Probability of Reality as We Know it

Jogging this morning, a pebble got into my shoe. I was on a sidewalk that wasn’t covered in rocks. The shoes I had on have high tops and were tied tightly. The thought occurred to me about probability, considering all the perfect conditions that have to come together to lead to even such a simple result as a pebble in my shoe.

I had to step on one of the few tiny rocks that happened to be in the right spot. Somehow the rock got kicked up about 6 inches where it caught the back edge of my shoe. It had to land perfectly right in order to lodge in the slight space between my foot and the shoe. Then it had to make its way down my shoe without first getting kicked back out.

It just got me thinking. For any given person at any given moment, a rock getting in their shoe is highly improbable. I run and/or walk numerous times every single day. And I can go years without getting a rock in my shoe. Even when it does happen, it would usually be because I was walking on a gravel road or alley, not on a standard sidewalk. Yet for all of the billions of people who are out and about every single day, the probability of numerous people getting rocks in their shoes at any given moment is quite high.

A more exciting example is getting struck by lightning. The vast majority of people go through their entire lives without getting hit. Still, there is a miniscule minority of the world’s population that gets hit on any day. Some rare people even get struck by lightning multiple times in their lifetime. Lightning directly hitting any single person is extremely improbable, while lightning directly hitting some person somewhere is extremely probable.

Most people don’t go around worrying about lightning, but right at this moment multiple people in the world are probably getting struck. Someone somewhere inevitably will get struck. It could be you, right now where you are. And sometimes lightning comes seemingly out of nowhere with no storm in sight, even on occasion hitting people in their houses.

Probability is dependent on context. So it depends on our perspective, on how we look at the data and how we calculate the probability. Our view of probability tends to be biased by the personal, of course. So it tends to be biased by what we know and have experienced, what is familiar to us. It is hard to think about probability in purely rational terms.

Given the right perspective, almost anything can be seen as improbable.

The entire existence of the universe, if one thinks too much about it, starts to seem improbable. Also improbable is life emerging on a particular planet, then that life leading to consciousness, intelligence, and advanced civilizations. Even so, because of the immense number of planets in the immense number of solar systems in the immense number of galaxies, it is probable to the point of near inevitability that there are vast numbers of planets with conscious, intelligent lifeforms and advanced civilizations.

Heck, we might be surrounded by lifeforms on our planet and in our own solar system while being unable to perceive and recognize them. We think of the probability of life, along with all that goes with it, in terms of the life we know immediately around us. But the actual probability is that other lifeforms would be bizarre to us, even if we could even discern them. Other lifeforms might simply be beings of energy or fluids, might be too small to detect with our senses or too large to comprehend with our minds. If a gut microbe gained intelligence and you were able to ask it what the probability was that their world was a giant ambling creature, the response would probably be amused laughter or else they’d look at you as though you were crazy. Maybe our own imaginations toward that which is beyond us is as relatively limited as that of the gut microbe.

Another aspect is cultural bias. People living in a society that wears sandals would have a different view of the probability of rocks in their ‘shoes’ than those in a society that wears tall boots. Societies that don’t wear any footwear at all wouldn’t even comprehend the issue of rocks in shoes. The same thing for beings that can’t be seen, as in some societies it would be common belief that such beings are all around us (ghosts, spirits, demons, elves, supernatural creatures, etc), and they may claim to know how to interact with them.

How do we determine the probability of bicameral societies having existed in the ancient world? Some say it isn’t even plausible, much less probable. I was reading Hearing Voices by Simon McCarthy-Jones and the author was in this doubting camp. He basically argued that, interpreting ancient non-Western texts based on modern Western preconceptions, it is highly improbable that ancient non-Western societies could exist that contradicted modern Western preconceptions. Uh, well, yeah, I guess. Within that circular logic, it indeed is a coherent opinion. But obviously others disagree based on the possibility of other ways of interpreting the same evidence. For example, unlike McCarthy-Jones, some people would point to the anthropological record to see possible examples of bicameralism or something akin to it, such as the Ugandan Ik and the Amazonian Pirahã.

My point isn’t whether or not bicameral theory is the best possible explanation of the data. But even ignoring the theory, the anthropological record makes absolutely clear there are societies that seem very strange to our modern Western sensibility. Then again, to those other societies, we would appear strange. Considering how perfect conditions have had to be, all of modern Western civilization is highly improbable. If it were possible to re-create the entire world in a vast laboratory, you could run an experiment numerous times and probably never be able to repeat these same results. Supposedly strange societies like the Ik and Pirahã are immensely more probable than our own strange society. Some other societies have lasted for thousands of years and we might be lucky to last the coming century.

Although it’s possible that the world perfectly matches our present beliefs and biases, it is ridiculously improbable that such is the case. Future generations surely will look back on us as we look back on the ignorance and barbarity of ancient societies. So, who are we to hold ourselves up as the norm for all of humanity? And who are we to use our cultural biases to judge all of reality?

We have no way to determine the probability of most things or often even their plausibility. All we know is what we know. And we don’t know what we don’t know. Usually, we don’t even know that we don’t know what we don’t know. Our state of ignorance is almost entirely self-enclosed, as what we know or think we know is inseparable from what we don’t know. As it has been said: The world is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.

The world is full of kicked-up pebbles and lightning strikes, strange lifeforms and even stranger cultures. Everything is improbable from some perspective, until it happens to you or is experienced by you and then it’s the most probable thing in the world. Then it simply is the reality you know.

Young Poor Darker-Skinned Minority Men

The recent incidents of cops killing poor black men puts the issues into context.

Some have pointed out that poor whites and black women also get killed by cops. But the point is that they don’t get killed as often as poor black men. Also, rich black men don’t get killed either very often. Bill Cosby doesn’t have to worry about being shot.

It isn’t just getting disproportionately shot that is the problem. The entire criminal system directs itself most strongly against poor black men. Actually, it is young poor black men. To be yet even more precise, it is young poor darker-skinned minority men, as research shows that darker skin leads to greater racial bias.

Simply being a lighter-skinned young poor black man will likely save you some grief with the police. Or being a woman will make a major difference in how likely you are to be arrested and convicted for the exact same crimes committed by a man. Or just aging a bit transforms a dangerous threat to society into a wise old black man.

It isn’t just a race issue. It isn’t just a conflict between whites and blacks. It involves a centuries-old class war and much else besides.

It’s this combination of factors that is so strange to my mind. All of it gets mixed up. Why is the young poor black man the ultimate in bigoted scapegoating and police targeting? What does this stereotype represent in our collective psyche?

Paranoia of a Guilty Conscience

A big issue in the city I live in, Iowa City, is the racial disparity in arrests. This is a problem all across the country, but the data shows that this town has one of the highest disparities in the country. That contradicts the liberal self-image of this middle class white college town.

This relates to the majority white population here being freaked out about black people from Chicago. White people and wealthy people from Chicago, however, are perfectly fine. Just not those low class gangbangers and welfare queens.

When my parents moved back to town in 2008, there was an unusual spike in criminal activity or at least a spike in the media’s attention on criminal activity. I always wondered if there was any real change in crime, though. There was some youth gang activity, but it mostly seemed like high schoolers pretending to be in gangs.

The black issue became all the buzz, despite the fact that the spike of murders that year all came from middle class white people, including a banker and a mother who separately killed their families. Of course, no one fear-mongered about the dangers of middle class white people going berzerk. But some black youth shoplifting sure did get a lot of attention.

A recent article in the local alternative media (Study Shows IC Police Stop Minority Drivers At Disproportionate Rates) cleared up something I’ve been wondering about for some years now:

“However, despite the 2008-2009 uptick, data show violent crime has still trended downward over time, even in those so-called high-crime neighborhoods.”

