Saturday, June 29, 2013



 "I don't know what you mean by 'glory,' " Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't—till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!' "
    "But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument'," Alice objected.
    "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
    "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
    "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."

I was reminded of the above by a fascinating piece in Salon.   

According to Yale law professor Dan Kahan, it’s easier than we think for reasonable people to trick themselves into reaching unreasonable conclusions. Kahan and his team found that, when it comes to controversial issues, people’s ability to do math is impacted by their political beliefs.

The study pitted over 1,000 participants against a tricky math problem. In one version, the question involved a clinical trial of a skin cream that sometimes helped heal rashes, and sometimes made them worse. Using a set of raw data, the participants had to do some complex calculations to decide whether or not the cream was effective. It was difficult enough that 59 percent of the participants got the problem wrong.

Then things got interesting. The researchers took the same exact question and reframed it. Now, instead of being about skin cream, the numbers in question referred to the effectiveness of concealed carry laws. And this time, whether or not people got the question right depended on their political beliefs — and whether or not the correct answer supported their preconceived notions of gun control.

This chart shows how dramatic the change was. Conservative Republicans were much less likely to correctly interpret data suggesting that a gun ban decreased crime in a city; for liberal Democrats, the exact opposite was true. The people who were normally best at mathematical reasoning, moreover, were the most susceptible to getting the politically charged question wrong.

It’s a tough old world if you prize this thing called ‘intellectual honesty.’

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