Libertarian economist Daniel B. Klein published an article in the Wall Street Journal that made some strong statements about the left-leaning, based on research he thought was well-founded. Flocks of conservatives and libertarians write back in sweeping jubilation, thanking Klein for affirming what they already knew was true; flocks of liberals fling back scathing rebuttals on the utter foolishness of the report. Big deal, right?
It gets interesting, though. Later, upon realizing that his research may have been somewhat slanted, Klein co-captains a research plan that would take into account what he coins the “myside bias” or “confirmation bias.” Based on the new article, published by the Atlantic, we see results that compel a retraction. Rather than one side “knowing what ain’t so,” it’s more that both sides, particularly the ones on the outer extremities of the swinging pendulum, believe they know precisely what is so. After they have believed it, they will look for any and every informant to fortify their position of certitude. Talk about self-justification!
Klein’s research makes a discovery that stands in direct contradiction with the educational “righting” of our natural wrongheadedness. By naming his own wrongheadedness, his research shows that this is a problem more deeply seated in who we are than what can be changed in a college classroom. Wired to win, we seek any and all advocates to speak to the issue from ‘myside’. What, then, when we are the problem? Fundamentally wrongheaded, what’s left on ‘myside’?
Back in June 2010, I published a Wall Street Journal op-ed arguing that the American left was unenlightened, by and large, as to economic matters. Responding to a set of survey questions that tested people’s real-world understanding of basic economic principles, self-identified progressives and liberals did much worse than conservatives and libertarians, I reported. To sharpen the ax, The Journal titled the piece “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?”—the implication being that people on the left were not.
The op-ed set off fireworks. On The Journal’s Web site, the piece peaked at No.2 in most-e-mailed for the month it was published. The Examiner, in Washington, D.C., ran two opinion pieces in response, one approving and one critical. (The latter noted, correctly, that conservatives were “happily disseminating the results across the right-wing blogosphere.”) The Washington Times reported, “Liberals Livid Over Economic Enlightenment Gauge.” My inbox exploded with messages haranguing me for cynically rigging my results or blessing me for providing proof of a long-suspected truth.
…But one year later, in May 2011, Buturovic and I published a new scholarly article reporting on a new survey. It turned out that I needed to retract the conclusions I’d trumpeted in The Wall Street Journal. The new results invalidated our original result: under the right circumstances, conservatives and libertarians were as likely as anyone on the left to give wrong answers to economic questions. The proper inference from our work is not that one group is more enlightened, or less. It’s that “myside bias”—the tendency to judge a statement according to how conveniently it fits with one’s settled position—is pervasive among all of America’s political groups. The bias is seen in the data, and in my actions.
…You may have noticed that several of the statements we analyzed implicitly challenge positions held by the left, while none specifically challenges conservative or libertarian positions. A great deal of research shows that people are more likely to heed information that supports their prior positions, and discard or discount contrary information. Suppose that on some public issue, Anne favors position A, and Burt favors position B. Anne is more likely than Burt to agree with statements that support A, and to disagree with statements that support B, because doing so simplifies her case for favoring A. Otherwise, she would have to make a concession to the opposing side. Psychologists would count this tendency as a manifestation of “myside bias,” or “confirmation bias.”
Buturovic and I openly acknowledged that the set of eight statements was biased. But these were the statements we had available to us. And as we explained in the paper, some of them—including those on professional licensing, standard of living, monopoly, and trade—did not appear to fit neatly into a partisan debate. Yet even on those, respondents on the left fared worst. What’s more, in separate research, Buturovic found that the respondents themselves either had difficulty classifying some of the statements on an ideological scale, or simply believed those statements were not, prima facie, ideological. So while we thought the results were probably exaggerated because of the bias in the survey, we nonetheless felt that they were telling.
…Buturovic began putting all 17 questions to a new group of respondents last December. I eagerly awaited the results, hoping that the conservatives and especially the libertarians (my side!) would exhibit less myside bias. Buturovic was more detached. She e-mailed me the results, and commented that conservatives and libertarians did not do well on the new questions. After a hard look, I realized that they had bombed on the questions that challenged their position. A full tabulation of all 17 questions showed that no group clearly out-stupids the others. They appear about equally stupid when faced with proper challenges to their position.
Writing up these results was, for me, a gloomy task—I expected critics to gloat and point fingers. In May, we published another paper in Econ Journal Watch, saying in the title that the new results “Vitiate Prior Evidence of the Left Being Worse.” …Consistently, the more a statement challenged a group’s position, the worse the group did.
The reaction to the new paper was quieter than I expected. Jonathan Chait, who had knocked the first paper, wrote a forgiving notice on his New Republic blog: “Insult Retractions: A (Very) Occasional Feature.” Matthew Yglesias, writing at ThinkProgress, summed up the takeaway: “Basically, there’s a lot of confirmation bias out there.” Nothing illustrates that point better than my confidence in the claims of the first paper, especially as distilled in my Wall Street Journal op-ed.
Shouldn’t a college professor have known better? Perhaps. But adjusting for bias and groupthink is not so easy, as indicated by one of the major conclusions developed by Buturovic and sustained in our joint papers. Education had very little impact on responses, we found; survey respondents who’d gone to college did only slightly less badly than those who hadn’t. Among members of less-educated groups, brighter people tend to respond more frequently to online surveys, so it’s likely that our sample of non-college-educated respondents is more enlightened than the larger group they represent. Still, the fact that a college education showed almost no effect—at least for those inclined to take such a survey—strongly suggests that the classroom is no great corrective for myside bias. At least when it comes to public-policy issues, the corrective value of professional academic experience might be doubted as well.