Even as the media obsessed over violent crime incidents, the actual rate of violent crime was going down. This has been true nation-wide. Many people think violent crime is worse right now in the US, despite it being at the lowest point in my lifetime.

How can we have a rational public debate when the public’s view of reality is so distorted by media? This irritates and frustrates me.

I did find some data on crime rates in Iowa City (from usa.com). It even breaks it down, although not in as much detail as i’d prefer. It only includes data between 2005 and 2012 and so, unfortunately, the larger trends can’t be seen.

Within that limited timeframe, it shows Iowa City’s crime rates are about the same as for all of Iowa. And Iowa’s crime rates are generally low by national standards.

For example, Iowa City’s murder rate is extremely low for most years. But there was that temporary jump in the murder rate for 2008. The murder rate for that particular year stands out as the murder rate for years before and after it are so low, typically at zero for most years. Iowa, in general, has one of the lowest homicide rates and one of the lowest gun homicide rates in the entire country, and that should be put in the context that Iowa has a high gun ownership rate.

The only Iowa City crime rate that is above the national average is for rape. And that is probably because it is a college town. I would guess that all college towns with on average younger populations have higher than average rates of rape. Whereas towns with on average older populations probably have lower rates of rape. Young people tend to rape more than old people. Also, as other data shows (from insideprison.com), the high rate of rape in Iowa City is mostly rape by acquaintances that occur in residences/homes, not roving gangs of Chicago black thugs randomly defiling young white maidens.

The violent crime rates have been going down in this town, in this state, in this country, and across the world. We haven’t seen such low rates of violent crime since a half century ago when it dropped down from a high rate earlier in the 20th century. What is this obsession with imaginary violence? And why are real blacks getting blamed for it?

As the data shows, blacks are less likely to commit crimes such as using illegal drugs, carrying illegal drugs, and carrying illegal guns. Yet blacks are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, harshly judged, and imprisoned for these crimes. Most of the murders in this country aren’t committed by blacks. Besides, most of the murders by blacks are committed against blacks, just as most murders by whites are committed against whites. In a majority white place like Iowa City, why are people so worried about blacks who are a tiny percentage of the population?

It is hard to see how this can be explained by anything besides racism. In Racism: A Very Short Introduction (p. 11), Ali Rattansi puts it in the context of one particular piece of data:

“It is even more difficult to decide exactly how racism might be involved in, say, the fact that in the USA black men are 10 times more likely to go to prison than whites, and 1 in 20 over the age of 18 is in jail. Or, as revealed in an Amnesty International report of 2004, why black defendants convicted of killing whites have been sentenced to death 15 times more often than white defendants convicted of killing blacks. Also, blacks convicted of killing other blacks in the USA are only half as likely to suffer the death penalty as when they are convicted of killing whites. Is this racism at work? Where does this and similar instances fit into the American, and indeed general, narrative of racism?”

One should be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that American society puts a lesser value on the lives of blacks. I sometimes wonder if the real fear that many white Americans have is that the maltreatment and injustice committed against blacks might one day come home to roost, that blacks would do the same to whites if given the opportunity. Basically, it seems like the paranoia of a guilty conscience.

* * * *

6/22/14 – I came across something that fits this post perfectly.

It is a review of a book about racism and the media in Iowa City. That is awesome that someone went to the trouble to write a book about it. Now if only Iowa City residents would read it and learn something about the community they live in.

The book is A Transplanted Chicago: Race, Place, and the Press in Iowa City by Robert E. Gutsche, Jr. The review is How the Media Stokes Racism in Iowa City – and Everywhere by Eleanor J Bader (source: Truthout). Here is part of the review:

“His answer: Unabashed racism. In fact, Gutsche concludes that virtually every news item about the southeast conforms to stereotypes depicting African Americans as lazy, uneducated, dependent on government handouts and prone to criminal or immoral behavior. To make his case, he cites a newspaper article about the opening of a new shelter for homeless families. The story was illustrated by a photo of a black woman leaning against a window. The caption identified her as a Chicago native who had been living in the shelter with her five children for nearly a year. “Just that single sentence says it all,” Gutsche writes, “Poor blacks (especially mothers) continue to come to Iowa City with their children, (far too many for the woman to care for) and take advantage of the city’s good will and resources (by staying in the shelter for nearly a year) . . . The caption was wrong. The woman and her children had only been living in the city – and at the shelter – for a couple of months . . . What is interesting about this caption and photograph is how it matches with dominant discourse surrounding Iowa City’s southeast side and the migration of folks from Chicago to Iowa City.”

“Central to this discourse, of course, is the belief that low-income women, aka “welfare queens,” are taking advantage of government programs and feeding at the trough of public generosity. “Chicago has come to mean more than just another city,” Gutsche concludes. “It signals the ghetto, danger, blackness – and most directly, of not being from here.” That two-thirds of the low-income households registered with the Iowa City Housing Authority were elderly and disabled – not poor, black or from Chicago – went unacknowledged by reporters. Similarly, the drunken escapades of mostly white University of Iowa students have been depicted by reporters as essentially benign and developmentally appropriate. “Just as news coverage explained downtown violence as a natural college experience, news coverage normalized southeast side violence as being the effect of urban black culture,” Gutsche writes. “News stories indicated that drunken packs of college students were isolated to the downtown, whereas southeast side violence was described as infiltrating the city’s schools, social services and public safety.””

* * * *

6/23/14 – Another article compares the safety of states:

“By safety, we’re not referring exclusively to protection from violence and crime. The term encompasses various categories, among them workplace safety, natural disasters, home and community stability, traffic safety and, of course, financial security.”

Both Iowa and Illinois are in the top 10 safest states in the country. Illinois is even ranked at number 3 for the lowest number of assaults per capita. Many people think of Illinois in terms of the media image of Chicago. It turns out that overall Illinois is one of the safest states in the country, even with all those supposedly dangerous inner city blacks. Maybe it is because these are such safe places to live that any act of violence stands out.

 

Conservatives Watching Liberal Media

Conservatives are always going on about the media having a liberal bias. They say the same thing about college professors and scientists. There is a sense in which they are right.

I sometimes watch older television shows when they happen to be on. I’m thinking of shows like The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie. Mash, etc. These shows regularly have liberal messages. My mom watches many of these shows and I think she is unaware of how liberal they are.

I remember the response my dad had when he found out that the MASH producers were intentionally trying to influence public opinion about the Vietnam War. He felt betrayed, as this was one of his favorite shows. Of course, my dad isn’t offended by all the shows and movies that pushed right-wing WWII and Cold War propaganda. Sure, everyone making media has their biases. More than left or right bias, the biggest bias of all is pro-corporate. Still, liberal bias particularly sells well in our society.

Liberalism sells for a number of reasons.

For one, liberalism as licentious behavior is fun to watch and freedom-loving liberal messages are inspiring. But a lot of liberalism in the media is more basic. The Waltons often had morality tales about treating people equally and fairly with particular shows focusing on prejudice against Germans, Jews and blacks.  Little House on the Prairie was about a sensitive father figure and many of the episodes were about helping the underprivileged or oppressed, from blind people to Native Americans.

Another reason is that most Americans are very liberal about most issues. Producers make this liberal-biased media because they are making it for a mostly liberal audience. In the US, even conservatives are relatively liberal compared to other societies and compared to the past of our own country. This relates to the corporate bias. Mainstream media is produced to make big profits. To a large extent, what is sold is what people will buy (although buying habits can be manipulated).

