamacare is in fact covering a lot of previously uninsured Americans? I don’t mean liberals taking positions you personally disagree with — I mean examples of overwhelming rejection of something that shouldn’t even be in dispute.

Or look at how liberals reacted to the woes of healthcare.gov.... Was there anything like Bush’s “heckuva job” moment — which was matched by widespread insistence on the right that he was actually doing a great job? Was there anything like the years-long denial that anything was going wrong with the Iraq occupation? On the contrary, liberals were quick to acknowledge that the rollout was a disaster, and in fact sort of freaked out.... As Scheiber says, that’s a good thing: faced with setbacks, liberals rush to fix things, rather than denying the problem.....

At this point I could castigate Ezra for his both-sides-do-it article — but instead, let me pose this as a question: why are the two sides so asymmetric?....

One possible answer would be that liberals and conservatives are very different kinds of people — that liberalism goes along with a skeptical, doubting — even self-doubting — frame of mind; “a liberal is someone who won’t take his own side in an argument.” Another possible answer is that it’s institutional, that liberals don’t have the same kind of monolithic, oligarch-financed network of media organizations and think tanks as the right. Whatever it is, I think it’s important: people are people, but politics doesn’t seem to have the same stupiditizing effect on left and right...


Ezra Klein: How politics makes us stupid: "There’s a simple theory underlying much of American politics...

...the More Information Hypothesis: the belief that many of our most bitter political battles are mere misunderstandings. The cause of these misunderstandings? Too little information.... But the More Information Hypothesis isn’t just wrong. It’s backwards. Cutting-edge research shows that the more information partisans get, the deeper their disagreements become.... Yale Law professor Dan Kahan — working with coauthors Ellen Peters, Erica Cantrell Dawson, and Paul Slovic — set out to test a question that continuously puzzles scientists: why isn’t good evidence more effective in resolving political debates? For instance, why doesn’t the mounting proof that climate change is a real threat persuade more skeptics?...

Kahan and his team had an alternative hypothesis. Perhaps people aren’t held back by a lack of knowledge. After all, they don’t typically doubt the findings of oceanographers or the existence of other galaxies. 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....

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.... Being better at math didn’t just fail to help partisans converge on the right answer. It actually drove them further apart.... 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 work of a serious climate change denialist... is filled with facts and figures, graphs and charts, studies and citations. Much of the data is wrong or irrelevant. But it feels convincing... 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....

Our reasoning becomes rationalizing when we’re dealing with questions where the answers could threaten our tribe — or at least our social standing in our tribe. And in those cases, Kahan says, we’re being perfectly sensible when we fool ourselves. Imagine what would happen to, say, Sean Hannity if he decided tomorrow that climate change was the central threat facing the planet.... Kahan calls this theory Identity-Protective Cognition.... Washington has become a machine for making identity-protective cognition easier....

What’s sensible for individuals can be deadly for groups.... The ice caps don’t care if it’s rational for us to worry about our friendships.... To spend much time with Kahan’s research is to stare into a kind of intellectual abyss. If the work of gathering evidence and reasoning through thorny, polarizing political questions is actually the process by which we trick ourselves into finding the answers we want, then what’s the right way to search for answers?... I asked Kahan how he tries to guard against identity protection in his everyday life. The answer, he said, is to try to find disagreement that doesn’t threaten you and your social group — and one way to do that is to consciously seek it out in your group. "I try to find people who I actually think are like me — people I’d like to hang out with — but they don’t believe the things that everyone else like me believes," he says. "If I find some people I identify with, I don’t find them as threatening when they disagree with me." It’s good advice, but it requires, as a prerequisite, a desire to expose yourself to uncomfortable evidence — and a confidence that the knowledge won’t hurt you.

At one point in our interview Kahan does stare over the abyss.... Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia... overcrowding in California prisons. Scalia dismissed the evidentiary findings of a lower court as motivated by policy preferences. "I find it really demoralizing, but I think some people just view empirical evidence as a kind of device," Kahan says. But Scalia’s comments were perfectly predictable given everything Kahan had found.... Isn’t it the case, I asked Kahan, that everything he’s found would predict that Scalia would convince himself of whatever he needed to think to get to the answers he wanted? The question seemed to rattle Kahan a bit....

The silver lining is that politics doesn’t just take place in Washington. The point of politics is policy. And most people don’t experience policy as a political argument. They experience it as a tax bill, or a health insurance card, or a deployment. And, ultimately, there’s no spin effective enough to persuade Americans to ignore a cratering economy, or skyrocketing health-care costs, or a failing war. A political movement that fools itself into crafting national policy based on bad evidence is a political movement that will, sooner or later, face a reckoning at the polls.

At least, that’s the hope.

But that’s not true on issues, like climate change, where action is needed quickly to prevent a disaster that will happen slowly. There, the reckoning will be for future generations to face. And it’s not true when American politics becomes so warped by gerrymandering, big money, and congressional dysfunction that voters can’t figure out who to blame for the state of the country. If American politics is going to improve, it will be better structures, not better arguments, that win the day.


