Category: Motivated Reasoning

Facts Don't Persuade Climate Skeptics–So What Does?

By Chris Mooney | September 14, 2011 10:54 am

The answer, according to a new study, is making them feel better about themselves. As I report:

…the contested issues under examination were whether the 2007 troop “Surge” decreased insurgent attacks in Iraq (it did), whether the U.S. economy added jobs during 2010 under President Obama (it did), and whether global average temperatures have risen since 1940 (they have). Those who opposed the Iraq war and supported troop withdrawals were disinclined to credit George W. Bush’s surge with having worked. Those who oppose President Obama are disinclined to credit him on the economy, or to generally believe in global warming—especially that it is human caused.

Nyhan and Reifler once again confronted partisans with information on these subjects that (presumably) contradicted their beliefs—but there was a twist. This time, the contradictory information was sometimes presented in the form of a convincing graph, showing a clear trend (in attacks, jobs, or temperatures). And second, sometimes the individuals went into the manipulation after having undergone a “self-affirmation” exercise, in which they were asked to describe a positive character attribute or value that they possessed, and a situation in which showing that attribute or trait made them feel good about themselves.

And in both cases, the manipulation worked—although by different means.

Presenting an unequivocal graph was powerful enough to change people’s views, even as presenting technical text (at least in the rising temperatures case) was not. Meanwhile, getting people to affirm their values and sense of self also decreased their resistance, presumably because they felt less threatened by challenging information after having had their egos reinforced and their identities bolstered.

Read on here. Huge implications for effective science communication.

Galileo and the Tea Party

By Chris Mooney | September 12, 2011 2:41 pm

I’ve done my latest DeSmogBlog piece on the Rick Perry Galileo flap. I say a lot, but I particularly liked this part of it:

The misuse and abuse of Galileo’s story, in other words, is a case study in how people reason about history—just as they do with science—in a biased, motivated way, seeking to cast themselves as the good guys, the victors, and their foes as the opposite.

And once you see things in this way, you realize there’s a very close analogy in our politics to the Perry-Galileo flap. Climate “skeptics” invoking Galileo is really quite a lot like right wingers calling themselves the “Tea Party.”

The great architects of the United States—Jefferson, Franklin, Madison—were men of reason and the Enlightenment, just as Galileo was a man of the Scientific Revolution. They were freethinkers and, in Jefferson’s and Franklin’s case, scientists and inventors. And they didn’t want religion shoved down anybody’s throat.

And yet we now find a movement in America that wants more religion in politics, and that rejects science on climate change and evolution alike, trying to claim the mantle of the country’s founding.

Rick Perry’s invocation of Galileo, then, is much more than merely ridiculous. It gives us quite the window on the right wing mind, and demonstrates just how much it has managed to turn reality upside-down.

Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength…and Galileo and Rick Perry ride off together into the Texas sunset.

Full piece here.

Global Warming, the Tea Party, and Unwavering Certainty

By Chris Mooney | September 9, 2011 9:16 am

With such an amazing guest post on Wednesday, I didn’t get to post my own DeSmogBlog piece (which is actually related to, but far less consequential than, Andrea Kuszewski’s). So I thought I would do it now.

Basically, the piece looks at new data showing that Tea Partiers are considerably worse than mainline Republicans in their rejection of global warming. What I find most disturbing about this is the level of certainty among Tea Party members that they’re right–e.g., the people who are most wrong are most sure of themselves.

Once again, reminds me of Yeats:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats thought this state of affairs signaled the Second Coming was at hand. Unfortunately, I think it’s part of human nature and will be with us as long as we’re on this rock.

Anyway, more specifically with regard to Tea Partiers’ certainty:

“Tea Party members are much more likely to say that they are ‘very well informed’ about global warming than the other groups,” according to the Yale study. “Likewise, they are also much more likely to say they ‘do not need any more information’ about global warming to make up their mind.”

What do we make of this? Why would this be? Here’s my attempt to answer:

Well, the study also shows that Tea Partiers are more likely than other Republicans to be “born again” Christians and to doubt evolution, and highly individualistic and anti-egalitarian in their moral values.

In short, what we appear to be seeing in them is a kind of merger of right wing free market views on the one hand, and the unwavering certainty associated with certain forms of fundamentalist religion on the other.

They know they’re right, they know that liberals and scientists—and most of all, President Obama—are wrong, and there is no swaying them in that. (There is also some reason to think that Tea Party members are authoritarian in their outlook, wanting to impose various types of Christian views in government.)

When you merge this with previous data on white male conservatives and climate change, it becomes apparent that the person least likely to change his mind on this issue and accept the science is a 1) white 2) male 3) conservative 4) Tea Party American.

You can read the full DeSmogBlog item here.