This isn’t anything new. From the early to middle of last century, liberalism was the dominant ideology. Even mainstream conservatives wouldn’t talk badly about liberalism and would even praise it, from Ike to Nixon. There always has been a strong liberal strain throughout the entire history of this country. Obviously, this isn’t a traditional society and so conservatism in the US has defined itself in relation to liberalism. It shouldn’t be surprising to find liberalism in media, education and science when most Americans, however they may identify, are for all practical purposes liberal themselves. I suppose it also shouldn’t be surprising that, complaints aside, even conservatives enjoy the liberal-biased media.

As someone who can be critical of both liberals and conservatives, I find the dynamic between them amusing.

Racist Ideology within Racial Terminology

“History has shown that even acknowledging that race has both a social and a scientific meaning cannot disconnect the concept from its typological and racist past (or present). Despite the best intentions of many scientists and scholars, race will always remain what Ashley Montagu once called a “trigger word; utter it and a whole series of emotionally conditioned responses follow.”41

“We are a genetically diverse species, and there is meaning in that diversity. But we as a species seem thus far unable to reliably distinguish between the scientific ramifications and the social meanings of human difference. Race is an historical, not a scientific, term. Yet, until the scourge of racism is eliminated from our lives and institutions, developing methods unburdened by racial ideology to study human difference will be an impossibility.”

A Short History of the Race Concept by Michael Yudell (p. 27)
from Race and the Genetic Revolution: Science, Myth, and Culture

To merely speak of race is to inevitably and automatically elicit or even express a racist worldview, no matter your intentions (including for anti-racists). It has so far proven impossible to separate race and racism. The earliest use of race in relation to humans had a racist purpose. That purpose became built into the concept itself, built into our entire racially ordered society that justified that concept.

Study after study has demonstrated how common is racial bias and prejudice in our everyday thinking and behavior, not to mention the pervasiveness of structural racism. It is all around us and within us. We aren’t normally conscious of this. It is just what happens when you are enculturated in this kind of society and indoctrinated in this kind of political system. When a racial order has existed for centuries, it doesn’t disappear in a single generation (or two or three) just because we had a civil rights movement.

There are only two results that can come from speaking of race.

First, as I’m pointing out here, to use race (even if only with code words) is to evoke a racist worldview. With this first option, you don’t even need to speak of race directly in order to elicit the corollary racial bias and prejudice. It is already in place. You simply must not challenge it. The racism is in-built not just into the overt language of racism for the race-tinged terminology and the racial framing is always shifting (politicians, for example, have become talented in using dog-whistle politics, Reagan having been the master). That is where its power lies.

The second option is to speak as openly, clearly and bluntly as possible. No unquestioned assumptions. No code words. No political correctness, whether of the liberal or conservative variety. Like Rumplestiltskin, the power resides in knowing the name of something and stating it. This is why not speaking of race or speaking around race empowers rather than disempowers a racist worldview. The greatest fear of those most invested in a racial worldview is an open and honest discussion of race and racism. That fear must be confronted. We live in a world ruled by fear and ignoring it won’t make it go away.

I advocate for the second option. No more hiding behind words. Instead of using language to obfuscate, let us use language to communicate and discuss.

Re: The Moral Stereotypes of Liberals and Conservatives

In this post, I will analyze Jonathan Haidt’s study (in partnership with Brian A. Nosek and Jesse Graham) about liberal and conservative perceptions of and stereotypes about moral foundations:

“The Moral Stereotypes of Liberals and Conservatives”

Haidt did this research on self-identified conservatives and self-identified liberals which invalidates it from the start. Self-report data is notoriously unreliable.

Here is a good summary of the study and in summarizing the author unintentionally pointed out the problem of self-reports:

One of the applications of those pairings is a study that Haidt describes in Reason this way:

“In a study I conducted with colleagues Jesse Graham and Brian Nosek, we tested how well liberals and con­servatives could understand each other. We asked more than 2,000 American visitors to fill out the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out normally, answering as themselves. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as they think a ‘typical liberal’ would respond. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as a ‘typical conservative’ would respond. This design allowed us to examine the stereotypes that each side held about the other. More important, it allowed us to assess how accurate they were by comparing people’s expectations about ‘typical’ partisans to the actual responses from partisans on the left and the right. Who was best able to pretend to be the other?

“The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as ‘very liberal.’ The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the care and fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives. When faced with statements such as ‘one of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal’ or ‘justice is the most important requirement for a society,’ liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree.”

In other words, conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives.  More precisely, conservatives’ version of liberals matches liberals’ version of themselves better than liberals’ version of conservatives matches conservatives’ vision of themselves.

That last sentence hits the nail on the head, without the author realizing it.

Haidt was studying perception. He oversimplified his conclusions by stating the liberal perceptions of conservatives were wrong for the reason they didn’t match conservatives’ perceptions of themselves. This is oversimplified because, as Haidt should know, self-perceptions are often inccorect (while apparent stereotypes aren’t always incorrect). Haidt would need to also measure the accuracy of self-perceptions among conservatives and liberals.

Haidt is measuring the symbolic ideology rather than the substance on specific issues. This is a failing not only of this particular study by Haidt but also a failing of his other studies as well. As far as I can tell, he is only using self-report data in developing his Moral Foundations Theory. He is asking people what they identify as and asking people which values they identify with (i.e., symbolic ideology). Neither of these gets at people’s pragmatic ideology or gets at whether people’s stated beliefs conform to the less-conscious values they act according to. It certainly doesn’t get beyond the superficialities and biases of self-perceptions and self-reports.

Maybe the difference Haidt is measuring is being incorrectly analyzed. Maybe liberals are correct in their views of conservatives while conservatives themselves have less accurate self-awareness about their own conservative values. Maybe liberals are looking past the rhetoric and talking points to the actual behavior of conservatives. Actual behavior says a lot more about someone’s actual values than their own claims about what they theoretically or idealistically value.

One of the conclusions that Haidt comes to in the study’s paper is that liberals and conservatives are closer together than either side realizes. This is probably true in one sense and untrue in another sense. This is true when speaking of the average American in terms of the average liberal and the average conservative. However, the problem is that the conservative movement includes a significant number of people who are fairly liberal in their political positions.

If these politically liberal self-identified conservatives were removed from the measure of conservatism, then the average conservative would be much further to the right. There is no similar percentage of politically conservative self-identified liberals and so the average liberal would remain about the same. So, Haidt would come to different conclusions if he did a study that categorized people according to their political positions rather than their political labels.

There is an even further point of possible confusion. Haidt does at least distinguish a third group of  ‘moderates’. Polls show that most Americans will identify as conservatives if ‘moderate’ isn’t given as a choice. But if ‘moderate’ is given as a choice, most Americans identify as ‘moderate’.

So, there is a certain amount of overlap between moderates and conservatives. First, this would exacerbate the other overlap of political liberals self-identifying as conservatives. Second, considering there is a large percentage of Americans who will switch between the labels of ‘moderate’ and ‘conservative’, it makes issues of ideological conflation even more fuzzy. Furthermore, considering most Americans are politically liberal, these self-identified moderates are probably in ideological alignment with the politically liberal self-identified conservatives.

All of this leads one to wonder what ideological labels even mean. What is Haidt measuring? And what does Haidt think he is measuring?

—-

Let me continue my analysis with some other types of questions and criticisms.

Were the subjects of the study a representative sample? If the sample was, for example, all or mostly college students who are more liberal, then it would mean that the conservatives were around more liberals and the liberals were around fewer conservatives. In the paper, this is what they say about the participants:

“The participants were 2,212 visitors (62% female; median age 28; only U.S. residents or citizens) to ProjectImplicit.org”

This basically fits in with my doubts. Like college students, females and the younger tend to be more liberal. In general, more liberals are probably found online than in other environments. So, Haidt’s sample would include more people who are liberal, liberal-minded, or otherwise familiar with liberalism and liberal-mindedness. I’d argue that this doesn’t offer a fair and accurate representation of the general population.

