How Politics Makes Us Stupid – Vox Edition

Recently, I have taken to reading the website Vox, started by Ezra Klein based on the view “that current news websites [do] not provide enough context to the stories they cover.”  I agree that Vox provides a lot of background, which makes it attractive.  I also read it because I like to have access to different political perspectives, and Klein’s is certainly that.

A recent article on Vox illustrates the benefits and costs of the website.  The piece “How Politics Makes Us Stupid,” written by Ezra Klein, discusses the work of Yale Law Professor Dan Kahan, which argues that people often reject evidence because of the social effects that accepting that evidence would produce.   Kahan’s theory is called Identity-Protective Cognition.  As Klein quotes Kahan, “as a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.”  The idea is that if someone suddenly accepted arguments from a different ideological perspective, their friends and support groups – which are organized ideologically – would criticize them and most people are unwilling to accept that.

The idea is quite interesting.  To my mind, it is not simply that one’s support groups would attack one for straying from the party line; it is also that those same groups praise us when we further their values.  When one adds these motivations to the ideological passions, the effect is very powerful.

What is funny is that Klein appears to recognize, at least implicitly, that “identity protective cognition” applies to both the left and the right, but the article is filled only with examples of right wing people rejecting evidence – whether it be Justice Scalia, Sean Hannity, or more generically people who reject climate change.  It is as if Klein wants to suggest that people on the left are not motivated by such considerations.  It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. 

It is true that in the long article Klein does have one line where he says, “How can I know that this article isn’t a form of identity protection?”  But that is just a throw away line never further developed.  One of the ways that one avoids the type of problems that Klein bemoans in the piece is for people to recognize that their side is sometime wrong.  But Klein is not having any of it.

So read Vox for the interesting stories, but be prepared for the unacknowledged bias.