Science confirms: Politics wrecks your ability to do math

Dogma and unquestioning belief, whether in religious, philosophical, political, or economic principles is what holds humanity back. Stay Perpetually Skeptical, my friends.


Everybody knows that our political views can sometimes get in the way of thinking clearly. But perhaps we don’t realize how bad the problem actually is. According to a new psychology paper, our political passions can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills. More specifically, the study finds that people who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.

The study, by Yale law professor Dan Kahan and his colleagues, has an ingenious design. At the outset, 1,111 study participants were asked about their political views and also asked a series of questions designed to gauge their “numeracy,” that is, their mathematical reasoning ability. Participants were then asked to solve a fairly difficult problem that involved interpreting the results of a (fake) scientific…

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8 responses to “Science confirms: Politics wrecks your ability to do math”

  1. Tech Savvy says :

    I had seen this study earlier this week and concluded that is flawed in several ways. One report was that it was a study of the brain and you can imagine my disappointment that it wasn’t about the brain at all, it was a study in social psychology… if that. Much of it depends on what you think is the premise upon which it is based.

    For example, what if it’s really a study about how lazy people have become? I remember back in the days of the 1950s while I was still in grade school, reading massive volumes, doing in depth-research at the bigger libraries, making inquiries by mail, using statistics, predicting outcomes based on hypothesis and doing the work of research were all respected and lauded activities. Of course, people on the East Coast of the United States have always been more academically inclined and more inclined to reading and culture (such as live plays) than those on the West Coast more prone to activities, especially outdoor activities.

    Over the decades, particularly with the explosion of the Internet and especially such activities as Facebook, texting and tweeting, the attention span of people seems to have greatly diminished. In fact this was a recent topic in Asimov’s where the author was showing that the so-called “multi-tasking” led to reducing attention and concentration significantly. More and more, people seem to be of the “microwave mentality” where it used to take an hour to bake a potato in the oven but takes only 8 minutes in the microwave. Hot dogs went from 15 minutes on the stove top to 30 seconds in the microwave. We have “TV dinners” which are heated an average of 5 to 8 minutes that used to take hours for the farmer’s wife with the wood stove.

    We want answers and we want them NOW!

    It has been noted by researchers that belief systems extend our senses: You don’t know that your car (if you have one) is in the garage (if you have one), but your belief system extends your senses to believe that is safely in place. It would be a shock to go to the garage and find it stolen! It wasn’t in your belief system — which often acts as both an extension of our senses and as a short cut time saver.

    I am reminded of the conversation I had with a 20-something on the Seattle Sounder awhile back. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart had given a report that air pollution from China contributed to 30% of the air pollution in San Francisco (without giving him the source). He looked at me as a total loser and said, “That’s wrong!” and refused to talk to me any further. He had decided that what he felt trumped what anyone he did not know could ever tell him. I lost total credibility with him because he found it impossible to believe that the pollution could cross the Pacific Ocean, in spite of the fact that scientists found it so.

    So if you happen to be a member of the “tomorrow people” “now generation” used to getting everything you want and need instantly from the time you were born (thanks to paper diapers and baby fast foods in bottles), you may not want to peruse boring (and to you, useless) statistics in order to discover “truth” you think you already have. Why bother? You prejudices will keep you safe.

    I think we should all be VERY skeptical about that, particularly those of us who have lived through the cult experience: Prejudices can cost a lot if you believe in the wrong premises.

    So I wonder if this particular study doesn’t show that, for the most part, people have moved from being rational to relying on feelings and emotions to substitute their opinions for facts because it’s just too much work and they don’t feel it’s worth it.

    Of course, maintaining a wrong-headed position often turns out to be a much greater effort than simply doing the research and accepting the truth, but since you are already in place in your bulkhead in your already solid perception, surrounded by people of like mind who are just as muddle headed and wrong minded as you, why change, especially if you risk losing your loser friends and families in your inappropriate social surrounding?

  2. eSell says :

    I might just be having an off day, but I’m a little confused…

    At first you seem to be disagreeing with the news report/study, but by the end it sounds as if you’re confirming it…almost.

    Yeah, people are lazy, even without the added incentive of “if I look into it I may be shocked that the truth disrupts my worldview”. However, from what I read, this is saying that if your bias (in this case Political) says A, then performing a mathematical calculation that might disprove A will be more difficult b/c you are unwilling to accept the truth of the answer. I reckon it is a form of Cognitive Dissonance.