A Stimulating Question: Why Did Republicans Flip-Flop on Juicing the Economy?

By Chris Mooney | September 7, 2011 7:55 am

Ezra Klein has a cool piece, citing some psychology research to explain why the GOP was for economic stimulus under George W. Bush, but is now against it (when it is needed even more). As Klein writes:

Some say the explanation for all this is obvious: Republicans want the economy to fail because that is how they will defeat President Obama….

I don’t believe this sort of behavior is quite that cynical. Psychologists and political scientists talk often of a phenomenon known as motivated skepticism. The idea, basically, is that we believe the evidence and arguments we want to believe, and reject ideas and information that undercut our preferences.

My favorite study (pdf) in this space was by Yale’s Geoffrey Cohen. He had a control group of liberals and conservatives look at a generous welfare reform proposal and a harsh welfare reform proposal. As expected, liberals preferred the generous plan and conservatives favored the more stringent option. Then he had another group of liberals and conservatives look at the same plans, but this time, the plans were associated with parties.

Both liberals and conservatives followed their parties, even when their parties disagreed with their preferences. So when Democrats were said to favor the stringent welfare reform, for example, liberals went right along….

I tend to think there’s much more motivated skepticism in politics than outright cynicism, much less economic sabotage. But it’s a distinction without a difference, at least so far as policy outcomes go.

The study in question is of the influence of group affiliation on one’s policy preferences. And it clearly shows that both liberal and conservative partisans were biased (in the first study reported in the paper) to favor a policy their party supported, regardless of its content.

More specifically, dress up a relatively stringent welfare policy inside a packaging that suggests that 95 percent of Democrats support it and say it would help the poor, and liberal/Democrat partisans support it. Similarly, dress up a relatively generous welfare policy inside a packaging suggesting that 95 percent of Republicans support it and say it would do enough for the poor without undermining their work ethic, and conservative/Republican partisans support it.

That’s not at all surprising, given not only the strong partisan cues on offer, but also the fact that the policies were framed as being the epitome of liberal or conservative moral values (caring for the poor/ensuring personal responsibility for one’s actions), which are also very strong determinants of beliefs.

But there seems to me to be something missing in applying this analysis to a matter like the stimulus flip-flop.

First, is there a major recent case of Democrats flip flopping so hard, and so fast, on some major policy matter–facing two recession threats in under a five year span? (Bush signed a stimulus bill with Republican support in 2008.)

Second, in terms of group solidarity, are Democrats as supportive of President Obama as Republicans always were of President Bush? Does anyone get the sense right now that, as Obama flails and fails, his allies are sticking up for him and making sure they have his back?

The point is, I’m not at all sure that the two groups react the same way when it comes to party loyalty, or to resisting whatever the other party says.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Motivated Reasoning

A Questionable Paper Published, an Editor Resigns…What Else is New?

By Chris Mooney | September 6, 2011 11:38 am

My latest DeSmogBlog piece is about the flap over the Roy Spencer paper in Remote Sensing, which was covered by conservatives as if it was a paradigm shift overturning all of climate science, but turned out to be substantially less than that…and now an editor has resigned over it being published at all.

The thing is, this kind of stuff happens now and again–regularly enough that we ought to expect it. It has happened before on climate, it has happened on “intelligent design,” and it outright caused the whole vaccine-autism flap.

Here’s what I have to say over there:

The real problem here, for the most part, is not the journals or the scientists. They police themselves adequately, albeit rather slowly. The real problem are the media.

Any well trained science journalist knows that one study proves nothing—precisely because of motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and so on. If there aren’t a bunch of studies out there, by a bunch of different authors, all converging on a point—or if there isn’t a meta-analysis, a consensus assessment report, and so on—you had better be very careful. Humans are too prone to biases—even scientists—to treat any single study as a new truth.

It’s just looking for trouble.

But who cares about science journalists these days, and the skills they’ve learned over those long careers? The media is shedding them like dandruff. And then there’s Fox News, where they cover the climate issue as if every day is scientific opposite day. (Thereby, of course, playing to the biases and self-serving motivations of their viewers.)

You can read the full item here.

Institute of Medicine Slams Anti-Vaxxers, Again

By Chris Mooney | August 26, 2011 9:53 am

A new report is out from the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, on vaccine safety. In the voluminous report, the committee of course does not find that every vaccine is perfectly safe for all time–there are certainly some risks. But it once again rejects the claim that the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine causes autism–the evidence, the committee said, was more than adequate to reject this causal assertion.

You can read the report for free here. The New York Times report, titled “Vaccine Cleared Again as Autism Culprit,” is here.

Please note: Anti-vaxxers will not change their minds based on this major scientific consensus report. They will argue back and challenge its conclusions.

