Elite Power Trumps Ideological Rigidity

Ezra KleinI’m still not clear what exactly Ezra Klein’s project is, but he has now published a very interesting article, How Politics Makes Us Stupid. It focuses on the work of Dan Kahan, who has shown that political ideology and tribal identification affect how we perceive data. I have some problems with his work, but the general conclusions can’t really be denied because of work by others on this issue. My main response, however, is that this is actually a marginal issue. And even Kahan admits this. There is a much bigger issue: many people simply never see the data.

Let’s look at it from the perspective of global warming, because that is the issue that Klein focuses on. While it is true that Fox News viewers see their tribe as being in the denier camp, it was not always so. At one time, conservatives were very much accepting of global warming. It was only after a concentrated propaganda campaign that global warming denial became a litmus test for conservative identification.

Dan KahanFor many people in my life, I am the person to come to in order to determine what smart opinion is on a subject. This is cultural identification in its best sense. After all, there is a whole lot of noise out there and they know me and they know that I am honest. Even on issues that I have very strong opinions, I provide the opposing position. Because I am a scientist by nature, I don’t just provide the information that confirms my side. That doesn’t mean that I’m objective—just that I try to provide a full, if ideologically colored, picture.

Compare this to Fox News. Their slogan “fair and balanced” is an outrage to all reasoning people. I have nothing against flaming rhetoric coming from any source. That is an art in and of itself—an art I proudly participate in. But to claim that such rhetoric is “just the facts” is disingenuous. More than any other television news sources, Fox News defines belief rather than reflects it.

So with global warming, the issue is not that we humans are so ideologically rigid that we can’t see the overwhelming weight of the evidence. It is that most of us never even see the evidence. People who watch Fox News think global warming is a hoax because the only people they see are people who say global warming is a hoax. This is the same as during the last election when Fox News viewers though that Mitt Romney was going to be the next president. But in that case, reality came crashing down on them on the night of 6 November 2012. Sadly, the global warming denial will last for years as our climate comes slowly (and perhaps catastrophically) down on us.

The problem with our society is that it is not equal enough. Some people and groups have enormous power. There’s no problem with people making ideologically driven decisions. But there is a very big problem when the ideology itself is defined by the power elite. That’s what we have to do something about. Democracy in America? I think it is an excellent idea!


I was very pleased to see that Klein’s article ended with, “Editor: Eleanor Barkhorn.” I don’t expect it to last, because online, even paying writers is a big deal. Having a proper editorial staff is right out. But the writing was definitely tighter than Klein provided at Wonk Blog. A world without editors is chaos!

Update (7 April 2014 4:45 pm)

Paul Krugman raises a reasonable exception, Asymmetric Stupidity. He offers up two reasons why in the real world, liberals are not nearly as prone to this as conservatives. The second reason goes right along with what I argued above:

One possible answer would be that liberals and conservatives are very different kinds of people—that liberalism goes along with a skeptical, doubting—even self-doubting—frame of mind; “a liberal is someone who won’t take his own side in an argument.”

Another possible answer is that it’s institutional, that liberals don’t have the same kind of monolithic, oligarch-financed network of media organizations and think tanks as the right.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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