This is the third in a series of posts elaborating on my recent American Prospect magazine article entitled “The Reality Gap: Now more than Ever, Republicans and Democrats are separated by expertise–and by facts.”
In my last two posts about my American Prospect piece, I showed how the Democratic Party today has become the chosen party of experts and “empirical professionals,” but also that conservatives have plenty of experts of their own and, indeed, have made a conscious attempt to cultivate them, while also bashing liberal experts for bias. Thus, both sides have many more allied thinkers than they did in the 1970s.
Now, in the third post–this time, the bulk of it is at DeSmogBlog–I explain the psychological consequences of this dynamic. The upshot is when it comes to expertise, you can always fight a guerilla war. Why? Brief excerpt:
First, the experts on both sides argue with each other—in print, on tv, in their own minds, or wherever—and both sides become more convinced they’re right. The theory ofmotivated reasoning predicts that the sophisticated are capable of becoming more extreme and polarized, thanks to both their confidence and also their competence. They’re better at reinforcing their own views.
Second, for the non-experts out there, whatever side you’re on, it’s easy in this situation to find an expert who supports what you believe. And indeed, for the very same basic psychological reason, you’re not only more likely to find an expert who agrees with you than one that doesn’t (due to confirmation bias), but also to believe that person the person who agrees with you is a real expert, whereas the one who disagrees with you is a fake one. This was shown in a recent, amazing study by Dan Kahan at Yale, in which people with different values tended to discredit the expertise of experts who were depicted as supporting positions that were contrary to their values.
Third, when all of this plays out in the media–at least insofar as it’s a typical expert-versus-expert on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand show–you can expect the public to leave feeling confused about who’s right and what’s true. Again, there’s research on this. I’ve blogged about it here. The Ohio State University communications professor Raymond Pingree has shown that “passive” media coverage, where reporters don’t take sides on who’s right about the facts, leaves media consumers less sure that the truth is “out there” somewhere that they can actually grasp it.
Hey, at least we can laugh at this situation. As I write in my Prospect piece:
For an amusing example of [the] expertise imbalance, consider Project Steve. This is a ploy by the pro-evolution National Center for Science Education to undermine conservative sign-on letters boasting large numbers of “experts” who question the theory of evolution. Project Steve goes one better–it finds scientists named Steve who support evolution. To date, over a thousand Steves have signed on–and, as NCSE boasts, Steves constitute only about 1 percent of scientists.
So, yeah–we liberals have lots of high-caliber experts. And a lot of good it is doing us.