It’s not that I have stupid friend. I merely have friends who disagree with each other about political issues. Actually, I’m vastly oversimplifying to say that it’s half against half. Among my friends, I have libertarians, anarchists (of different stripes), social conservatives, progressives, “new Democrats” and some who are just plain hard to classify.
There’s overlap between the groups as well. The problem is that almost everybody is certain that his position is the right one — and it’s hard for him to understand how a right-thinking person could have to a different conclusion. Each person sees the weaknesses in the things the other person believes, not few see the potential weakness in their own positions. It’s just human nature.
This is why almost everyone believes that there’s a conspiracy against his position. Just Tuesday, Mitt Romney was talking about a “vast left-wing conspiracy” among the media and progressive left groups to stop his campaign. In 1998, Hillary Clinton spoke on NBC’s Today show of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against Bill Clinton. So which side is telling the truth? Is there a left-wing conspiracy or a right-wing conspiracy? Or are they they just two different sides of the same coin?
The problem for every side is that humans have a tremendous tendency toward confirmation bias. I think about this frequently when I see things that my (very bright) friends say in opposition to one another about politics, but I thought about it in a much more serious way because of a great article that I read Tuesday by a libertarian economist who wrote an article in The Atlantic in December in which he had to admit to having been wrong. (Thanks to Andrew Coulson at the Cato Institute for linking to it.)
George Mason University economist Daniel Klein wrote a Wall Street Journal article almost two years ago that took a swipe at the progressive left for being more economically illiterate than conservatives and libertarians. The article was based on research that he had done with a colleague, so he wasn’t just making things up or expressing an opinion. He had some data. Klein explains what happened after that:
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.
The entire article is worth taking the time to read, so I urge you to read how the original research was done and why the original wrong conclusion was drawn. The researchers thought they were being honest and fair in their survey and in their interpretation, but they weren’t able to see past their own bias. I admire Klein for having the guts to publicly explain it and retract his previous comments.
If someone told me that research showed that progressive liberals were more ignorant than social conservatives — or the other way around — my tendency would be to disbelieve it either way, because my experience is that both groups are blind to a large percentage of the facts. I can think of specific people among my conservative and progressive friends who are perfect examples of those who honestly believe their side is rational and the other side is ignorant.
With that said, it’s easy to pat myself on the back for being able to see things so clearly that those stupid conservatives and progressives can’t see. But I know I’m just as blind and biased as they are. I’m just too human to know where my blind spots are — and it frustrates me to know that I’m wrong about things that I’m currently sure I’m right about. Keeping that in mind keeps me from being as arrogant as I’d like to be. Sometimes, anyway.