Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Mind:  I Was Wrong, and So Are You

Back in June 2010, I published a Wall Street Journal op-ed arguing that the American left was unenlightened, by and large, as to economic matters. Responding to a set of survey questions that tested people's real-world understanding of basic economic principles, self-identified progressives and liberals did much worse than conservatives and libertarians, I reported. To sharpen the ax, The Journal titled the piece Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?—the implication being that people on the left were not.
I'm a libertarian, and I found it easy to believe that people on the left had an especially bad grasp of economics.
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.
Buturovic and I largely refrained from replying to the criticism (much of which focused on myside bias) that followed publication of the article. Instead, we planned a second survey that would balance the first one by including questions that would challenge conservative and/or libertarian positions.
Buturovic began putting all 17 questions to a new group of respondents last December. I eagerly awaited the results, hoping that the conservatives and especially the libertarians (my side!) would exhibit less myside bias. Buturovic was more detached. She e-mailed me the results, and commented that conservatives and libertarians did not do well on the new questions. After a hard look, I realized that they had bombed on the questions that challenged their position. A full tabulation of all 17 questions showed that no group clearly out-stupids the others. They appear about equally stupid when faced with proper challenges to their position.

For more, see I Was Wrong, and So Are You by Daniel B. Klein, December, 2011 at The Atlantic.

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