Numeracy, Motivated Cognition, and Networked Learning

If you think general education will save the world — that a first-year course in economics, for example, will make students better judges of economic policy — think again. The finding that knowledge in these areas cannot overcome identity barriers (liberal/conservative, rural/urban, etc.) is well established. But the most recent study on the subject makes it so depressingly clear that you may just want to curl up in a ball, pull the covers over your head, and call in sick this morning. It’s really that bad.

What the new study did was muck about with some data. There was a control situation that asked people to evaluate the effectiveness of a skin cream. In that circumstance they are presented a chart like the following:

Face Cream Task

Face Cream Task

So did the face cream work? In general, people with a high level of numeracy (as determined by another test) got the answer right. In short, when you compute the positive effects vs. negative effects as a ratio (rather than being blinded by raw counts) the face cream actually does more harm than good in the above instance. (In an alternate control scenario, the cream actually works).

Now we throw identity into the mix — we make the question about gun control. Then we ask highly numerate conservatives and liberals to evaluate the same sort of chart, but with a twist — sometimes the data supports gun control, sometimes it argues against it:

all types

I think you know where this is going, so I’ll make it short. The highly numerate individuals that were able to handle the face cream task near-perfectly botched the gun control task if-and-only-if the correct result contradicted their beliefs. Or, to put it more depressingly, increasing numeracy does not seem to help people much in this sort of situation. A more numerate society is, in fact, likely a more polarized society, with greater disagreement on what the truth is.

So here it is gun control — but substitute nuclear power, military strikes, global warming, educational policy, etc., and you’re likely to see the same pattern. And the background models this taps are often tested through numerical scenarios, but the models predict such identity preserving behaviors in non-numerical scenarios as well.

So that whole education for democracy idea? That Dewey-eyed belief that a smarter population is going to make better decisions? It’s under threat here, to say the least.

What’s the solution? Well, the first thing to realize is that such a result seems to be primarily about time and effort. This sort of task is one of many where our initial intuitions will be wrong, and it is only the mental discipline we’ve mapped on top of those intuitions that saves us from their error. No matter how smart you are, you will work harder at dissecting things which argue against your beliefs than things which seem to confirm them. You could have no beliefs on anything, I suppose, but that would defeat the whole purpose of looking for the truth in the first place (and make you a pretty horrible person to boot). And it wouldn’t solve the root problem — you don’t have time to look into everything, even if you wanted to.

So what’s the upshot? The authors contend that

In a deliberative environment protected from the entanglement of cultural meanings and policy-relevant facts, moreover, there is little reason to assume that ordinary citizens will be unable to make an intelligent contribution to public policymaking. The amount of decision-relevant science that individuals reliably make use of in their everyday lives far exceeds what any of them (even scientists, particularly when acting outside of the domain of their particular specialty) are capable of understanding on an expert level. They are able to accomplish this feat because they are experts at something else: identifying who knows what about what (Keil 2010), a form of rational processing of information that features consulting others whose basic outlooks individuals share and whose knowledge and insights they can therefore reliably gauge (Kahan, Braman, Cohen, Gastil & Slovic 2010).

Perhaps I’m seeing this through my own world filters, but it seems to me an argument for networked learning. The authors point out that for most decisions we have to make we are going to have to rely on the opinions and analyses of others; thus the way we determine and make use of other’s expertise will determine our success in moving beyond bias. In particular, we have to navigate this difficult problem — we need the opinions of people that share our values and interests (we rightly are suspicious of oil company research on the effects of oil on groundwater purity). But develop a network based solely around values, and you start to reach a state of what Julian Sanchez has referred to as a sort of cultural epistemic closure:

Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!). This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile.

It’s easy to har-har about the Fox News set, but we see this element in smaller ways in other areas more familiar to the readership of this blog — the anti-testing set that believes the tests that show that testing does not work is an example I was noticing the other day, but you’re free to generate your own examples.

I belong to many of these communities, and help perpetuate their existence. I’m not claiming some sort of sacred knowledge here. But what the networked learning advocate knows that others may not know is that the only real hope to escape bias is not more mental clock cycles, but participation in better communities that allow, and even encourage the free flow of well-argued ideas while avoiding the trap of knee-jerk centrism. Communities which allow people to at least temporarily disentangle these questions from issues of identity.

In short, if you are going to read reports about gun control correctly, you may need to understand statistics somewhat better, but you also need to build yourself a better network. And that is something we are not spending near enough time helping our students to do.

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