Are conservatives impervious to facts? - Island of Sanity

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Are conservatives impervious to facts?

Over the last few years liberals have come out with a number of "scientific studies" claiming to prove that conservatives are less intelligent and/or less scientific than liberals.

There have been a bunch of these, hitting the subject from various angles, and so I can't discuss them all in one brief article. So let me just discuss one group: Those claiming that conservatives are unwilling to change their minds when presented with facts that conflict with their previous beliefs. I'll use one such study as my example: the Nyhan/Reisler study of 2006. I chose that one for the simple reason that I searched for copies of the actual reports, rather than just news stories about them, and that was the first one I was able to find. Based on the news stories, I think it's pretty similar to many other such studies.

The gist of the study was this: They found some people who identified themselves as "conservatives". They showed them a news stories that claimed that something that many conservatives believed was, in fact, not true. Then they asked how many had now changed their minds and become liberals. Very few changed their minds. Thus, the study concluded, conservatives ignore the facts and stick to their beliefs even after being shown proof that those beliefs are false.

Let's think about what might be wrong with these studies.

Think about beliefs that you hold, things that you believe to be true. Take any sort of beliefs, whether about politics, religion, science, the personalities of your neighbors, whatever. It's likely that you came to those beliefs as a result of many years of experience, considering hundreds or thousands of facts, feelings, discussions with others, etc. How likely do you think it is that you would abandon all those facts and thinking based on one new fact? Even if you were absolutely convinced that that claimed fact was true. And just because a story is printed in a newspaper doesn't make it unquestionable, irrefutable fact. After all, newspapers have been known to make mistakes or bias their reporting.

Let me take a deliberately silly example. You probably believe that the theory of gravity is true. Why? Because over the course of your life you have seen many, many objects fall when they are dropped. Suppose someone showed you a news story claiming that the theory of gravity had been proven false. A highly qualified scientist, it says, performed an experiment in which he found that objects float upward when dropped. How would you react? Would you instantly say, "Zounds, I guess I've been wrong about gravity all these years!" Or do you think you would be more likely to say that this sounds very, very unlikely, and that this is probably a hoax, or that maybe the scientist is talking about some special case or some technicality and the newspaper is hyping it up to make a dramatic headline? Which would that be the rational, scientific response?

This may shock the liberals who do these studies, but I must have seen thousands of news stories in my life claiming to refute things that I believe as a political conservative. And yet I have not abandoned those beliefs. Why? Well, for two reasons.

One, I don't believe everything I read. Just because it was in the newspaper or on TV doesn't make it so. Reporters have their beliefs, too, and sometimes they allow their beliefs to affect their judgement about the news they present. News stories can be slanted, biased, or downright lies. (Remember Dan Rather's Bushgate memos?)

Two, I recognize that reality is complex. Like, I adhere to the conservative belief that the death penalty deters crime. But I don't suppose that one execution of a murderer will result in there never being another murder again. People aren't that simple.

Let's look at the specific examples of proven-false conservative beliefs that the Nyhan study used. (Bear in mind that this study was done in 2005, so the issues are a little out of date now.)

The first was the claim by the Bush administration that Iraq had stockpiles of chemical weapons before the U.S. invasion. The U.S. military found few chemical weapons. And so most conservatives concluded that Sadam must have either hidden the weapons or smuggled them out of the country. Nyhan declared that "most experts" and "the best available evidence" agreed this theory was false. And so he presented conservatives with a news story reporting that some committee had concluded that this theory was wrong, and when conservatives did not then abandon the theory, he declared that they were just unwilling to face reality.

But, umm, if Sadam did not have chemical weapons before the war, there was an awful lot of blatantly false reporting by all the major media. There were many, many stories of Sadam using chemical weapons against Iran during his war with that country, and against the Kurds during the civil war. This was reported by such known right-wing hacks as the New York Times, the BBC, and the Washington Post. So the serious question is not, Did Sadam have chemical weapons? But, What happenned to them? Yes, it's possible that he destroyed them because of the international pressure to do so. But if he did, why did he not then proudly announce that he had done so? As I write this, news stories are coming out that in 2014, ISIS forces have captured chemical weapons stockpiles left behind by Saddam. (See, for example, CNN, June 20, 2014.) So apparently ISIS has now found the chemical weapons that didn't exist. Anyway, my point here is not to prove anything in particular about Sadam's chemical weapons, but simply to point out that the conservative theories on the subject are not obviously and provably wrong. The question is controversial and for good reason: the facts are murky.

