Science confirms: Politics wrecks your ability to do math

0

Everybody knows that our political views can sometimes get in the way of thinking clearly. But perhaps we don’t realize how bad the problem actually is. According to a new psychology paper, our political passions can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills. More specifically, the study finds that people who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.


The study, by Yale law professor Dan Kahan and his colleagues, has an ingenious design. At the outset, 1,111 study participants were asked about their political views and also asked a series of questions designed to gauge their “numeracy,” that is, their mathematical reasoning ability. Participants were then asked to solve a fairly difficult problem that involved interpreting the results of a (fake) scientific study. But here was the trick: While the fake study data that they were supposed to assess remained the same, sometimes the study was described as measuring the effectiveness of a “new cream for treating skin rashes.” But in other cases, the study was described as involving the effectiveness of “a law banning private citizens from carrying concealed handguns in public.”

The result? Survey respondents performed wildly differently on what was in essence the same basic problem, simply depending upon whether they had been told that it involved guns or whether they had been told that it involved a new skin cream. What’s more, it turns out that highly numerate liberals and conservatives were even more – not less — susceptible to letting politics skew their reasoning than were those with less mathematical ability.

Written By: Chris Mooney
continue to source article at grist.org

NO COMMENTS

  1. What would be more interesting is where the reasoning error occured.
    After all, solving a math problem is very procedural.

    What does “performed wildly differently” actually mean. Did they generally score better on the “skin cream” test than on the “gun control” test ?

    EDIT : Reading the article, it seems that those who were good at the first problem, scored worse at the second problem, and the mistake leaning in the direction of their political agenda.

  2. “science confirms”….ummm I don’t see science… I see a silly question based on silly looking data in a silly looking chart.

    “ability to do math” … I see very little math in those questions.

    Social science can be so goofy sometimes. Garbage in (data). Garbage out (conclusion).

    • This is a fascinating finding, but I think Kahan may be too pessimistic when he says this means we can’t use data to correct misconceptions. To say people won’t accurately compare percentages they have to work out for themselves if they don’t like which one turns out to be bigger says nothing about how receptive they’ll be to believing the percentages if you just tell them outright. This study doesn’t tell us what happens if you tell Republicans “crime falls in only 19.6 % of cities without gun regulation, but falls in 33.6 % of those with gun regulation”. Will they go away not only disbelieving your figures, but also thinking the true direction of the inequality is the reverse of what you said? What about Democrats? Does what happens in either scenario vary with mathematical ability or any other cognitive trait?

      In reply to #3 by debaser71:

      “ability to do math” … I see very little math in those questions.

      As the article explains, mathematical ability was assessed with questions not shown therein, and 10 ability classes (0-9) among the 1,111 participants were thereby discerned.

      • What point? That interpreting goofy writing and almost nonsensical charts demonstrates someone’s ability to do math? This so called math is more of a deliberately confusing reading comprehension question. To me, this reeks of “let’s phrase our questions in such a way that our results match our pre-conceived notions”. Garbage.

        In reply to #8 by Skeptic:

        In reply to #3 by debaser71:

        Social science can be so goofy sometimes. Garbage in (data). Garbage out (conclusion).

        Without knowing it, I’m sure, you have proved the articles point.

        • In reply to #10 by debaser71:

          What point? That interpreting goofy writing and almost nonsensical charts demonstrates someone’s ability to do math?

          You shouldn’t have bothered Skeptic with such a wrongheaded response, since I already explained where you were wrong.

          The problem you saw in the article was the test of how political bias reduced the mathematical ability other test had already quantified. Do you doubt the sociologists had access to valid mathematics tests? The graphs in the article were not given to people to interpret as a test of their mathematical ability; they had the subjects’ ability as the independent variable. These graphs summarised the outcome of the experiment; they weren’t a part of its setup.

          This is twice now that you have asserted, on no plausible grounds, that whatever tests were used of mathematical ability were bad. Why don’t you go find out what tests were used to see if that’s correct? (In fact you’re not correct, as I now explain.) It’s not difficult; this article actually links to the original paper. I’ve done it myself to help you. At the bottom of page 8, they provide all the background you need to see measuring mathematical ability is possible. At the top of page 9, they say which well-attested methods they actually used: “We assessed the numeracy of our subjects with a battery of world problems conventionally used for this purpose (Weller, Dieckmann, Tusler, Mertz, Burns & Peters 2012).”

          • I am talking about the skin cream and gun questions. The write ups are awkwardly phrased and the charts are not clear. If a person taking the test has trouble figuring out what the heck is being asked of them, then whether they can do the simple math doesn’t really matter.

            This http://grist.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/study_image_1.png?

            I can’t get to the actual study. I get an odd message saying that my download is abnormal or something and I need to register for free.

            Can you maybe directly link to the actual questions…the ones other than what is posted in the article? Or just copy paste one here?

