Sunday, January 18, 2015

Don't Read This if you Trust Me: The Pitfalls of Trusted Sources

Keith Kloor reports that Daniel Kahan recently "said that 'people misinform themselves.' What did he mean by this? Well, people have go-to sources for issues they don’t have time (or the inclination) to research. Your go-to source on a contentious issue–such as climate change or GMOs–is likely to share your values. That affinity is what makes the source trustworthy to you. But that doesn’t mean your trusted source is necessarily going to provide you with correct information."

I disagree for two reasons: 1) That's not quite what Kahan is concerned about, and 2) I think there are some information sources that are able to resist ideological decisions -- and we would do well to turn to them in times of misinformation.

1)  Kahan has an excellent blog where he tries to explain his often counter-intuitive research.  For example: a study he conducted evaluating the relationship between numeracy and ideology.  He looked at a person's ability to detect statistical covariance in case studies that were value-neutral versus case-studies about hot-button topics like abortion and gun control.

Not surprisingly, people had a harder time correctly interpreting data about hot-button topics.  To be specific, people failed to properly analyze data when it conflicted with their ideology.  

Kahan likes to say that "critical reasoning is being used opportunistically."  And he goes on to point out that more proficient people (i.e. more proficient at value-neutral numeracy tasks) are more polarized than less proficient people, not because they are more biased (although this may be true) but because they are better at fitting the evidence to their existing ideological biases.  Importantly, this effect appears to be equivalent on both sides of controversial topics.  Neither liberals nor democrats have a monopoly on crazy baseless beliefs.

2)  This brings me to my second point.  Perhaps there are a group of people who are not liberal or conservative; people who do not have strongly-held opinions about anything apart from what the evidence provides.  Probably more people would self-describe themselves in this group than can actually live up to this standard, but still.  It seems to me that this would be the ideal of a dispassionate, objective observer.  A true scientist.  And if our go-to sources are value-less, or better stated, if our go-to sources hold objective knowledge as their highest value, than we are justified in turning to them for information.  Doesn't mean they can't be wrong, but if they have the characteristics I mentioned previously, then at least they are thoughtful, transparent, and open to conflicting data.

Presumbably Keith would support this second point, if he wants us to keep reading his blog!  However,  Keith Kloor goes on to point out that even trustworthy sources can hold fallacious viewpoints: "Groups like Greenpeace and thought leaders such as Michael Pollan, Vandana Shiva, and Bill Nye have enormous clout in their respective spheres. "  These people and groups earned this clout by speaking truth to power.  But that doesn't mean all of their opinions are objectively justified.  People can be rational about some topics, but irrational about other topics! 

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