The second was what Nyhan describes as the conservative belief "that tax cuts increase government revenue". He claimed this was proven false when the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 did not result in higher revenues. But of course, no conservative claimed that tax cuts always and immediately increase government revenue. Rather, the claim is that, if tax rates go over a certain point, this has such a depressing effect on economic activity that reducing tax rates would help the economy, resulting in more income to tax and thus higher total revenue. That is, a cut of 10% in rates might result in economic grown of more than 10%, thus giving the government more money from a lower rate. Of course no one expects that to happen instantly: it takes time for the economy to grow. In the case of the Bush tax cuts, the first cut was passed in 2001. Revenue was indeed lower in 2002 and 2003 than in 2001, but by 2004 it was headed up and 2005 revenues where higher than they had ever been before, and they continued upwards in 2006, 2007, and 2008. So ... the Bush tax cuts were passed, and within a couple of years revenue went up, exactly as conservative predicted. How were conservatives proven wrong? Of course one could argue that without the tax cuts revenues would have been higher still. It's pretty tough to prove what would have happenned in hypothetical situations. So if you want to argue that the conservative theory was not proven true, I agree. But it certainly was not proven false.

So here we have two cases of highly controversial, highly debateable issues. In both cases, the liberal simply asserts that "the best available evidence" proves that he is right, when in fact both sides can present evidence to back up their claims. Then he points out that conservatives do not abandon their beliefs the instant a liberal tells them that they are wrong. And so, he concludes, conservatives are impervious to facts and evidence.

Just by the way, I might not that conservatives routinely complain that liberals don't pay attention to the evidence either. Like study after study has found that when law-abiding citizens are allowed to carry guns, crime rates go down, but liberals continue to insist that gun control will make us safer. Global temperatures have not risen for 15 years, but liberals continue to insist not only that we are experiencing global warming, but also that to question this is crazy anti-science. There has never been a country in the history of the world that got richer and freer after turning socialist, and plenty of countries that got richer and freer after turning capitalist, but liberals continue to insist that socialism is superior. Etc, one could go on and on. Of course liberals have rebuttals to everything I just said in this paragraph.

I don't expect a liberal to instantly abandon a lifetime of political thought based on one claimed fact that I quote to him. It's simply ridiculous for them to expect such an instant surrender from us.


Glen Jul 24, 2014

There are actually dieffrent economic theories regarding the government's policies. Liberals follow one set of theories, conservatives follow another set of theories. Both sides, the theories relate to the overall economy, and economic well-being for the country as a whole. That is important to note, because that fact often gets ignored and replaced by political rhetoric that isn't based on the actual principles involved.The economy is dynamic and complex, and policies that are designed for specific purposes take time to work their way through the economy. By the time they do, things will have changed. This is important to note, because there is absolutely no way to prove that one set of theories is always right, and the other is always wrong. Lack of proof doesn't mean that either theory is totally wrong.In the specific case of the argument over the Bush tax cuts, the disagreement has been only about extending the cuts to the top earners, not everybody else. A couple of valid economic issues are involved here: job creation and the national debt.Tax cuts mean more money for spending. This helps the economy, especially during times when spending is needed to create jobs and economic growth. This increases consumer demand, which will give businesses an incentive to produce more. Tax cuts for businesses mean that they can produce more at a lower cost, which increases output and jobs. In general, tax cuts are good for the economy when it is in a recession, or slow to recover. That part is not in dispute. What is in dispute is how effective the tax cuts are. Conservatives point out that a tax cut on high income earners, including small businesses, will create jobs. Liberals point out that these same tax cuts have already been in effect for 10 years, and the track record of job creation is very poor. There are economic models to explain each position. Across the board tax cuts, as opposed to tax cuts that target specific people who are more likely to spend the additional disposable income instead of hoarding it, is an issue of dispute.Then there is the effect on the national debt. Tax cuts on the rich mean less money to pay down the debt. But at the same time, there are economic theories that say that they will increase future tax revenues by increasing income, and therefore decrease the debt in the long run. The issue really is two-fold: Do lower taxes raise or lower the national debt? and will the number of jobs saved or created by extending the tax cuts on the highest earners create enough jobs to justify the higher national debt? These issues are at the heart of the debate, and there are economic theories that each side relies on to justify their positions.Jobs, economic growth, the national debt, and the proper role of government to influence the economy. Those are the issues involved.

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