    Of course, you focus more on Religious biases, and I see a similar process as mentioned in this article at work there (and that ties into the Laziness aspect)–if scientists say something that might confirm Young Earth Creationism, for instance, or British Israelism, then they’re all “even Science proves it!!” But, if science (archaeology, molecular biology (DNA), geology, et. al.) might disprove one of the above-held beliefs, then “science is wrong and evil!” If geology didn’t have theological ramifications, then everyone would be able to accept that it takes X amount of time for Y amount of sediment to collect and become rock…but since the time value is too great to mesh with their theology, then it is all just wrong.

  3. Tech Savvy says :

    No, I don’t know what to make of the study: The interpretation of the results leave much to be desired and it certainly isn’t clear that they’ve gotten to the real source of the rejection of the facts and figures (mostly figures, which ties into politics where the modern math is on the order of “It will cost more for each and every individual, but it will cost less over all for everybody” — or the business version: “We lose money on every item, but make it up in volume”).

    My take on it is, if something doesn’t matter to you, your eyes glaze over and you go, “OK”, but if it does and you have an opinion, your eyes glaze over and you say, “Nah, ah!”. Choose your rut carefully, for you will be in it for the rest of your life.

    Of course it would be better if people relied on objective evidence than their own opinions of how they just feel about things, but there’s another problem: What was the statistic about what percentage of people don’t know how long it takes the earth to go around the sun or if the earth even goes around the sun? 30%?

    The best course of action is to be skeptical of people’s opinions because they don’t seem to be based on facts. Maybe we can’t even begin to rely on the “collective wisdom” of the people any longer. I was on jury duty and I now cringe at the thought of being “judged by my peers”.

    And one more thing: Just what do the people making this study suggest we do about the situation?

    Their lack of suggestions is greatly disturbing.

    I maintain my #1 personal law: Never knowingly argue with crazy people.

  4. eSell says :

    What was it about jury duty that has caused such unease, O Mikey?

    Yeah, they didn’t have any suggestions on what to do about this thing. I took it as a way of suggesting everybody be more mindful of an inherent human shortcoming (thus I admonished we all try to remain skeptical). But that doesn’t always work–just a couple days ago I shared on fb something about Palin…I kind of thought it was too stupid, even for HER, but it seemed plausible enough, or my opinion of her made me think it was. I was later informed by a friend that the source was a Satire news site similar to the Onion. Even I fail in my attempt at Perpetual Skepticism. But if we recognize our failings and care enough to fix them, then it is a good lesson.

    As for laziness, or the lure of emotion (Truthiness rather than Truth)…I hold little hope.

  5. Tech Savvy says :

    I see you as being smarter and better than I am, and, well, if you aren’t just yet, give it a little time. I’m just fine with that as long as you let me continue to dabble in the technologies I love.

    So maybe you are way ahead of me, and I would hope so: It’s just my opinion, mind you, but the thing that I missed in all this is that the referenced study (you do good, detailed, thoughtful work) is an indication of patent dishonesty. Yes, maybe people are lazy and just want to continue believing what they believe in spite of evidence that they believe rubbish because it’s easier and more convenient, but perhaps the real answer is that they are completely dishonest and have not one shred of integrity.

    This makes sense to me, but maybe there’s another viewpoint and if you have one, I’d really like you to share. It doesn’t really seem possible that anyone who is truly honest, seeking the truth, is going to remain adamantly intransigent.

    Maybe that’s just me because I grew up around science and technology and have a high level of skill in applied logic (having designed and built my own binary counter from 24 volt dc relays at the age of 13 and having a solid career as an IBM Mainframe Systems Programmer). Perhaps it’s because, faced with the inexorable fact that unless something is changed in that damned operating system module the whole system running Payroll / Personnel and Budget / Finance will crash and people won’t get paid (a big problem when it’s sheriff’s deputies and they know where you are).

    There is also the proposition that people today don’t have to be honest much because nothing depends on integrity. People know the President lies, but that’s OK because they like him. If it were the 1950s, he’d be impeached by now (or have to pull a ‘Nixon’). But liars get away with it because everyone thinks that everyone lies, so one opinion has as much value as any other opinion.

    Of course, there’s yet another issue. Let’s take Global Warming, for example. People come down on either side or the other with no one clearly winning because either camp can draw on their own reasons for declaring a ‘win’. In politics, it’s all about winning and with opinions, it seems the same thing: It matters not whether you are right or wrong, what really matters is the biggest lies the majority likes the best. Now then, the whole question of Global Warming is irrelevant. Of course, there is climate change. Scientists (the reputable ones) predict that this world is coming into another ice age and within 10,000 to 15,000 years, Manhattan will be under a mile and a half of ice. Furthermore, within 10 million years, the binary white dwarfs will be close enough to fry all life on earth with cosmic radiation, ending all life on earth once and for all instantly.