This brings me to other confounding factors.

Most older people are conservatives. Simply being older can potentially give one more perspective and experience. Younger generations are more liberal than the older generations were at the same age. However, when these younger liberal generations grow older, they probably will maintain their higher rates of liberalism (as did the older generation maintain their lower rates of liberalism) and will also gain more perspective and experience. Furthermore, younger conservatives may have no better understanding of liberals than younger liberals have of conservatives.

So, are the results of the study merely pointing to a demographic fluke at this point in history? If the study controlled for age, would different results be found?

Ignoring all of that, maybe there is something going on that Haidt isn’t even considering.

First, authoritarianism and social conservatism have been shown to have strong correlation:

“For several decades Bob Altmeyer, an American scholar at the University of Manitoba, has been a tireless and dedicated researcher. According to the Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, Altmeyer’s work “powerfully predicts a wide rang of political, social, ideological and intergroup phenomena.” Altmeyer’s work is largely directed at other psychologists and social scientists. He has undertaken hundreds of experiments and his work is reliable and valid according to Paul Nesbitt-Larking reporting in

“Political Psychology in 2004. His work goes the distance in understanding conservatism.

“In an article titled “What Happens When Authoritarians Inherit the Earth? A simulation,” Altmeyer explains that, “When I started out, and ever since, I was not looking for political conservatives. I was looking for people who overtly submit to the established authorities in their lives, who could be of any political/economic/religious stripe.” His work identified “right-wing authoritarians” but he was not using the term “right-wing” in the political sense. Rather he used the designation in a psychological sense.

“But as he continued his work he reports that “it turns out that in North America persons who score highly on my measure of authoritarianism test tend to favor right-wing political parties and have ‘conservative’ economic philosophies and religious sentiments. He goes on to say that this empirical finding has been repeatedly duplicated in his continuing studies and has been replicated in studies by others.

“The extensive research on the behavior and personality characteristics of right-wing authoritarians and conservatives concludes that they are people who do not see themselves as they actually are and have little facility for self-analysis.

“The research demonstrates that conservatives delight in hurling invectives against their enemies and often prove to have the thinnest of skins if the same is done to them. Many conservatives are unaware of their illogical, contradictory and hypocritical thinking. And if they are forced to address it, either rationalize it away, fail to care, or go on the attack against those who reveal their human weaknesses.”

And authoritarianism has been correlated with higher rates of hypocrisy:

“Research reveals that authoritarian followers drive through life under the influence of impaired thinking a lot more than most people do, exhibiting sloppy reasoning, highly compartmentalized beliefs, double standards, hypocrisy, self-blindness, a profound ethnocentrism, and — to top it all off — a ferocious dogmatism that makes it unlikely anyone could ever change their minds with evidence or logic.”

It’s certainly not hard to find inconsistencies among conservatives, especially social conservatives. For example, conservatives have the highest rate of porn consumption and conservative states have the highest rates of teen pregnancy. I could list many more examples, but that isn’t as helpful as research on authoritarianism and hypocrisy. By the way, liberals test high on ‘openness’ which is something authoritarians, of course, test extremely low on (‘openness’ probably disinclines someone towards the worst forms of hypocrisy as found in authoritarian groupthink).

So, it is possible that many individual social conservatives even if only moderately authoritarian, enough to skew the conservative sample in that direction, are less consistent in their beliefs than the average liberal. This might skew the entire study for conservatives are familiar with their own inconsistencies and it is easier to be aware of your own inconsistencies (or the inconsistencies of those in your own group) than to be aware of the inconsistencies of someone who is entirely different from you, although being intuitively aware of inconsistencies doesn’t necessarily imply a broader self-awareness. On the opposite side: If liberals are more consistent in their beliefs, then it probably would be easier for a conservative to understand liberal beliefs. It is harder to have accurate views of an inconsistent group, especially one that hypocritically betrays its own stated values on a regular basis.

I really don’t know how this factor might play out in Haidt’s study. I have no data about ideological self-awareness as it might relate to authoritarianism and hypocrisy. My main point is simply that it is a confounding factor not being controlled for.

Secondly, it seems obvious that self-identified conservatives as a group are less ideologically homogenous than self-identfied liberals as a group. This would contribute to the conclusion that conservatives are collectively more inconsistent which would make it harder for an outsider to assess their beliefs on average. To determine this, testing for the average beliefs of liberals and conservatives wouldn’t be adequate, and so the rate of diversity of beliefs would also need to be tested. This is particularly problematic for Haidt’s entire theory as he is relying on self-defined labels which are notoriously unreliable because people’s defintions of such labels aren’t consistent. I’ve analyzed the complexity of this problem before.

The problem of the study is that self-described liberals are a smaller and more narrowly defined demographic group whereas self-described conservatives are a larger and more broadly defined demographic group, diversity making the conservative movement itself less consistent. As Pew data shows, almost 1 in 10 Americans holding strong liberal beliefs self-identify as conservative, but you don’t find a large number of Americans holding conservative beliefs self-identifying as liberal.

The conservative label, besides including 9% of Pew’s “Solid Liberals” (liberal across the board, both fiscally and socially), includes neocon progressives and war-hawks, free market neoliberals, fundamentalists as well as theocrats, some libertarians and socially liberal fiscal conservatives verging on libertarianism, patriotic statists wanting a militaristic empire, anti-statists wanting a weak government, openly gay Republicans, WASP culture warriors, white supremancists, gun-toting militants and survivalists, constitutionalists, small town rural types, elderly people remembering a conservatism that no longer exists, former Cubans who hate communism, small business owners fighting free trade globalism, big business defenders promoting free trade globalism, corporatists verging on fascism, anarcho-capitalists, Randian Objectivists, traditional Catholics who have high rates of membership in unions, union-bashing think tank employees, ordinary people wanting to conserve progressive reforms such as social security, politicians promoting the ending of the progressive reforms such as privatizing social security, etc.

You don’t find such massive diversity among self-described liberals.

A further problem is that self-described liberals don’t represent all liberals. As I pointed out, many liberals self-identify as conservatives. Other Pew data also has shown almost half of liberals self-identifying as Independents. I would suspect that most moderates hold a majority of liberal beliefs, values and policy positions. The data shows that most Americans in general, despite large numbers self-identifying as conservative, are actually very liberal on many key issues.

One other factor to consider is the mainstream media. Maybe some of the most popular pundits (or, most popular or not, pundits with the most ability to make themselves heard) such as Limbaugh and Beck aren’t representative of the average conservative. So, a liberal might mistakenly base their views of the typical conservative solely or largely on these few far right pundits. However, maybe the opposite isn’t true. As liberals are more narrowly defined as a group and because liberal activists are less radicalized, popular pundits of liberalism might be more representative of the average liberal and so the media ends up, intentionally or not, giving conservatives more accurate information about liberal beliefs.

Even if it is true that liberals are inaccurate in their assessment of the beliefs of the average conservative, liberals may be accurate in their assessment of the beliefs of conservatives in the media and other powerful conservatives who control the political narrative of the conservative movement. This is an important difference since pundits and other powerful people have more influence and control over party politics than does the average citizen. Political movements are defined more by their activists and leaders than by the average person identifying with the movement. It might be possible, though, that liberal activists and leaders are closer to the average liberal than is found with conservatives in the conservative movement.

How is the liberal supposed to know what the average conservative thinks when the spokespersons for the conservative movement don’t represent the average conservative? If this is the case, this would be more of a criticism of the conservative movement that causes such confusion than a criticism of the liberal who is confused by it. Going by this interpretation, I would posit that this possible liberal misperception of conservatives would be based on the mischaracterization of the average conservative by the conservative media itself and based on how the rest of the MSM mostly accepts this right-wing framing of the conservative movement.

