The Smarter You Are, The Stupider You Are

Alva Noë explains the Identity Protective Cognition Thesis, or how some people buy into their own B.S.

via NPR

Education is necessary if democracy is to flourish. What good is the free flow of information if people can’t make sense of it? How can you vote your own interests if you don’t understand the consequences of policy choices? How can you know what’s best for you or your community?

A recent study by Yale’s Dan M. Kahan and colleagues might be thought to call these truisms of democratic political culture into question. According to the finding, the better you are at reasoning numerically, the more likely you are to let your political bias skew your quantitative reasoning.

Put another way, the brainier you are, the better you can twist facts to your own pre-existing convictions. And that’s what you will tend to do.

Far from showing that there’s no hope for democracy, or that education is not necessary for democracy to thrive, these findings give us occasion to recall that education isn’t just learning how to be good with numbers. This seems especially pressing given the current trend — see Thursday’s New York Times — to limit funding for humanities education.

Pretend that these are the results of a new medical study: Of patients given a medicine, 223 showed marked improvement in their symptoms, whereas 75 showed no improvement. In the control group of patients not given the medicine, 107 showed an improvement, while 21 showed no improvement.

Is the medicine effective? Does it make it more or less likely you’ll get better?

If you’re like a lot of us, you’ll say yes! Two-hundred-twenty-three got better on the medicine, whereas only 107 got better without.

And you’d be wrong.

The fact is, 83 percent of those not taking the medicine got better, whereas only 74 percent of those taking the medicine got better. Taking the medicine lowers your chance of getting well.

The better you are with numbers, the better you’ll be at getting this sort ofpuzzle right. But now consider this superficially different puzzle.

Pretend that these are the results of another new study: 223 cities that adopt a ban on handguns show a decrease in gun violence, whereas 75 do not. In cities that do not adopt a handgun ban, 107 show a decrease in gun violence, while 21 show no decrease.

Do these numbers support the conclusion that banning handguns lowers gun violence?

As before, if you just look at the absolute numbers, you might be misled into thinking that the measure in question is effective. But you’d be mistaken, exactly as before. According to these (pretend) numbers, crime is more likely to go down in cities that do not adopt a ban than in those that do.

It turns out that numerically sophisticated people — the sort of people who get the right answer to the first puzzle about the medicine — get this question wrong, if they are politically liberal. While smart political conservatives show no such enhancement of their stupidity. And this is true even though, as I hope is clear, this puzzle is exactly the same as the puzzle about medicine. All that’s been changed are the names (symptoms up or down versus crime up or down, taking the medicine versus imposing a ban).

But this isn’t a shortcoming of liberals.

Shift the labels yet again: 223 cities show a drop in crime with no ban versus 107 that show a drop with a ban. Conservatives who may understand very well that, in general, it isn’t absolute numbers that matter, but ratios, will still conclude that gun control is a less effective means of lowering gun violence even though that is not what these (also made up) numbers show.

Actually, things are even worse. The higher your level of numeracy, according to this study, the more likely you are to flunk the quiz. Your arithmetical skill makes you more likely, not less, to understand the data you are given.

So what’s going on here?

Hard to say exactly. According to the study’s authors, the outcome supports the Identity Protective Cognition Thesis, according to which cultural conflict disables the relevant cognitive faculties.

But one thing is clear. Being good at math doesn’t mean that you’ll be better at evaluating the effectiveness of policies. Making citizens better statisticians is not likely to lessen polarization in our society. If this study is right, it is likely to increase it!

So should we stop caring about education? Or should we just give up on democracy altogether? No to both of these.

We need to rethink what it is to be an educated person.

Educated people are not only trained to use numbers, but they are also trained, or they ought to be trained, to appreciate that reaching the right conclusion may not be as simple as running the numbers. Reasoning is, or ought to be, a reflective activity.


  • DeepCough

    The recent government shutdown has already demonstrated qualitatively and quantitatively how much political bias prevents smart decisions from being made.

