Just a quick note on the liberal/conservative psychological study that everyone is talking about. (Dave Munger has a thorough write-up here.) Color me dubious. My own bias is to distrust any experiment that tries to collapse extremely complex cognitive categories – such as political belief – into a simple and quantifiable experimental paradigm. The research is certainly interesting, but I’d find it more trustworthy (and more interesting) if it got a result that contradicted the conventional wisdom.
And then there’s the fact that it contradicts some of the work of Philip Tetlock, who found that political experts on both sides of the political spectrum tended to suck at prediction. For those who aren’t familiar with the work of Tetlock, he’s a Princeton psychologist who picked two hundred and eighty-four people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends” – they were professional pundits – and began asking them to make predictions about future events. He had a long list of pertinent questions. Would George Bush be re-elected? Would there be a peaceful end to apartheid in South Africa? Would Quebec secede from Canada? By the end of the study, Tetlock had quantified 82,361 different predictions.
So what did he find? After Tetlock tallied up the data, the predictive failures of most experts became painfully obvious. When asked to forecast the probability of a specific event happening, pundits tended to perform worse than random chance. A dart throwing chimp would have beaten the majority of well-informed experts.
According to Tetlock, it’s less important what people think than how they think. He found plenty of liberals who were stubborn hedgehogs, and plenty of conservatives who were nimble, empirical foxes. In general, political ideologies were relatively useless at predicting styles of thought or predictive success.
But Tetlock did find one mild correlation when he analyzed all the data. He found that foxes – his nickname for the cognitive style that was most open-minded and receptive to new facts – were more likely to be political centrists. Moderation is good for thought.
Of course, it’s not always best to be a fox. Western Civilization is very lucky that Winston Churchill was an impregnable hedgehog.
Update: Some of the brain imaging work of Drew Westen and colleagues also demonstrates that both Democrats and Republicans reliably suppress their cognitive dissonance and disagreements. He found that such shoddy thinking was a side-effect of partisanship on both sides of the political aisle.