    I’m not seeing anyone get excited about the last two concerns. No, the short term memory challenged only want those sound bites people will remember long enough to give their support. The question should be asked, what can mankind do to change the global climate? Since the biggest contributors to depleting the ozone because of methane are those termites in their huge termite mounds and the flatulence of cattle, are we going to see movements to terminate said sources? At what cost to the rest of ecosystem?

    Of course, there is also fracking. This contributes right now, 10 times more pollution than coal burning. Hey, you don’t have to set the world on fire, you can burn tap water. Also, don’t get your shower next to an open flame. And it turns out that home owners find that they don’t own the water and mineral rights any longer because the land developers retain that while selling the ‘property’ (which basically means the veneer of dirt just under your house). The fracking companies (shades of the newest Battle Star Galactica series) can wreck your community from side drilling without having your permission. Of course, those liberals in Congress won’t put a stop to this nonsense because three-fourths of a billion dollars has gone into peddling influence to prevent any measures to stop fracking. A couple of states so far have banned it. The question is, who is honest enough to put an end to fracking to save the environment?

    We’ve already had experience with some things people can really do if they have the will. After 9/11, flights were grounded (except for the 400 jets taking Arab royalty home — you know, the students taking University here). The results after five days is that the air pollution in the jet stream cleared significantly. There were amazing differences.

    So if we were willing to stay home, it would have tremendous impact: The spread of such plagues as the Zebra Mussel and the killer green seaweed killing off the oceans making them a desert might cease. You know, in the 19th Century an amorous husband brought the Water Lilly to Lake Victoria in Africa from South America because he thought it would be beautiful for his wife, causing an ecosystem collapse leading to an explosion of crocodiles killing people off. Then there were the British transplants to Australia who just HAD to bring rabbits.

    It just seems that honesty is an extinct policy when there’s commerce and people’s fragile opinions at stake.

    Maybe you have better insights.

    I would hope so.

  6. eSell says :

    But if you look for truthfulness
    You might just as well be blind
    It always seems to be so hard to give


    Honesty is such a lonely word
    Everyone is so untrue
    Honesty is hardly ever heard
    And mostly what I need from you

    I think you and Billy Joel are right. There is a tremendous amount of dishonesty. Sam Harris has a Novella for free download entitled Lying–I haven’t read it yet but have read reviews that he advocates for not telling the “Little White Lies” as being the most effective way to better the world by making it a more honest place…”It doesn’t really seem possible that anyone who is truly honest, seeking the truth, is going to remain adamantly intransigent.” I agree there–it might be hard for someone to accept the truth and might take them a long time, but if they are honestly seeking it they can’t retain their old ideas w/o lying to themselves as much as to everyone else.

    And, of course, Winston Churchill is famous for saying “a lie gets half-way around the world while the truth is still getting its pants on”.

    Is Cognitive Dissonance dishonesty? If it isn’t witting dishonesty, I guess it still is, for your brain is lying to you (yeah, I know, there is no duality…just easy to phrase that way). But I would say that “involuntary” lying is less morally evil than purposeful lying. But that gets into the realms of the Cults, whether the ministers are duplicitous or whether they’ve fooled themselves by their own foolish teachings on British Israelism.

    The fracking companies…hahaha…even before you mentioned it I kept thinking of BSG.

    Please refrain from filling my head with too much praise…I might become vain(er) and be less willing to change my opinions in the face of evidence. 😉

    I’m still waiting for Story Time about jury duty–I’ve read a few John Grisham, so I’m down for a little Courtroom Drama…

  7. Tech Savvy says :

    The approach I recommend is confidence without arrogance.

    As for the adventures of our illustrious Mr. Derrick Drummond, the high speed chase at 110 miles per hour, the 3/4 ounce of pot and Orec, the wonder dog, that will have to wait for a Tech Savvy Mikey post because it may be a bit more than can be covered here.

    Unfortunately, Mikey has Broken! and Takeover! blogs to write first.


  8. Black Ops Mikey says :

    Speaking of science (and people being unable / unwilling to engage it), you may note the hilarious take on British Israelism and addiction.

    Well, you know, it is SUPPOSED to be really funny (in a rather black humor sort of way).

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