    • moremisinformation

      Speaking of picking and choosing certain data to reinforce systems, I’m choosing to make your statement more concise by taking out some of the language that confuses the real point, hope you don’t mind my indulgence:

      “The government prevents smart decisions from being made”

      • echar

        The government may prevent smart decisions from being made?

        • moremisinformation

          If you’re asking me to clarify, I simply took a few of DeepCough’s excess words out of his statement in order to express the most important part more succinctly.

      • DeepCough

        After thorough review of your rephrasing of my initial comment,
        I hereby state that your succinct declaration has my seal of approval.

  • Calypso_1

    I see no indication in the actual study where they publish the results for the 30% of respondents who identified as independent or differentiated in percentages of those individuals who identified as very liberal/conservative vs. liberal/conservative or moderate. No results are given for moderates. All results are on the extremes and no data is provided to show if numeracy in the extremes is equivalent to that of the other populations.
    All this shows is how distorting biases are. The higher numeracy levels equated w/ higher bias do not increase the chance of making false estimation over that of low numeracy levels. The bias simply eliminates the numerical ability. It also uses only 4 numeracy/bias questions all of which are based on real world issues that have been bombarded w/ pseudo-statistics by political media outlets. There is no effort to create control questions that examine underlying cognitive bias outside of media exposure. Questions could have easily been created for people to give estimations of statistics to popular issues based on their self-identified political stance & preferred media outlet.

    • echar

      The books may be cooked?

      • Calypso_1

        The numbers aren’t bad, they are just selective and reinforcing of status quo system hierarchies: Stay on the divide, you can’t escape biased thought, knowledge doesn’t really matter, eat this piece of cake.

        • InfvoCuernos

          Did someone say cake?! I haven’t had cake in a long time!

        • pneumerology

          If we recognize that we have cognitive bias — i.e. it is a human tendency — examples of it verify that it exists and provide some insight about how we use it to manipulate one another. But they don’t address the deeper questions: why we have such bias in the first place, and why we use the knowledge of them the way we do.

          Also, I think that anti-intellectualism (or prejudice against smart people) is largely driven by the resentment that is instilled in people by telling them that they will get inferior jobs, inferior pay, inferior standing in the human community etc. in other words, that they are inferior people just because they don’t have the good verbal learning ability that is the basis of our teaching methods.

          And that isn’t an idle threat either. Why does a lawyer, doctor, politician or manager make more money than a carpenter or a plumber… there is no good reason. Obviously it is not because they have superior competence. They are all essential elements in a cooperative effort to create human society.

          If you are suggesting that the “humanities” as taught in universities is just as likely to be corrupted by the “winners” in our society as any other subject… I agree with you about that. But I also think the problem is the “winners and losers” model that defines our culture and corrupts our institutions, rather than the institutions themselves.

          Is that what you are getting at?

    • pneumerology

      Still, if it addresses the myth of our rationality, it seems a step in the right direction, however flawed and clumsy it might be.

      • Calypso_1

        No it did not. Did you read the published study? By leaving out the data for the most ‘rational’ members of the survey it addresses only deviations from the mean. If they had included the central data and the same tendencies had been found it would be significant. That a cognitive bias produces errors in thought is exactly what is to be expected. That they identified a specific numerical estimation tendency as a correlate is interesting but was completely uncontrolled for in study design and analysis.
        There are myriad resources addressing the deficits of thought that humans possess…and ways to address them.

        • The Well Dressed Man

          it’s almost as if they intended to reinforce by example their hypothesis that quants are inherently biased.

          • Calypso_1

            in this case only Q_1 & Q_4 quants…who do the math in their heads.

        • pneumerology

          No I did not. I am not highly skilled at statistical analysis. One of my proudest feats in that regard was in finding the flaw in the “higher IQ = higher altruism” argument in “The Bell Curve”, by examining the instruments they used to measure altruism. Or more precisely, the limitations of those instruments and the omission of data from other valid sources — which is perhaps a similar problem to the one you mention.

          I am aware that there is research on the problem of errors in human thinking. I have read some of it, and I have made a long personally reflective study of it as well, which has brought me many humbling moments via the understanding that I possess all the flaws and tendency to intellectual trickery as anyone else and must be constantly on guard against their influence.

