Daniela Strube is a Research Fellow in the Lowy Institute's G20 Studies Centre.
The Australian published a small piece yesterday that has the distinct quality of being both highly amusing and highly thought-provoking. In a nutshell: scientific evidence proves that politics kills your brain!
For everybody working or otherwise involved in the political arena, this makes intuitive sense. More often than not, politics and pure reasoning seem to be at odds. The obvious example is the climate change debate. The evidence in favour of man-made climate change is overwhelming, but serious doubts persist among parts of the population and the political class.
This new evidence shows that the anti-climate change bloc is not necessarily consciously ignorant of the facts, but people's brains are tricked into constructing self-fulfilling prophecies. If we want something to be true, our brain will help us to make it seem that way.
Let's have a closer look at the new study by Yale University's Professor Kahan and his colleagues. More than 1000 study participants are given two problem sets to solve requiring statistical reasoning. The first problem set centres around the question of whether, in a fake medical trial, a skin rash cream is effective nor not. Participants are given the number of people for whom application of the cream made the rash get better, and the number who experienced their rash getting worse after using the cream. Numbers are also provided for the people who did not use the cream.
For half of Kahan's study participants, the numbers lead them to the correct answer, which is that the experiments suggest the cream is effective. The other half of the sample find the experiment casting doubt on the effectiveness of the cream. As expected, people with higher numerical abilities were significantly more likely to get the correct answer, independent of their political affiliation. (The numerical skills of the participants were previously measured using standard questions testing statistical reasoning.)
However, the story changes completely when the same problem is re-phrased in terms of gun control rather than a medical trial.
Kahan's study participants were given fabricated numbers for cities which had supposedly introduced a ban on carrying concealed handguns and consequently experienced either an increase or a reduction in crime. Figures are again also provided for cities without gun control regulation. The numbers used were exactly the same as in the medical trial example. Nonetheless, Democrat-leaning participants were now more likely to find a solution indicating a positive effect for gun control policy, whereas Republican participants tended to find that gun control is ineffective.
Interestingly, this effect was exacerbated for more numerically able people. These results suggest that people's political ideologies determine their reasoning.
This finding is significant. It means that facts are ineffective in politics. This is not just some generalised pessimistic sentiment about the state of the politics, but is based on sound evidence suggesting that providing people with information may not influence their political views and actions. It is particularly alarming that the most intelligent people seem to be most susceptible to such self-inflicted brainwashing.
So how can people so obviously neglect the facts? Professor Kahan assumes that people unconsciously stop assessing the numbers once they see that the matter concerns their political beliefs, instead of correctly performing the calculations and then bluntly ignoring the result. That means that people actively try to find a solution that coincides with their political ideology.
It is not hard to anticipate the primacy of ideology over reason. Look back at the election campaign for your reference. Politics is inherently about what is politically feasible, which means it is about what people can be convinced of rather than what is 'right' or objectively sensible. It is also about being vague instead of being precise, in contrast to the virtues of scientific analysis.
We could have a laugh here about how world-class researchers have confirmed our long-standing perceptions of the nature of politics. But shouldn't we be more concerned with the difficult relationship between reason and politics? Particularly as researchers working in a think tank, or indeed active and politically engaged citizens, we are in the business of providing independent analysis to politicians and the general public hoping to spark genuine debate and ultimately contribute to better policy. But is our research-driven approach, based on facts and reason, likely to have an effect if people's minds seem to be unable to critically process such information?
Photo by Flickr user aldoaldoz.