All of the mainstream media and all of mainstream politics is similarly confused. You’ll never see acknowledged in the MSM that, although the average American would rather self-identify as a conservative than a liberal, the average American holds liberal views on many if not most major social, economic and political issues. The average liberal is simply repeating what they’ve learned from the MSM which is problematic in itself. It is sad that we must judge liberals for believing what they’ve been told by supposedly trusted news institutions. The MSM has misinformed the American people about the general public being more conservative than it  actually is and misinformed the American people about the average conservative being more right-wing than they actually are.

I admit that it is a sad state of affairs. I wish liberals better understood that the average conservative is closer in opinion to the average liberal than the average conservative is to the radicalized activists, leaders and pundits of the conservative movement. This is hard for most liberals to wrap their minds around for these non-radicalized average conservatives keep being manipulated by the radicals in their movement and hence voting the radicals into power, at least in recent decades.

Still, being manipulated by radical rhetoric isn’t the same thing as being radical oneself. Even liberals can be manipulated by the radical rhetoric of the right-wing which is what happened after 9/11. Fear works, sad but true.

Another factor to keep in mind relates back to hypocrisy. Haidt is testing for self-described labels and self-described values. This might in some cases have little to do with actual behavior. If on average conservatives show more inconsistency between their stated values and their actual behaviors, why would Haidt judge liberals as being inaccurate for basing their assessment on the actual behaviors of conservatives rather than on their stated values? Liberals shouldn’t be blamed for assuming that conservatives are more like liberals in thinking that their actual behaviors match up with their stated values. This speaks maybe to the naivette of liberals in not appreciating conservative hypocrisy, but such naivette certainly isn’t a moral failure. I think that ‘moral consistency’ (i.e., lack of hypocrisy) should be added to Haidt’s moral values.

There is also an irony in Haidt doing this kind of research. As I pointed out in my reviews of his theory, it seems obvious to me that Haidt lacks an accurate and unbiased assessment of liberal moral values. The fact that the theory itself is problematic makes any research based on it problematic. Maybe Haidt merely ends up testing for which group ends up agreeing the most with his own personal bias.

Another irony in a scientist like Haidt promoting conservative values is that research shows that conservatives mistrust science more and that this mistrust has been increasing:

http://404systemerror.com/study-conservatives-trust-in-science-has-fallen-dramatically-since-mid-1970s/

But a similar strong and persistant bias can’t be found among liberals:

http://open.salon.com/blog/ted_frier/2012/03/29/everyone_is_biased_only_liberals_try_not_to_be

http://truth-out.org/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=6892:the-republican-brain-why-even-educated-conservatives-deny-science–and-reality

“So now the big question: Are liberals also “smart idiots”?

“There’s no doubt that more knowledge—or more political engagement—can produce more bias on either side of the aisle. That’s because it forges a stronger bond between our emotions and identities on the one hand, and a particular body of facts on the other.

“But there are also reason to think that, with liberals, there is something else going on. Liberals, to quote George Lakoff, subscribe to a view that might be dubbed “Old Enlightenment reason.” They really do seem to like facts; it seems to be part of who they are. And fascinatingly, in Kahan’s study liberals did not act like smart idiots when the question posed was about the safety of nuclear power.

“Nuclear power is a classic test case for liberal biases—kind of the flipside of the global warming issue–for the following reason. It’s well known that liberals tend to start out distrustful of nuclear energy: There’s a long history of this on the left. But this impulse puts them at odds with the views of the scientific community on the matter (scientists tend to think nuclear power risks are overblown, especially in light of the dangers of other energy sources, like coal).

“So are liberals “smart idiots” on nukes? Not in Kahan’s study. As members of the “egalitarian communitarian” group in the study—people with more liberal values–knew more science and math, they did not become more worried, overall, about the risks of nuclear power. Rather, they moved in the opposite direction from where these initial impulses would have taken them. They become less worried—and, I might add, closer to the opinion of the scientific community on the matter.

“You may or may not support nuclear power personally, but let’s face it: This is not the “smart idiot” effect. It looks a lot more like open-mindedness.”

So, the very act of scientifically studying biases, including liberal biases, is typically going to get strong support from liberals and weak support (if not outright antagonism) from conservatives. Even if liberals were more biased about certain issues, that may be less relevant in that liberals also show a stronger desire to correct their own mistaken views.

To me, this relates back to the issue of consistency and hypocrisy. If liberals are more aware of inconsistencies when they occur, they will put more effort into becoming more consistent. I’d love to see Haidt not only study moral values but also how those values relate or don’t relate to moral behavior, especially the specific moral behaviors that the moral values imply.

I should clarify that I’m not arguing that liberals are morally better in all or even most ways. As I see it, there are strengths and weaknesses to both conservative and liberal predispositions. What I am suggesting, though, is that it might be possible that liberals are more self-aware of their own moral failings, at least in terms of being less prone to confirmation bias and the smart idiot effect when it comes to their own cherished beliefs and opinions. The hypothetical part would be whether being more self-aware of moral failings actually leads to lessening those moral failings and hence seeking to morally improve oneself, beyond merely being willing to change one’s mind according to new info.

As a liberal-minded person, what I care about are the facts even when or especially when they contradict or put doubt to my beliefs. However, conservatives don’t equally share my concern and this bothers me, almost causes me to lose hope.

Because of my liberal respect for science, I feel compelled to take Haidt’s theory seriously and to carefully look at his data. What I’ve come to is doubts about how Haidt is going about his research. My doubts are only increased as his conclusion doesn’t seem to fit the broader range of research about biases in terms of conservatives and liberals. I’d like to see Haidt’s response to all this other research and why it seems to point away from his preferred conclusion.

So, I honestly don’t know what to make of it. If someone can fix some of the problems of Haidt’s research model and yet come to similar results, I would be more convinced of his conclusion. Until then, it’s just data, just as likely to turn out to be meaningless as meaningful.

—-

Here are a few of my previous posts about Jonathan Haidt, Moral Foundations theory, and the conservative/liberal distinction:

 Jonathan Haidt’s Liberal-Minded Anti-Liberalism

Haidt’s Moral Reasoning (vs ethnical reasoning)

Haidt & Mooney, Moral Foundations & Spiral Dynamics

Liberalism: Weaknesses & Failures

The Enlightenment Project: A Defense

And here are some relevant commentary on Haidt’s theory and research:

http://skepoet.wordpress.com/2012/06/12/some-incoherent-thoughts-on-jonathan-haidts-moral-compass-and-the-idea-of-the-marxian-left/

http://skepoet.wordpress.com/2012/07/10/marginalia-on-radical-thinking-dialogue-with-keith418-on-the-moral-grounding-of-political-notions/

http://skepoet.wordpress.com/2012/06/10/marginalia-on-skeptical-thinking-interview-with-simon-frankel-pratt-part-2/

http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/05/17/the-unbearable-squishiness-of-jonathan-haidt/

http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/politics/4235/conservatism’s_bulldog_claims_psychology_tilts_liberal

http://accidentalblogger.typepad.com/accidental_blogger/2012/04/a-semi-righteous-book-prasad.html

http://openparachute.wordpress.com/2012/05/17/human-morality-is-evolving/http://www.ethicsdefined.org/the-problem-with-morality/conservatives-vs-liberals/

http://openparachute.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/morality-and-the-worship-of-reason/

http://www.tnr.com/article/books-and-arts/magazine/102760/righteous-mind-haidt-morality-politics-scientism

http://rsafellowship.com/group/human-capability-and-societal-transformation/forum/topics/beyond-the-righteous-mind-helping-jonathan-haidt-understand-his-o

http://readingsubtly.blogspot.com/2012/04/enlightened-hypocrisy-of-jonathan.html

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2012/03/jonathan-hadit-robert-wright-crazy-delicious/

http://isabel.penraeth.com/post/26069975441/tilting-at-a-new-windmill-from-moral-foundation-theory

http://www.desmogblog.com/conservatives-seeking-show-they-are-open-minded-ignore-contrary-evidence-and-no-not-onion-article

What Does Liberal Bias Mean?

