In an age where we’re bombarded with more information than ever before, our ability to process it accurately is crucial. Unfortunately, we’re not very good at it.
This problem is made worse by the fact that we feel like we’re good at it. Which is why it’s so important to be conscious of our biases so that we’re not so easily duped by them. This isn’t a problem that can be solved by intelligence either, in fact, more intelligent people are often more vulnerable to their biases, as they’re able to construct stronger arguments to support them.
Here, Adam Wakeling writes for Quilette about how bias affects the best and brightest minds on both sides of the political aisle. Even apparently non-related skills like numeracy are affected.
In another study conducted by Yale Law School, subjects were asked their political views and given a short numeracy test. They were then divided into groups and asked to interpret the results of a fictional study. When the study dealt with the efficacy of a skin cream, those subjects who had the best results in the numeracy test understood the study’s results best. But when the study related to the effect of gun control on crime, ideology and partisan affiliation played a much stronger role. Self-identified conservative Republicans struggled to correctly interpret results which suggested that gun control reduced crime, while self-identified liberal Democrats were equally stumped by results suggesting it increased it. They didn’t challenge the results or complain about them—they just couldn’t make the sums work.
Among those in the top 90th percentile for numeracy, 75 percent of people got the answer right for the skin cream question, but only 57 percent for the gun control question. In fact, people who were good at maths often did worse than those without a bent for numbers. The experiment seemed to vindicate Michael Shermer’s maxim that “smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.” In “Notes on Nationalism,” Orwell noted that some of the best-educated embraced some of the most bizarre ideas. “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that,” he wrote, after describing some 1940s-era conspiracy theories. “No ordinary man could be such a fool.”