Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Read This Book Now

I got tipped off to a new book, True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society by Farhad Manjoo by a Nick Kristoff column last month. As Kristoff summarizes it,
Consider the Dartmouth-Princeton football game in 1951. That bitterly fought contest was the subject of a landmark study about how our biases shape our understanding of reality.

Psychologists showed a film clip of the football game to groups of students at each college and asked them to act as unbiased referees and note every instance of cheating. The results were striking. Each group, watching the same clip, was convinced that the other side had cheated worse — and this was not deliberate bias or just for show.

“Their eyes were taking in the same game, but their brains seemed to be processing the events in two distinct ways,” Farhad Manjoo writes in his terrific new book, “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.” It’s the best political book so far this year.

Mr. Manjoo cites a more recent study by Stanford University psychologists of students who either favored or opposed capital punishment. The students were shown the same two studies: one suggested that executions have a deterrent effect that reduces subsequent murders, and the other doubted that.

Whatever their stance, the students found the study that supported their position to be well-conducted and persuasive and the other one to be profoundly flawed.

“That led to a funny result,” Mr. Manjoo writes. “People in the study became polarized.”

A fair reading of the two studies might have led the students to question whether any strong conclusions could be drawn about deterrence, and thus to tone down their views on the death penalty. But the opposite happened. Students on each side accepted the evidence that conformed to their original views while rejecting the contrary evidence — and so afterward students on both sides were more passionate and confident than ever of their views.

That’s what we seem to be seeing in the Democratic primaries. Even though the policy differences between the two candidates are minimal, each camp is becoming increasingly aggravated at the other. A Washington Post poll published Wednesday found that more than one-third of Democrats say that they may not support their party’s nominee if it is not their own choice.

Another challenge is the biased way in which we gather information. We seek out information that reinforces our prejudices. One study presented listeners with static-filled recordings of speeches that they believed they were judging on persuasive power. Listeners could push a button to tweak the signal, reducing the static to make it easier to understand. When smokers heard a speech connecting tobacco with cancer, they didn’t try to improve the clarity to hear it more easily. But they pushed the button to get a clearer version of a speech saying that there was no link between smoking and cancer. Nonsmokers were the exact opposite.

If you're interested, check out the following interview with Manjoo and Portfolio writer Jeff Bercovici:

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