Let me begin with the typical right-wing view that the MSM is left-wing biased (which I’ve discussed before: here, here, here, and here; but this post will take a somewhat different viewpoint than those previous analyses). This complaint is a particularly unhelpful viewpoint in that it simplifies a complex reality. At worst, one could say some of the MSM has a liberal bias which is vastly different than saying all or most of the MSM has a left-wing bias.

As Nader explained a similar distinction:

While the political right has been beating the drum for years that NPR is too liberal, Nader says that is not the true picture at all. He says that it is progressives on the political left, like him, who are being excluded from NPR’s airwaves.

“Progressive voices are not heard on NPR with the frequency of voices representing more corporatist and conservative opinion,” Nader said. “And progressive voices should not be confused with liberal voices and lumped into the same category for any frequency analysis.”

According to Nader, what NPR considers a liberal perspective is really middle-of-the-road. Among his examples are well-known Democrats like President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Progressives, he said, exist farther to the left on the political spectrum. They support things like a Medicare-type single-payer system for all Americans, and not the health care compromise passed by Congress.

Nader does make at least one good point. Academic studies in recent decades have repeatedly shown that the country’s political right, more than the left, is so peopled by true believers driven by principle that they reject political compromise and stay on message with such a strong voice that it attracts great media attention and exaggerates their real weight in the populace.

By ‘progressive’, Nader apparently means the same as what some would call a ‘left-liberal’. In this sense, such a distinction is clearly a reality. The difference here is between those who favor the status quo and those who are strongly and maybe even radically against it. Go even further to the left toward the actual left-wing (Marxists, anarcho-syndicalists, left-libertarians, etc) and the difference is even vaster.

In a review of Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky, a good explanation was given of what liberal bias means:

[T]he mainstream American corporate media (the big networks, the big newspapers, news magazines, etc)serve to uphold the interests of the elites in this country (political and economic). Chomsky and Herman acknowledge that we do have a “liberal” press, (what does it really mean to be ‘liberal’ in America today anyways?), but that the liberalness is kept within acceptable boundaries. Basically, the mainstream press may give a liberal slant on what the dominant institutions and systems are doing…but they will not question the very nature of the institutions and systems themselves.

For example, today’s Los Angeles Times (January 6,2003) had a page 2 story on the U.N sanctions against Iraq. Now, the typical reader may see the story, and figure that since the LA Times is even reporting on the impact of sanctions against Iraqi civillians, this is demonstrative of their ‘liberal’ leanings. However, the story leaves untouched the most crucial issues regarding UN sanctions against Iraq, such as:
1)the U.S. and U.K. are the sole countries who sit on the UN Secutity Council who refuse to lift the sanctions against Iraq, despite the pleas of the other member nations (such as Russia, France, China, etc).
2)UN estimates have put the death toll from the sanctions at nearly one million civillians.
3)Two consecutive UN Humanitarian Coordinators have resigned in the past five years in protest of the effect of the sanctions, with the first stating “We are in the process of destroying an entire society.”

Basically, the mainstream corporatized press will leave the most crucial questions unanswered, if they portray American power in a bad light.

—-

Liberalism has almost become entirely equivalent with the status quo. It’s a strange phenomenon. This became evident to me in reading about Corey Robin’s theory of reactionary conservatism. I discussed this theory with a left-winger who is highly critical of liberalism and, like Nader, tends to identify liberalism with its representatives in mainstream politics and media.

One insight has grown stronger in my mind. Corey Robin’s reactionary conservatives, according to their actual behavior, aren’t particularly interested in conserving anything and so their credentials as ‘conservatives’ is questionable. On the other hand, mainstream liberalism doesn’t particularly seem interested in liberating anyone or liberalizing anything. The former are reacting to the status quo and the latter are defending it.

Corey Robin makes the argument that conservatives have been reactionary ever since the conservative movement first began. Conservatism arose in reaction to a revolutionary era of radical politics, but conservatism wasn’t dedicated to defending the interests of traditionalism, of the old elites. Conservatives wanted a hierachical social order, just not the previous version found in the ancien régime. To conservatives, the old order had failed to defend society against radical revolutionaries and so needed to be replaced. In order to create a new order, they adopted the rhetoric of the left and adapted their methods to the purposes of conservatism.

This theory, along with other data, puts liberalism into a different context. Liberalism and conservatism are closely tied together. Liberals were also responding to the aftermath of radical revolution. However, instead of wanting to fight against it, liberals wanted to defend the public good that was achieved by systematizing democracy. This is how the United States began. So, this is how liberalism became the status quo of America and how liberals became the defenders of that status quo.

Saying that the American MSM has a liberal bias isn’t saying much at all. All of American politics and society has a liberal bias in this sense. Truth be told, Americans as a whole have a liberal bias, even though most Americans don’t identify as liberals:

“Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).”

In America, a liberal bias simply means a status quo bias. As the data shows, even many self-identified conservatives support standard liberal positions. When conservatives allege a liberal bias in the MSM, they are speaking a greater truth than they realize.

The conservative complaint simply expresses their complaint against all of modernity. The actual complaint isn’t against media bias but against the media not being biased in their favor… and that society in general isn’t biased in their favor.

—-

The problem the conservative faces is this.

One can’t simultaneously claim that the MSM has a leftist bias and that big business media conglomerates are acting according to a functioning free market by giving people what they want. One or the other might be true, but definitely not both. If the MSM is giving people what they want, then it isn’t a bias being forced on viewers. If the MSM is forcing a bias on viewers, then people aren’t being given what they want.

There is an inconsistency here. They can hold onto their belief that the MSM is biased or hold onto their belief that the free market works, but they can’t have both simultaneously. The claim of a left-wing bias would mean that the MSM isn’t friendly to conservative issues such as related to business. This is a strange claim to make since MSM is all about business and very successful at that. In reality, the main bias of the MSM is making a profit. However, it is true that as businesses media companies will seek to promote their own business interests in the political arena. Certainly, the MSM as big business has absolutely no incentive to present a left-wing bias of Marxism, socialism, anarcho-syndicalism, etc.

In the MSM, right-wing think tanks are cited as sources and have their representatives on as guests (I’ve even come across right-wing think tank representatives on NPR). Right-libertarians even have their own shows that are aired nationally. Heck, even the Russian channel made for American audiences has a libertarian host.

On the other hand, you’ll rarely if ever come across a left-winger on the MSM, whether as host or guest. You won’t see a panel of Marxists to analyze a campaign debate. You won’t see a socialist organization cited as a standard source in a major newspaper.

The argument of conservatives is that it ultimately has more to do with the issues discussed. The issues are seen as leftist and so any discussion is framed by simply bringing up such issues. This seems like grasping at straws to me.

Why is simply bringing up ‘environmentalism’ as a topic inherently a leftwing bias? How is it framing the discussion by the very act of discussing an issue that is relevant to everyone? If mentioning ‘environmentalism’ is framing, then why isn’t framing to have a business section but not a labor section? Why is it a leftwing bias to have a discussion of global warming that doesn’t include a denialist? Why isn’t a rightwing bias to not include a neopagan environmentalist or a anarchoprimitivist? Why is it a leftwing bias to not regularly report on rightwing politics such as fundamentalism and libertarianism? Why isn’t it a rightwing bias to not regularly report on leftwing politics such as atheism and Marxism?