          I will say that intellectual hubris and intellectual disdain are flip sides of the same coin, both based upon flawed measuring systems.

          • Calypso_1

            I began a reply to your second comment but was called away. Interestingly, the nature of measuring systems and their relation to cognitive biases is precisely what I started writing about. Basically insofar that there are known neurological correlates to many biases similar to the perceptual deficits revealed by optical illusions.
            All measuring systems are relative to a fairly specific application & as we are just beginning to understand how this underlies our own thought & perception the opportunities for this to change human society are also in their infancy. Many of the roles that have been filled by religion, philosophy, ethics & psychology and their associated attempts to regulate human behavior for the better are epitomized in becoming aware of these factors. It is humbling and takes significant effort to create programming that recognizes and circumvents subprocesses. That is an intellectual endeavor & need have no connection with hubris or disdain.

          • pneumerology

            Ok. And thank you.

            Part of my overall response is to the headline that establishes who is to be found wrong by that study. It blatantly appeals to intellectual prejudice in an underhanded way… if you’re smart, that’s bad, because you’re actually just stupid, which is also bad… something for everybody.

            I’m not about to argue that intellect is not a good tool. But I have to weigh it against my life experience, which suggest to me that it does not determine human decency, and that seems the more pressing issue to me.

            As species, we have a vastly overblown notion of how rational we are. I think disabusing people of this notion on the pop level can be a positive thing. The more we talk about it, though, the more I think this article fails on both counts… the science is bad and the pop bias is bad too.

          • Calypso_1

            Ah, yes the headline…oft use to induce a particular bias ; )
            Lures vary at depth of anticipated engagement.

            In regards to intellect not determining human decency: These issues are certainly multifactoral. For many persons (and I am not trying to imply this is the primary direction you were coming from) these issues are often based on notions of empathy. But if we take a look at a known cognitive bias such as illusory correlation where attributes are overestimated and factor in capacity of working memory, we find that lower working memory is directly related to negative stereotyping of minorities & non-group members. Working memory to a great degree is innate but it can be exercised and improved upon. So in a case like this something that might contribute to an individuals intellectual ‘superiority’ is directly related to their ability to engage in more expansive qualities of human dignity.

          • pneumerology

            I do, in fact, begin my understanding of the decency problem with an examination of innate empathy. But it looks to me like the rarity of extremes of non-empathy among individuals cannot account for the social conditions we observe. There are far more people doing cruel and counter-productive things than there are cruel people… so other factors must be involved.

            Propaganda that plays on other innate characteristics — e.g. group membership, status seeking or personal advantage — exacerbate the problem, even though the positive results promised by such propaganda are largely imaginary. Fear of loss also appears to be a very strong motivator, even when the loss is also imaginary (because one didn’t actually possess the thing one fears losing in the first place… safety, security, freedom, real wealth instead of money… come to mind).

            All of which suggests that “gullibility” is a better descriptor of the decency problem than “lack of empathy”.
            I’m very much in favor of the science being done and done well, but as with all other scientific research, the majority of people lack either the specific kind of intellect or the specific background knowledge to understand the science. Hence the role of pop renderings for lay persons.

            This is why (along with my dearth of scientific credentials) I personally turned to fiction writing. To try to communicate through story telling that might influence a larger audience.

  • Eric_D_Read

    Not particularly surprising.
    No matter how much we wish to believe we are rational, objective creatures driven by reason, our wants come from much older, more primitive parts of the brain.

    Logic developed much later, and for most people its primary function is to rationalize and justify their wants.

  • teachpeace

    “the more you learn, the less you know….”

  • godozo

    I had that problem when I was in Junior and Senior high. Worse, I made a point of being proud of my “intelligence.”

    Took years to get over that illusion, but there are still parts of my brain that wish for those days.

  • Andrew

    Self-doubt is good.

  • Washichu Rehab

    Just proves that mob-rule (aka democracy) is flawed. ;O

  • IKy Lennox

    May i merely suggest that being good with numbers and being “smart” [as in the title] have almost nothing in common?