Noam Scheiber: Bed wetting liberals: Democrats freak over setbacks, GOP doesn't: "Now that over seven million Americans have enrolled in Obamacare...

...everyone who dismissed the goal as wildly implausible has some reckoning to do. And the comeuppance isn’t just for right-wingers.... This magazine brooded that the stumbles were a “threat to liberalism” and that “bed-wetting,” Team Obama’s term for Democratic panic, was an “appropriate physiological reaction.”... I'd... like to put in a few good words for bed-wetting.

Here’s the thing: If your side is going to be rigorous and empirical, a certain amount of bed-wetting is unavoidable. Things really were kind of dark last fall. Had the administration been more casual about fixing Obamacare, the program’s numerous problems really might have set it back for years. Yes, these warnings turned out to be off the mark. They may have even been a touch alarmist. But they certainly could have been right. In fact—and this is really the point—the mere spectacle of so many prominent liberals wetting themselves clearly helped focus minds in the White House, which in turn helped ensure that the dysfunction got solved. You think several dozen Obama administration wonks didn’t wake up on October 25, the morning Ezra Klein published his 2,000-word exegesis on the failings of Obamacare, and think, “Holy Shit have we got a problem”? Not coincidentally (at least not entirely), the New York Times’ reported that “the sense of crisis and damage control inside the White House peaked on Oct. 30, as the president's top aides began to fully grasp the breadth of the political challenges they faced.”  

By contrast, just look at the way conservatives respond to their party’s looming disasters, and you quickly see the advantages of a little night-time incontinence. It was conservatives who, when the GOP leadership proposed a few no-brainer reforms to put the party on sturdier ground, went to elaborate lengths to show that the reforms were unnecessary. It was conservatives who, even as it became clear that Obamacare would enroll more than enough people to avert collapse, insisted the program was careening toward failure. They spared no fiber of intellectual honesty illustrating this point.... Last fall’s government shutdown.... A week into the shutdown fight, Rush Limbaugh announced that Republicans were winning despite the party’s “attempts to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”

Perhaps there's no greater testament to the virtues of bed-wetting than a comparison between conservatives’ relationship to the Romney campaign and liberals’ relationship to the Obama administration.... Obama rejected pleas to hire an outsider with a technical background to get the federal insurance exchange up and running.... Team Romney believed internal polls suggesting victory was in reach on the eve of the 2012 election.... But whereas liberals went nuts when they finally saw how at odds with reality the administration’s internal narrative was, conservatives simply explained away the Romney campaign’s problems, going so far as to construct an alternate polling universe.... You saw how that worked out. (“Now I know what they were doing with all the staffs and ­offices,” Romney’s political director told the Boston Globe after Election Day. Mystery solved!)...


Kerry Emmanuel: MIT Climate Scientist Responds on Disaster Costs And Climate Change: "Let me begin by saying that I am sympathetic to Pielke’s emphasis...

...on the role of changing demographics in increasing damages from natural disasters. This is a serious problem that could be addressed by wiser policies.... Having said that, I’m not comfortable with Pielke’s assertion that climate change has played no role in the observed increase in damages from natural hazards; I don’t see how the data he cites support such a confident assertion.

To begin with, it’s not necessarily appropriate to normalize damages by gross domestic product (GDP)... wealthier countries can better afford to build stronger structures and to protect assets (for example, build seawalls and pass and enforce building regulations).1 A grass hut will be completely destroyed by a hurricane, but a modern steel office building will only be partially damaged; damage does not scale linearly with the value of the asset.... 23 years is not a very long time to detect trends in natural hazard damages, whether such trends are caused by demographics or by climate change.... Fabian Barthel and Eric Neumayer.... For Germany and the United States, with 29 and 36 years of data, respectively, they detected “statistically significant upward trends in normalized insured losses from all non-geophysical disasters as well as from certain specific disaster types,” but for the globe as a whole, with 19 years of data available, they could find no significant trends....

The increasing normalized trends in the U.S. were evident in convective storms, winter storms, flooding events and high temperature-related losses, and were almost statistically significant for hurricanes at the conventional 95 percent confidence level. In view of data like this, it’s very hard to accept Pielke’s confident assertion that “[n]o matter what President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron say, recent costly disasters are not part of a trend driven by climate change.”

There is an even more significant problem with Pielke’s analysis. In a nutshell, he addresses trend detection when what we need is event risk assessment. The two would be equivalent if the actuarial data was the only data available pertaining to event risk. But that is far from the case; we often have much more information about risk.... Suppose observations showed conclusively that the bear population in a particular forest had recently doubled. What would we think of someone who, knowing this, would nevertheless take no extra precautions in walking in the woods unless and until he saw a significant upward trend in the rate at which his neighbors were being mauled by bears?... The overall bear statistics should be much more robust than any mauling statistics.... Were it possible to buy insurance against mauling, no reasonable firm supplying such insurance would ignore a doubling of the bear population, lack of any significant mauling trend notwithstanding. And even our friendly sylvan pedestrian, sticking to mauling statistics, would never wait for 95 percent confidence before adjusting his bear risk assessment....