 
The framing I care about isn’t just bias in the simple sense, although it includes it. In many ways, I do think the MSM gives people what they want. On the other hand, the MSM shapes what people want by controlling their choices. Not only are choices excluded, knowledge about those choices are ignored or dismissed. Framing is more insidious than the conservative view of bias. The problem is partly about how the elite control every aspect of life (through big media, big business, big government, etc), but this isn’t necessarily conspiracy. The power of frames is that even the promoter of frames ends up believing their frames, not unlike how the propagandist ends up using his own rhetoric to rationalize his actions in his own mind.
 
Still, it goes beyond even this. Framing is about culture itself. The framing of all of American society is liberal (which I first discussed in an extensive post about public opinion in terms of ideology, but there are two other posts where I discuss in more detail early regional history as it relates to different ideological traditions — here and here; also, an interesting post about the relationship of republicanism to liberalism in early American thought). American culture grew out of early radical liberalism such as Paine and Jefferson along with the less radical classical liberalism; the criticism and defense of markets, for example, both originally came from the left and both lacked roots in traditional conservatism. American culture also grew out of massive hypocrisy such as genocide, slavery and political disenfranchisement that undermined the ideals of that liberalism from the beginning (because liberals willingly compromised their own ideals, liberalism being undermined from within more than from without).
 
So, American culture has always been a combination of liberalism and hypocrisy, the two may be so intertwined at this point to be inseparable. Liberalism has been too often used to justify the failings of American society, liberals never allowing the perfect get in the way of the good which not unusually means that the theoretical goodness itself becomes questionable over time. My critcism of liberals often involves such hypocrisy.
 
Liberalism is the frame of American culture and so, at least in that sense, it is unsurprising that liberal framing could be seen in the MSM. Nonetheless, I don’t see why caring about the environment and environmental issues is a leftist bias. Considering we all live in and as part of environments, I’d assume that every American wants to see environmentalism (pollution, alternative energy, climatology, etc) discussed in the media.
 
Anyway, my point is that liberalism isn’t a frame invented by the MSM. It is simply American culture. Even American conservatives have mostly accepted the liberal frame in terms of embracing Lockean classical liberalism and so by default have also inherited the hypocrisy that goes along with it.
 
—-
 
To get past the ideological debate, all we have to do is look at what the data shows. The fact is that conservatives, Republicans, and Fox News viewers are the most informed. But what is interesting is that they are more misinformed to the degree they are informed. So, those on the right don’t know whether they actually know what they think they know.
 
I shouldn’t even bother linking any of the studies showing this misinformed bias on the right (for there are so many of them at this point, enough studies that Chris Mooney wrote an entire book analyzing the phenomenon), but I will share one because it specifically is about the media. In the 2003 study Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War, Fox News viewers were predictably the most misinformed whereas NPR and PBS audiences were the least misinformed. If there is a bias in public radio (and the non-rightwing portions of the MSM in general), it apparently is a bias towards accurately informing its audience or at least not a bias toward misinforming its audience to the degree of Fox News.
 
The problem is that those on the right think everything has a leftist bias. Along with the MSM, science has a leftist bias, higher education has a leftist bias, the government has a leftist bias, polling organizations have a leftist bias, and on and on. Everything that isn’t explicitly right-wing has a leftist bias, possibly even communist. So, it ultimately is an impossible debate to win. The conservative complaint isn’t based on objective facts in the first place and so can’t be changed through the presentation of objective facts. Any facts disproving the alleged bias will simply be considered as part of the conspiracy of bias.
 
—-
 
As a side note, I thought I should give NPR credit for acknowledging its own biases, even if not the biases that conservatives would assume:
 
 
by Edward Schumacher-Matos
 
 by Edward Schumacher-Matos
 
—-
 
Here are two very recent videos that analyze how the bias debate is presently playing out in the MSM:
 
 
 
 
 

Anti-Science in Academia?

There is a phenomena I came across again: anti-science.

I wouldn’t feel compelled to write about it again, though, if it didn’t frustrate me so much. The reason I feel frustrated in this moment is because of three different interactions I’ve had this past week or so. What stood out to me is that these interactions weren’t entirely typical in that it demonstrated how widely spread this problem is.

I should first explain that the issue frustrating me isn’t precisely an anti-scientific attitude, but something that nearly approximates it in specific contexts.

Several interactions I had were all well-educated people who have spent much time in academia. I know at least some of them have worked in the capacity of teaching. All of them are typical intellectual types who are well informed about the world and are certainly way above average in IQ. Also, they also seem like people who are more than capable of independent thinking and rational analysis. Basically, they aren’t anti-intellectual and, of course, wouldn’t think of themselves that way. Nonetheless, the doubts they express about certain scientific issues is so strong that it comes close to the doubts expressed by people who are more obviously anti-intellectual.

One commonality is that all of them have spent time outside of the country of their birth, at least one of them having lived significant part of his life in another country. A couple of them even speak another language besides English. So, these are relatively worldly people.

Besides the commonalities, my attention was caught by the fact that they are ideologically and academically quite diverse. Between them all: They run the entire ideological spectrum from left to right. And they include a diversity of academic knowledge and experience. They are even diverse in their religious proclivities or lack thereof.

I should point out that all of these people are intellectually respectable. In fact, I personally respect them for their intellects. It’s because of their general knowledgeablity and rationality that I enjoy discussing issues with them on occasion, although only one of them did I meet directly through such a discussion.

It is for this reason I felt so disheartened by my feeling the need to defend science against people who should know better… or maybe that isn’t quite the right way of saying it. It’s not that I think all of them are wrong in their views per se, except for one of them who I think is obviously wrong about the data. More basically, it’s just frustration at trying to communicate. Science is one of those topics that brings up a lot of ideological baggage which gets in the way, myself included. It seems odd to me that science is so often one of the most polarizing of issues. It makes me aware of how much views on science can diverge when even well educated people can disagree so widely. On top of that, it has become clear to me how much we are divided simply because of the powerful role of media.

These interactions involved a variety of scientific issues, all related to research: psychology of ideologies, IQ testing, global warming, etc. Fundamentally, all of these people felt some variation of mistrust about potential bias in various aspects: the researchers themselves, the limitations of research, the agendas of scientific institutions, how data was being interpreted or reported, etc.

The specifics aren’t all that important. In some cases, the doubts they shared were to some degree within reason. What didn’t seem reasonable to me was how strongly they held onto those doubts, how resistant they were to treat as trustworthy the scientific method and scientific community. Of course, my own biased opinions about science played into my own sense of conflict and frustration. It’s hard to discuss neutrally many of these kinds of issues, especially when they seem very important in how they touch upon many other issues (global warming being a particularly clear example of this).

It seemed to me that they didn’t want give scientists their due. Despite their being well educated, they were all speaking about science as laypeople. As a layperson myself, I tend to want to put more trust in scientific experts until I discover very good reasons to doubt; for certain, I feel annoyed when an entire scientific field is dismissed or devalued without any seeming good reason besides the consensus of that field not fitting the person’s worldview.

More specifically, it seemed that they didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that scientists are more aware of and careful about such potential problems than anyone outside of the scientific fields. I would point out some of these scientific researchers (specifically the soccial scientists) are experts in bias and in some cases experts in the biases of science itself. If you want to know what are the reasonable doubts to have about science, you just need to ask scientists. Science works by trial and error. If there is bias or limitiation to some type of testing, scientists will be the first to point it out and fix the problem. The scientific method is a self-correcting system.

Doubt within the scientific method is essential and necessary. But doubt about the scientific method itself is a direct attack on the very ideal that puts knowledge above belief or opinion. That said, I’m sure none of these people meant to attack such an ideal and probably would see themselves defending it in their own way. It’s  just that it felt like their criticisms weren’t all that helpful coming from the sidelines of science.

