It’s Not Our Brains, It’s Our Media

Dan KahanToday, Ezra Klein asked a question, What’s the Liberal Equivalent of Climate Denial? But he doesn’t have an answer. Or more specifically, Ezra being Ezra, he can’t think of any equivalent so he leaves the question open. He is, after all, a liberal. And that’s the kind of thing we do. Or do we?

If you listen to Dan Kahan, liberals and conservatives are exactly the same. They believe what they believe and then they look for ways to justify it. There are a couple of problems I have with this work. First: why liberals and conservatives? As any Radio Lab listener can tell you, that is true of all humans about everything. Second: the fact that there is a tendency doesn’t mean it swamps other factors. Kahan makes what I think of as a classic scientist’s mistake of thinking his results are far broader than they actually are.

But the most important thing is this is really not about how our brains work; it is about how our media work. Klein argued that it is too simple to show that conservatives and liberals actually make up their minds first and then justify them. He noted of Kahan’s work, “His experiments don’t say anything about how political coalitions reason.” And I think that gets to the heart of the matter. Conservatives can listen to right wing radio all day. And they can come home and watch Fox News all night. It is not necessary for them to ever hear a word that pushes against their established narrative. The worst that will happen is that they will see the Nightly News and wonder why no one is talking about Benghazi or whatever the conservative echo chamber is on about at that moment.

Ezra KleinThat just isn’t true for liberals who are far more dependent upon mainstream sources for their news. Look at NPR. It’s funny to me that conservatives consider it liberal, because given the political beliefs of the country, it is scrupulously evenhanded. But conservatives who think that NPR is liberal also claim that CNN is liberal. What they mean is that these middle-of-the-road news sources are not explicitly conservative.

What’s more, look at actual liberal sources. Look at this blog. I hate it when I’m wrong. That doesn’t mean that I don’t pitch things from a liberal perspective. But I never attempt to deceive because the purpose of this blog is not apologetics; it is to find the truth given my biases, which I am extremely open about. Consider the supposed IRS scandal. Even at the beginning of the coverage, it was known that both liberal and conservative groups were targeted. And now we know that liberal groups were targeted more than conservative groups. But Fox News viewers would be forgiven for not knowing this because it is hardly if ever mentioned. But had things been turned the other way around, there is no way that people reading this blog would have gone away with the idea that the IRS was targeting only liberal groups.

In my experience, liberals who aren’t totally obsessed with politics often have silly, but weakly held, beliefs. However, liberals who care enough to grind out five articles a day really do care. So liberals simply aren’t misled nearly as much as conservatives. So I don’t think that liberals are any less self-deceiving than conservatives. But Kahan’s tests check to see if priming distorts the thinking of liberals and conservatives. And it does. But the question we most care about is whether one group that gets a steady diet of lies is just as likely to figure out the truth as a second group that gets reasonably accurate, if still distorted information. I don’t think we need a study to test that.


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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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