How cultural commitments damage your ability to reason

start counting. Source: unlistedsightings/flickr

When people don’t accept the scientific evidence, it may be useless to present them with yet more evidence. They are not stupid. They are simply protecting their cultural identity.

Here’s the journalism:

Science confirms: politics wrecks your ability to do math

And here’s the original study, Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government

Kahan, Dan M., Peters, Ellen, Dawson, Erica Cantrell and Slovic, Paul, Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government (September 3, 2013). Available at SSRN:

Why does public conflict over societal risks persist in the face of compelling and widely accessible scientific evidence? We conducted an experiment to probe two alternative answers: the “Science Comprehension Thesis” (SCT), which identifies defects in the public’s knowledge and reasoning capacities as the source of such controversies; and the “Identity-protective Cognition Thesis” (ICT) which treats cultural conflict as disabling the faculties that members of the public use to make sense of decision-relevant science. In our experiment, we presented subjects with a difficult problem that turned on their ability to draw valid causal inferences from empirical data. As expected, subjects highest in Numeracy—a measure of the ability and disposition to make use of quantitative information—did substantially better than less numerate ones when the data were presented as results from a study of a new skin-rash treatment. Also as expected, subjects’ responses became politically polarized—and even less accurate—when the same data were presented as results from the study of a gun-control ban. But contrary to the prediction of SCT, such polarization did not abate among subjects highest in Numeracy; instead, it increased. This outcome supported ICT, which predicted that more Numerate subjects would use their quantitative-reasoning capacity selectively to conform their interpretation of the data to the result most consistent with their political outlooks. We discuss the theoretical and practical significance of these findings.

Ignorance may be bliss but it’s not democracy

Ignorance may be bliss but it’s not democracy

The basis of democracy is an informed public. Voters don’t have to be clever or well-meaning for this to work – but ensuring they are duped amounts to breaking the system and replacing it with something else. 

Jay Rosen asks:

Can there even be an informed public and consent-of-the-governed for decisions about electronic surveillance, or have we put those principles aside so that the state can have its freedom to maneuver? 

Cultural Theory and the Open Society

Catriona Kelly, Professor of Russian at Oxford Universty, has written an article about the concept of freedom in the context of Soviet and post-Soviet politics. She takes issue with the two-sidedness that pits the open society against the closed society, finding in Grid-Group Cultural Theory a helpful and illuminating alternative.

”The “open society” to which Soviet existence is often claimed to have been opposed resembles the old idea of “the free world”. A non-moralistic approach to group relations in the Soviet Union moves beyond the simplistic link between modernisation and openness”

Of Grids and Groups

The Open Society?Photo credit: Flickr/stephenpace

Fatalist Activism in America… and now the UK

My favourite Fatalist joke goes like this:

Two farmers in conversation.
‘What would you do if you won a million dollars?”
“I’d just keep on farming until it ran out.”

Despite the fact that this joke comes from America and was once quoted in the Senate, the US is not the first place one thinks of when considering fatalism. The national image is of the rugged individualist, forging their way towards an unlimited future. Lady Liberty, not Lady Luck is the national emblem. Yes we can! is a recent version of a very well established national stereotype (even though it was stolen from south of the border – Si se puede!). Given that individualism is so well established, is it hard for Americans to think of any real alternative? That they can think of another ideal, is how they manage to have two political parties, how they have two political viewpoints, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’. But there are more than two ways of organising. Grid-group cultural theory argues that we ignore these at our peril. What we ignore won’t go away, it just comes back to bite us. Continue reading