Confirmation Bias

In a much-discussed article, Ezra Klein presents his readers with findings on confirmation bias by Dan Kahan, and the threat Klein and Kahan believe confirmation bias presents to their vision of “democratic politics enlightened by evidence,” in which “our debates are tractable and that the answers to our toughest problems aren’t very controversial at all,” in which “men and women of learning can solve society’s hardest problem.”  (Yuval Levin makes clear here that this is just that, their vision, and not the assumption underlying our Constitutional system.) 

Klein and Kahan see themselves as calling into question the idea that “our problem is a lack of information.”  They still assume that policy debates, in principle, have a factual solution; they just think that people’s deeper commitments prevent them from agreeing on facts. But clearly this isn’t always the case. Nobody disputed that factual economic indicators, in 2008, were going in the wrong direction, or that banks were in fact collapsing. However, progressives had deep commitments that caused them to blame this on deregulation or free market fundamentalism, while conservatives had deep commitments that caused them to blame government intervention.  Similarly, nobody doubts that after the stimulus the unemployment rate went up to 10%, but progressives’ deep commitments caused them to say that without stimulus, things would have been worse, while conservatives’ deep commitments caused them to disagree.

I’m not disputing the existence of confirmation bias.  Conservatives and liberals quite easily found information sources, facts and talking points to support their deeper commitments in the cases I mentioned above.  I only reject, again, the idea that there is, in principle, a simple right answer following directly from information.  

Klein and Kahan cling to that idea.  They see no need or possibility of engaging debates that go deeper than the information itself.  The only thing holding us back, for them, is that we either don’t access the relevant information or commit basic, demonstrable errors when dealing with information. 

Applying the idea to this instance itself, Klein/Kahan and I see the same information about confirmation bias and draw different conclusions.  For me, confirmation bias allows partisans to accumulate information and so shield themselves from discussion of debates going beneath information.  For Klein/Kahan, it prevents people from drawing conclusions that are self-evidently correct. Klein on Kahan: “‘What I’m trying to understand is really a pathology. I want to identify the dynamics that lead to these nonproductive debates.’  In fact, Kahan wants to go further than that. ‘The point of doing studies like this is to show how to fix the problem.'” 

Obviously, these are judgments Kahan chooses to draw, not ones that follow directly from the evidence. 

As Klein recognizes, his view of things leads to the danger of an intellectual dead end. 

“How can we know the answers we come up with, no matter how well-intentioned, aren’t just more motivated cognition? How can we know the experts we’re relying on haven’t subtly biased their answers, too? How can I know that this article isn’t a form of identity protection? Kahan’s research tells us we can’t trust our own reason. How do we reason our way out of that?” 

Without the ability to engage arguments that go deeper than information, we have no way in principle of getting out of our bubbles.  Your bubble might happen to be right, mine might happen to be right, there is no way of knowing.  The answer is to go inside the argument itself, not make a prior assumption that we can’t trust our reason.

For instance, one way we can tell that Klein’s article is, to an extent, an instance of identity-protecting confirmation bias is that it lumps “climate deniers” together as an opposing tribe. Is a climate denier one who believes the climate isn’t changing? One who doubts the accuracy of climate models?  One who thinks we aren’t sure about the accuracy of climate models?  One who believes the consequences of climate change are likely to be less severe than predicted?  One who believes the costs of action are likely to exceed the benefits?  One who would measure costs and benefits differently from Ezra Klein?  Klein doesn’t define”climate denier” based on particular claims or arguments that could be demonstrated false, but by membership in a group that broadly draws the “wrong” conclusions.





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