Friday, June 30, 2017

Getting Political Polarization Wrong: A Misplaced Statistical Study

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"I am the King of Reality and don't you media lackeys forget it! If I say the Sun is the Moon, it is!"

Ben Tappin and Ryan McKay in a recent 'Gray Matter' essay in the NY Times, wrote:

"A troubling feature of political disagreement in the United States today is that many issues on which liberals and conservatives hold divergent views are questions not of value but of fact. Is human activity responsible for global warming? Do guns make society safer? Is immigration harmful to the economy? Though undoubtedly complicated, these questions turn on empirical evidence. As new information emerges, we ought to move, however fitfully, toward consensus."

The duo then went on to offer a possible reason:

"But we don’t. Unfortunately, people do not always revise their beliefs in light of new information. On the contrary, they often stubbornly maintain their views. Certain disagreements stay entrenched and polarized."

Then going on to cite the usual culprits like confirmation bias:  the psychological tendency to favor information that confirms our beliefs and to disfavor information that counters them — a tendency manifested in the echo chambers and “filter bubbles” of the online world.

They then advanced this illuminating insight:

"If this explanation is right, then there is a relatively straightforward solution to political polarization: We need to consciously expose ourselves to evidence that challenges our beliefs to compensate for our inclination to discount it."

 "For example, gun-control advocates who believe stricter firearms laws will reduce gun-related homicides usually also want to believe that such laws will reduce gun-related homicides. If those advocates decline to revise their beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary, it can be hard to tell which bias is at work."

On this basis, Tappin and McKay decided to conduct an "experiment"  to isolate the two biases. Their stated purpose was to see  "whether a reluctance to revise political beliefs was a result of confirmation bias or desirability bias (or both)."   They claimed this experiment "capitalized on the fact that one month before the 2016 presidential election there was a profusion of close polling results concerning Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton."

Incredibly, they insisted their experiment - "asking 900 United States residents which candidate they wanted to win the election, and which candidate they believed was most likely to win" - was materially adequate.   It wasn't. To come to any coherent and relatively firm conclusion I'd argue that they'd needed at least a 10,000 resident sample size, distributed amongst all 50 states, and the individual state samples in proportion to their populations.

On their limited sample basis the respondents fell into two groups:  (1)  those who believed the candidate they wanted to win was also most likely to win and (2) those who believed the candidate they wanted to win was not the candidate most likely to win. Each person in the study then read about recent polling results emphasizing either that Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump was more likely to win.
Adding:  "This bias in favor of the desirable evidence emerged irrespective of whether the polls confirmed or disconfirmed peoples’ prior belief about which candidate would win. In other words, we observed a general bias toward the desirable evidence."

From there they argue:"Our study suggests that political belief polarization may emerge because of peoples’ conflicting desires, not their conflicting beliefs per se. This is rather troubling, as it implies that even if we were to escape from our political echo chambers, it wouldn’t help much. Short of changing what people want to believe, we must find other ways to unify our perceptions of reality."

All of which consumes many words to convey very little new information, i.e.  beyond what we already knew. Namely that the pro-Trump camp is entrenched and pre-committed to a false version of news and reality fueled by exposure to questionable sources, like FOX. In fact, no one need do any study given we can conclude a priori that exposure to a source like FOX -  that endlessly pumps out fake news and lies-  is designed to create divergent reality perception. In this sense, there are no "echo chambers",  there is only one: that which is driven to distort reality toward genuine fake news, i.e. that Hillary was part of a "Pizzagate" conspiracy.

 Vastly more informative  (and productive) in assessing the basis of our nation's political polarization was Simon Kuper's recent lengthy article ('Why There'll Never Be A Trump In Today's Europe')  in The Financial Times.  Kuper shows clearly and concisely, without having to resort to any inadequate pseudo-statistics (based on inadequate sample sizes), that our nation's polarization is inextricably tied to two elements: 1) an electoral duopoly party system which fairly breeds polarization, and 2) a divergent media system (and relatively less educated segment drawn to one less informing side) that creates political polarization.

In respect of the first, Kuper points out that the European parliamentary system adopts a coalition building format so that centrist parties are more likely to ascend to power.  In addition, many parties are enabled to compete from the get go, and as we saw in France, a centrist (Emmanuel Marcon) came out on top. While French liberals may have preferred a die hard socialist, they also were smart enough to recognize a Marine Le Pen in power would not advance their cause but rather undermine them, hence by the time the final election transpired, coalescence had occurred around the person most likely to beat her: Macron.

Also note, the French as well as all European elections in general,  make use of the sensible popular vote winner to determine an election outcome, not any archaic carryover - like our electoral college - that could enable a crazy person and authoritarian to gain power. The electoral college was actually first devised to prevent a crazy populist from gaining power but alas degenerated into a rubber stamp, with no oversight - thereby allowing the insane Trump into the highest office.

Kuper's second point and just as cogent as the first, is that the European, UK media is not so split (as the U.S.)  along two disparate axes.   This is so because "both left and right essentially trust the main news media. There is not some faction that is solely invested in a fake news sources to the exclusion of all others."  In other words, in European nations  there is not a significant minority (like in the U.S.) that believes there is a fake news media only "out to make money or discredit others".

As Kuper notes, "most of the UK's tabloid readers also get their news from the BBC", they don't just shut out mainstream news sources like the FOX viewers in the USA.  Most importantly, as Kuper adds: "Most FOX viewers have no such check on falsehood".  In other words, carrying Tappin's and McKay's testing premise inherently to its conclusion: The FOX viewers have absolutely zero inclination to consciously expose themselves to evidence that challenges their beliefs.

Note that by Kuper's reasoning this is entirely asymmetric, as there is nothing that the "other side" (FOX) can offer us (non-FOX news consumers) for news  that remotely  passes objective muster.  Hence, nearly all is straight brainwashing and propaganda designed to mind fuck not enlighten. (See link at the end).

The takeaway is that the existing polarization has nada or little to do with "confirmation bias" or "desirability bias" in poll perceptions, but rather the primary news sources that citizens tap for their information. Nearly 40 percent of our people exclusively get their news and views from spurious sources and THAT is the source of the political animus and polarization.

Until FOX News is brought to heel, or FOX viewing Repubs cease taking its bull pockey to heart, there will be no end to the polarization. And as I wrote in earlier posts, we cannot sustain for long a nation with two separate factions that accept differing realities, beliefs, news, and acceptance of science. That is the path to Civil War.

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