Here is my response to all of this:

If we can’t trust that the best experts on bias can deal with potential problems of bias, then we lesser mortals are beyond any hope of non-scientifically dealing with biases. Attempting to dismiss or discredit a particular field of science is the opposite of helpful. As long as even well-educated intellecuals end up undermining science and the scientific method, whether intentionally anti-scientific or not, we are going to have a hard time advancing as a society. Considering the possibility of losing our collective faith in the ideal of knowledge, do most people realize what we would be giving up?

These interactions demonstrate the apparent failure of the non-scientific fields of academia… or maybe just failure of science education in general (I know the science education I received from the public school system was probably a bit lacking). I would imagine that even many of those working in higher education need to be better educated about science. Our entire society needs to be better educated all around, and I have no doubt that the people I speak of would agree with me on that.

My emotional response to these interactions might have less to do with the interactions themselves. Instead, it might just be that these interactions helped clarify my sense of the problem we face. My perception of science being undermined not only saddens me, it makes me fear for our future. This isn’t about any individual person or any individual doubt. We could argue about the specifics endlessly. What I’m pointing out is much more insidious, the undermining of scientific authority itself where any doubt almost automatically trumps even the vast knowledge accumulated by decades of experts, where scientific peer-review and consensus becomes a reason for doubt of expertise instead of a reason for trust… worst still, where the science itself and the scientists who do it seem to get lost in the cloud of conflict and the whole media charade, where we no longer even have a shared set of facts to work from, much less a shared set of values.

The line between questioning doubt and nihilistic denialism may be thinner than many realize. It’s a line that might be easy to cross. As individuals ocassionally going a little too far over the line isn’t necessarily problematic, but if such a crossing is done on a society-wide scale it may not be easily undone. Nothing good can come of this. We seem to be livng in a an era ruled by mistrust that dangerously verges on collective cynicism. We should tread very carefully.

Is Psychological Research Liberally Biased?

http://www.polipsych.com/2011/02/10/liberal-academics-study-conservative-ideology/

I don’t know if reality has a liberal bias, but I can think of one factor that relates to liberalism and the ability to assess reality. One study I’ve seen showed that liberals were on average less susceptible to confirmation bias than conservatives. Maybe it is unsurprising that conservatives wouldn’t be attracted to a field such as psychological research (or science in general) which seeks to avoid confirmation bias.

This might relate as well to the correlation of liberalism and ‘opennesss to experience’. It is obvious that aspects of ‘openness’ are directly oppositional to confirmation bias. To be low in ‘openness’ would mean to seek out the familiar and known, and as such would lead one to want to confirm what one already knows/assumes. It’s because of ‘openness’ that liberals enjoy discovering something new. A strongly liberal person finds pleasure in this and so discovering something new, even if it disproves former assumptions, is still seen as a good thing from a liberal perspective of ‘openness’. The liberal-minded person will even intentionally seek out the unexpected simply for the excitement of being surprised.

I think there is danger in seeing conservatives and liberals as neutral categories in all ways. For example, research shows conservatives have a better ability at focusing by excluding distractions while liberals are hyper-aware of their environment (and the people around them, i.e., empathetic awareness), and so it would follow that conservatives are going to be overrepresented in fields requiring high degrees of focus (I’m perfectly fine that most surgeons are probably conservatives; heck, give me the most conservative surgeon there is if he’ll save my life with his hyper-focused conservative mindset). Does this mean liberals entirely lack the ability to focus? Of course not. But it would be silly to criticize as anti-liberal fields requiring focus. It’s just a fact that conservatives are better at this just as it’s a fact that liberals are better at ‘openness’.

It’s not that the field of psychology necessarily has an anti-conservative bias, except to the degree that liberal psychologists have biases as individuals. Moreso, I suspect it is simply that the average conservative has an anti-psychology bias. You could possibly attract some conservatives who are moderate in their conservative predisposition, but it’s unlikely that strongly conservative people will ever want to be involved in psychology.

What might be interesting is to consider another aspect. Maybe psychology does have a liberal bias in one sense. Maybe thinking psychologically correlates to thinking liberally, the two either having the same source or simply closely corresponding in style. Maybe teaching conservatives to think psychologically would be equivalent to indoctrinating them into liberal thinking. It’s possible that psychological research couldn’t function (effectively? objectively?) if as a field it became dominated by conservatives. What if psychology itself is inherently anti-conservative?

This is similar to cities having disproportionate number of liberals. What if cities are simply liberally biased by their very structure? Maybe it would be impossible to build a city that wasn’t liberally biased, except in the case of totalitarian oppression that forces anti-liberalism onto a population. Liberals love new experiences and love diversity of culture, the very things that cities embody. What good would it do to try to attract conservatives to cities just to make cities more ideologically balanced? If conservatives choose to move to cities less than liberals, that doesn’t mean that there is any prejudice keeping conservatives from moving to cities. Affirmative action for conservatives probably wouldn’t make cities better places.

Anyway, would it even work? Research shows that children who grow up with cultural diversity tend to become adults who are more socially liberal. You could bring a conservative into a city, but then their kids would just more likely become liberals or at least more liberal than their parents. Similarly, you could force more conservatives into the psychology fields, but this just might change these conservatives toward liberalism. This relates to education overall. What if educating people inevitably makes them more liberal in the way that opening people to diverse cultures tends to do?

Stephen Bloom & Iowa: 2 Anecdotes

The other night I was talking with someone about Stephen Bloom’s article about Iowa. This person graduated from UI for journalism. She didn’t take any classes from Professor Bloom and she hadn’t read the recent article by him, but she did work in the same building as him. She interacted with him enough to have formed an opinion of him as a person.

Going by her description, he doesn’t sound like a nice person. The two anecdotes she offered showed him as being very confrontational and judgmental.

The first anecdote was when she was working in the same building. She needed to get office supplies and so went down to the office supply room. With the supplies in hand, she got back on the elevator where Bloom now was. He accused her of stealing office supplies for no apparent reason, besides her carrying office supplies. It was her job to get office supplies which is why she had a key that allowed to her to open the office supply room. Bloom simply saw a student with office supplies and somehow just knew this person was guilty.

This girl, by the way, is very normal looking and a life-long Iowan. She doesn’t have crazy hair, doesn’t have tatoos, doesn’t dress in any odd way. She doesn’t do drugs or look like someone who does drugs, especially not meth. She has perfectly fine teeth, not yellow or decaying or fallen out. If anything, she is so blandly normal looking as to be easily not noticed. Bloom apparently is just generally suspicious of all Iowans. Since all Iowans are poverty-stricken meth-heads, it follows that they need to steal office supplies to support their habits.

The second anecdote she heard from a friend who took Bloom’s class. He presented a news article about a guy who hanged himself. The article apparently described the incident in some detail and was well written. He asked the class what they thought of it. Many pointed out that it was well written. Bloom then said that the person who died was his friend and he verbally attacked all the students who had made positive comments about the article. After that, he presented a letter-to-the-editor by what I think was the young daughter of the deceased and he praised the letter.

Bloom thought it was mean of the journalist to heartlessly describe the man’s death, but he the implication seems to be that he thought the emotional and subjective expression of the girl was somehow good journalism. This is ironic considering that Bloom was similarly inconsiderate toward Iowans in his recent article, filled with bigoted stereotypes. The difference, though, is that the journalist describing the death was being accurate and Bloom made up a lot of his facts and details… or else over-generalized and exaggerated. Also, it is odd that Bloom believes emotional subjectivity is better than factual journalism. It is apparent that Bloom takes many things personally and so writes his own journalism from a subjective rather than objective position.