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Posted by on Feb 22, 2010 in Politics | 23 comments

Good Facts Won’t Save You This Time

This is an adaptation of the latter half of a post I just wrote at The Debate Link. The post there involved a specific debate over American views on tax policy, but the second half discussed some new research regarding how citizens understand facts in political deliberations, and that issue I thought would be more interesting to TMV readers.

A friend of mine, exasperated with partisanship, Washington gridlock, and the seeming dominance of know-nothing blowhard pundits setting the public agenda, recently wrote a frustrated Facebook post saying she wished that only the well-informed could vote. Maybe then, she said, “we’ll finally have some centrism going on.” I regretfully had to burst her bubble: an electorate composed only of the politically well-informed would likely be even more polarized than what we see today. Political ignorance runs rampant in our society, but the folks who are most likely to be at the bottom in terms of political knowledge are the vaunted “independents”, “moderates”, “centrists”, and “swing voters”.

This isn’t because independents are idiots. Rather, it is perfectly predictable under standard rational choice metrics. Simply put, there is very little reason for anyone to become knowledgeable about politics. The odds that me becoming better informed on, say, the health care debate will actually result in better outcomes is virtually nil in a multi-million member polity. “Rational ignorance” is the technical term for a situation where the benefits of becoming informed are outweighed by the costs of attaining knowledge.

So why are some people informed about politics? Simple: Because they gain some other benefit from becoming informed. And the most common form of that benefit is the joy of “rooting for your team” — also known as partisanship. More fundamentally, there is a strong correlation between being an “independent” and simply not caring that much about politics. If you find politics and policy to be fun and interesting, you likely have strong views on policy. And despite what your Green Party friend will tell you, there are in fact pretty substantive differences between the parties which track coherent ideological divides. Occasionally you find the truly idiosyncratic wonk who is undecided because she has strong and well-founded beliefs that happen to substantially cross-cut partisan divisions. But odds are, if you know enough to have a well-grounded opinion on a topic, it is pretty apparent which party best matches onto your policy preferences. It’s the folks who lack such knowledge (or any real desire to attain it) that cluster towards the center.

Okay, you say, that might be disheartening. But it just points to the importance of political education. Right now, the only folks who have an incentive to become informed are partisan operatives. If we expand the pool so that everyone gets a good civic education, learns the facts, and becomes better informed, then we’ll see a gradual political convergence away from partisan stereotyping and towards good governance.

There is an intuitive plausibility to this. Generally, we believe that as people learn more facts about a given subject, their policy beliefs on the subject will begin to converge. The idea makes sense: learning more means dispelling inaccurate stereotypes and prejudices; as information is attained, people begin discarding stances that don’t fit the facts and instead adopt those which do.

Unfortunately, as research by Dan Kahan and others indicates, the opposite is usually true. Providing additional facts and information doesn’t cause policy convergence, it causes policy polarization. The reason is that most fact patterns contain narratives, inferences, and interpretations which plausibly can be deployed to support diverse policy positions. Facts, alone, can never by themselves tell us anything about fundamentally value-based policy judgments, even under ideal deliberative conditions. People accordingly interpret the information they receive in manners which support their prior dispositions, only now they feel more comfortable in these beliefs because they have “facts” to back them up. Given this latent ambiguity, there is no incentive to agree, and lots of psychological incentives to latch on to friendly fact stories in order to preserve ones preexisting beliefs. These incentives are, of course, exacerbated when the deliberative community is ideologically homogeneous.

Even where the facts unambiguously support one position over another, that still doesn’t guarantee any shift in attitudes. We’ve already discussed rational ignorance, now consider “rational irrationality”. Rational ignorance indicates that people won’t seek out political knowledge, but it doesn’t make any claims about how they will respond to new information that they happen to come across — we would hope that they would take this happy happenstance to update and improve upon their prior beliefs. Once again, prepare to have your hopes dashed. Rational irrationality occurs when persons value holding a certain belief (e.g., the bible is infallible), and the costs of maintaining it are less than the discomfort that comes from reassessing it. This, too, is common – unless one is a scientist, there are relatively few personal costs to declaring oneself a creationist compared to the psychic costs (for some) of abandoning biblical literalism. Likewise for political beliefs – given the aforementioned unlikelihood that any one person’s change in attitude is going to actually cause a change in policy, there are few benefits to reassessing one’s beliefs in the face of new evidence that would stack up against the dissonance of, say, breaking with your peer group or abandoning a previously deeply held commitment.

In a large sense, then, the technocratic dream of informed, grounded, fact-based moderates is a fantasy. The people who are informed about politics are the people who are most likely to be partisans. Adding more facts will simply entrench preexisting ideological divides. To the extent they matter at all, facts are largely instrumental players that only come into play once we’ve resolved (through deliberation or brute majoritarianism) the far more fundamental value conflicts. We can have a system where informed citizens control, or one in which “moderates” control, but we almost certainly cannot have both.