When it comes to certain types of natural hazards, there are more bears in the woods.... North Atlantic hurricane activity.... One would be foolish to make plans that have to deal with U.S. hurricane risk without accounting for the evidence that the underlying risk is increasing, whether or not actuarial trends have yet emerged at the 95 percent confidence level. This is particularly so when one accounts for another form of prior information: theory and models... both... are now in good agreement that the frequency of high category hurricanes should increase, as should hurricane rainfall and the flooding it produces.... Through the year 2100.... We estimate that global hurricane damage will about double owing to demographic trends, and double again because of climate change.... Those who wait for actuarial trends to emerge at the 95 percent confidence level before acting do so at their peril."


Jonah Goldberg: The Liberal Con: "There’s another controversy... should be sparking a conversation about my other book, The Tyranny of Clichés. Ezra Klein... Vox... allegedly, the era of “explanatory journalism.”... Was the old journalism not ​explanatory?... It assumes that the explanatory journalist has all the relevant information you need and anything they don’t tell you is either irrelevant or untrue. For example, here’s Vox.com’s “All You Need to Know About ObamaCare.” Without getting into the weeds, I am sure this is not all you need to know about Obamacare. But it may well be all the liberals running Vox.com want you to know and that is a very different thing. 

Klein’s debut-essay-cum-mission-statement goes on at great length about how ideology makes us dumb.... The whole thing is essentially about how ideology is something conservatives have.... liberals have the truth. David Harsanyi....

It’d be easier to buy into the whole explanatory journalism experience if the editor-in-chief believed confirmation bias and identity-protective cognition existed on both sides. Not just with a throwaway line, but with an example. In Klein’s thought experiment, though, it’s radio host Sean Hannity — not Paul Krugman or Rachel Maddow — who is captive to an audience of rabid ideologues that would run him out of business if he took a contrarian position. Hannity, according to Klein, is slave to faulty ideas because he is a slave to his paycheck.... It’s not politics that makes a person stupid, it’s right-wing politics that makes them stupid.

The whole explanatory journalism project fits neatly into the core argument driving The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas.... They prefer to make arguments grounded in the assumption that the liberal “frame” is really a perfect window onto reality....

President Obama constantly talks about how he’s not an ideologue. He’s a problem solver, a pragmatist who only cares about the facts. If you believe this, than you are probably exactly the sort of reader Vox.com is looking for — one who needs to have his vanity flattered with the assurance that what you already think is “all you need to know.”


Me, I go with John Stuart Mill’s observation: Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative.

There was also a chapter in Trollope’s autobiography where he explained, sadly, that he found publishing a ‘bipartisan’ magazine impossible… because liberals would contribute to a publication that called itself conservative, but conservatives would angrily denounce queries about contributing (or even reading) any publication that had even the faintest taint of ‘liberalism’. So, in that sense, one has the idea that the situation hasn’t (dare we use the word) evolved over the last hundred and fifty years…

Apart from staring into the abyss, what’s on the agenda for the day?...


Bill Gardner: Staring into the Abyss: Health policy discourse, cognitive bias, and the value of philosophy: "The readers of TIE care about health policy and empirical science...

...so I urge you to read Ezra Klein’s post on how political partisanship makes us stupid. It’s a great introduction to the research of Dan Kahan. (A brief TIE post on some of Kahan’s work can also be found here.) Kahan studies the psychology of how we reason about problems that engage our social identities. Health policy is a prime example.... 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.”... Klein observes that:

To spend much time with Kahan’s research is to stare into a kind of intellectual abyss. If the work of gathering evidence and reasoning through thorny, polarizing political questions is actually the process by which we trick ourselves into finding the answers we want, then what’s the right way to search for answers? How can we know the answers we come up with, no matter how well-intentioned, aren’t just more motivated cognition?...

I think that moral philosophy helps. And not just reading moral philosophy, but doing it: reading it and then arguing about it with people who are good at the trade.... Doing philosophy gives you two important things in your personal fight against identity-protective cognition. First, moral philosophers are skilled at exposing the values underlying your position and confronting you with their implications.... The second thing you learn in seminar is an important discipline of argumentation.... To get taken seriously in philosophy, you have to tackle the best version of the argument you hope to defeat. Cheap-shotting, straw-man arguments work in political debates, but in seminar they make you look like the chump. So you learn the discipline of reading charitably, that is, reading to construct and then defeat the strongest possible version of the opposing argument; if possible a better one than your opponent made. And making the best possible argument for your opponent is the best way to make yourself responsible to all of the empirical evidence.... You should also seek identity threat. You need to expose yourself to people who fight by the rules, and who can and will beat the intellectual crap out of you.

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