            Again, the write up before the chart is written poorly. The chart itself is unclear (with it’s NOT’s) and then the question at the end is again, unclear, with it’s NOTS)

            Then Mooney writes this, “This is no easy problem for most people to solve: Across all conditions of the study, 59 percent of respondents got the answer wrong. That is, in significant part, because trying to intuit the right answer by quickly comparing two numbers will lead you astray; you have to take the time to compute the ratios.”

            It’s “no easy problem to solve” because of how it’s presented. And that’s my rub.

            I have no particular issue with the overall notion that the researchers were able to test people’s math ability in another way, then they give them this oddly presented question. This is where I think you are getting hung up. Twice…granted my poor writing a terseness / snark doesn’t help. Nor does being on my shitty laptop and not being able to navigate properly with a goofy touch pad. And it doesn’t help that the “add comment” text box is very small and I need to constantly scroll up and down to get a sense of what I am writing.

            So they found people who were decent enough at math (which is fine by me…I assume people can determine this fairly easily), then they gave them the goofy skin and gun questions? (the part where I take issue).

            But then Mooney says this about the study, “but here’s what Kahan thinks is happening.

            Our first instinct, in all versions of the study, is to leap instinctively to the wrong conclusion. If you just compare which number is bigger in the first column, for instance, you’ll be quickly led astray. “

            Again, if the question was asked in a clear manner then the result might be different.

            Then Mooney writes, “What’s happening when highly numerate liberals and conservatives actually get it wrong? Either they’re intuiting an incorrect answer that is politically convenient and feels right to them, leading them to inquire no further — or else they’re stopping to calculate the correct answer, but then refusing to accept it and coming up with some elaborate reason why 1 + 1 doesn’t equal 2 in this particular instance. (Kahan suspects it’s mostly the former, rather than the latter.)”

            Or maybe the question itself was unclear.

            In reply to #12 by Jos Gibbons:

            In reply to #10 by debaser71:

            What point? That interpreting goofy writing and almost nonsensical charts demonstrates someone’s ability to do math?

            You shouldn’t have bothered Skeptic with such a wrongheaded response, since I already explained where you were wrong.

            The problem you saw in the artic…

  3. So, is that why there are so few scientists, mathematicians or engineers in politics? (Germany seems to be an exception), Or is it that politics generally attracts corrupt people, and once in it would be in the interest of corrupt politicians to keep out rational thinking people?

  4. Has some new virus swept the Globe – wiping out all those who can remember Communism, Agrarianism, Fascism and Maoism?

    No wait, I’m still here.

    On a more serious note; we obviously need science to spell these things out – but how do we then get people to think about their behaviour?

    I say this time and time again but it clearly bears repeating, time and time again – Old Media are the reason we have an Information Deficit. It’s time to just let it die.

    If a newspaper can no longer sustain itself, don’t get weepy over it – your mourning moaning is misplaced. On the other hand, defend free speech, because the time of true democracy could be coming – so long as we can keep the Net open.

    Peace.

  5. I don’t see any math in this problem either. The sample sizes are different. There’s no ‘Rash stayed the same’ category. There’s no objective categorization of what was better or worse. No short term/long term data. The problem, itself, is too limited in data to make a reasonable conclusion. This is as bad as the pscyh. experiment I had to take at school with clothing branded with different country of origins. The clothing was exactly the same, the tags were sewn in and we had to put them in order based on ‘perceived quality’ while no category existed for ‘they’re all the same.

  6. In politics, truth is irrelevant. It is the art of reconciling various different delusions. It is the art of convincing others to adopt your delusions by telling lies about people who believe other delusions. (Ad hominem is the standard persuasion technique. In science, using it would be laughable).

  7. This is the reason why the governments decision making processes need to be modeled to more closely to match the scientific method. Cut out the ideology, be pragmatic, follow the facts and get the results we all want. We can all agree what we want to accomplish, it’s the how we disagree on; a methodology designed for figuring out the how is the ideal replacement the ideology that currently drives politics.

  8. In reply to #14 by debaser71:

    I am talking about the skin cream and gun questions. The write ups are awkwardly phrased and the charts are not clear. If a person taking the test has trouble figuring out what the heck is being asked of them, then whether they can do the simple math doesn’t really matter.

    It’s fair to dismiss the article for not being descriptive enough, but not the study unless you have read it. Why would you bother commenting on the study as being garbage unless you read the whole paper. It’s rather hard to believe one can dismiss a scientific article without actually reading it. You’d also have to dismiss the correlation of incorrect answers to political belief if it were simply a matter of the question being poorly worded.

  9. Imagine I show you a set of charts and graphs and complicated maths, and then ask you if global warming is real. Are the charts, graphs, and maths really going to matter to you? Are you really going to take them into account when answering that question? I doubt it. You know the answer is, “YES, it is real.”

    You don’t base that on the information in front of you, or your ‘political ideology’, but rather everything you know about the subject. Even if the report was written by deniers, and ‘proved’ global warming wasn’t real, you’d still say “YES it it,” and not because you suck at math, and didn’t understand the report.

Leave a Reply