So it goes.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Motivated Reasoning, vaccination

New Point of Inquiry: Hugo Mercier — Did Reason Evolve for Arguing?

By Chris Mooney | August 16, 2011 8:25 am

The latest episode of Point of Inquiry is now up, and Hugo Mercier himself is responding in the comments section.

Here is the show write-up:

Why are human beings simultaneously capable of reasoning, and yet so bad at it? Why do we have such faulty mechanisms as the “confirmation bias” embedded in our brains, and yet at the same time, find ourselves capable of brilliant rhetoric and complex mathematical calculations?

According to Hugo Mercier, we’ve been reasoning about reason all wrong. Reasoning is very good at what it probably evolved to let us do—argue in favor of what we believe and try to convince others that we’re right.

In a recent and much discussed paper in the journal Behavioral and Brain Research, Mercier and his colleague Dan Sperber proposed what they call an “argumentative theory of reason.” “A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis,” they write.

Given the discussion this proposal has prompted, Point of Inquiry wanted to hear from Mercier to get more elaboration on his ideas.

Hugo Mercier is a postdoc in the Philosophy, Policy, and Economics program at the University of Pennsylvania. He blogs for Psychology Today.

Listen to the full show here.

S&P Partially Blames Debt Ceiling Deniers for Ratings Downgrade

By Chris Mooney | August 13, 2011 12:42 pm

Read here:

Standard & Poor’s director said for the first time Thursday that one reason the United States lost its triple-A credit rating was that several lawmakers expressed skepticism about the serious consequences of a credit default — a position put forth by some Republicans.

Without specifically mentioning Republicans, S&P senior director Joydeep Mukherji said the stability and effectiveness of American political institutions were undermined by the fact that “people in the political arena were even talking about a potential default,” Mukherji said.

“That a country even has such voices, albeit a minority, is something notable,” he added. “This kind of rhetoric is not common amongst AAA sovereigns.”

I’ve been critical of S&P’s reasoning. The ratings agency itself has a lot to answer for and doesn’t strike me as very credible. But honestly, this more forthcoming political rationale for a downgrade makes a lot more sense than anything else I’ve heard.

I used to think global warming denial was the most alarming example of motivated reasoning in our politics. But maybe not. Denying what can at least be made to appear a longer term threat is one thing. Denying the idea that a credit default would be immediately devastating, or arguing that it would be manageable or even desirable, strikes me as an even more extreme concoction and rationalization.

I’m also still waiting for the Onion headline: “S&P Downgrades Earth; Cites Unbalanced Carbon Budget.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Economy, Motivated Reasoning

Attacks on Climate Science in Schools Are Mounting

By Chris Mooney | August 10, 2011 10:30 am

My latest DeSmog piece is about the classroom climate for climate science teaching–and how poisonous it is getting. It starts like this:

A few months back, those who care about accurate climate science and energy education in high school classes registered a minor victory. Under fire from outlets like The New York Times, the education publishing behemoth Scholastic (of Clifford the Big Red Dog and Harry Potter fame) pulled an energy curriculum sponsored by the American Coal Foundation, which gave a nice PR sheen to coal without bothering to cover, uh, the whole environmental angle. The curriculum had reportedly already been mailed to 66,000 classrooms by the time it got yanked.

When it comes to undermining accurate and responsible climate and energy education at the high school level, Scholastic may have been the most prominent transgressor. But precisely because it is a massive and respected educational publisher, and actually careswhat The New York Times thinks, it was also the most moderate and easy to reason with.

Although it’s hard to find online now, I’ve reviewed the offending coal curriculum, entitled “The United States of Energy.” In my view, it didn’t even contain any obvious falsehoods—except for errors of omission. It was more a case of subtle greenwashing.

What’s currently seeping into classrooms across the country is far, far worse—more ideological, and more difficult to stop. We’re talking about outright climate denial being fed to students—and accurate climate science teaching being attacked by aggressive Tea Party-style ideologues.

You can read on here….

More Defensive Reasoning By Standard & Poors

By Chris Mooney | August 10, 2011 6:38 am

These people have the power to wipe out a trillion dollars in wealth just by changing a rating. Yet they are balking at an SEC requirement that they disclose errors in their calculations–claiming they can police themselves. This quotation says it all:

Barbara Roper, director of investor protection for the Consumer Federation of America, said that [Standard & Poor’s internal correction policy] has proven inadequate.

“What was their correction policy on their Enron rating? What was their correction policy on their Lehman rating? What was their correction policy on their Bear Stearns rating? They don’t have an error correction policy — they have an error denial policy, and the SEC is absolutely right to step in,” Roper said.

Revealingly, the other two top ratings agencies–Fitch, and Moody’s–don’t have the same problem with the proposed SEC policy of disclosing rating agency errors.

Read more here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Motivated Reasoning
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