Does partisanship poison the brain? Not quite, but an ingenious new study suggests that having strong political views can compromise one's ability to make sense of the mathematical underpinnings of complex and politically charged issues like gun control and global warming.
For the study, researchers led in part by Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale University, recruited more than 1,000 people and gave them the raw statistics needed to gauge the effectiveness of a politically neutral product (a skin cream for rashes) and another "product" that was politically charged (a gun control law).
Many of the subjects lacked the basic math skills needed to arrive at accurate answers -- no surprise there. But what about the people who did have strong math skills?
When it came to evaluating the effectiveness of the gun control law, it all seemed to hinge on their political leanings: when the statistics pointed to a conclusion that was aligned with their political leanings -- for example, pro-gun laws or anti-gun laws -- they did just as well on the gun control problem as on the skin cream problem. But when the numbers supported a conclusion that went against their belief, they fared much worse.
The discrepancy suggests that even intelligent people allow their biases to cloud their quantitative decision-making skills when dealing with politically charged information.
Our political passions can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills. More specifically, the study finds that people who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.
And it doesn't seem to matter when one is a bleeding heart or a rabid reactionary -- the same math-compromising effect is believed to affect people on both ends of the political spectrum and everyone in between.
Even "people who do understand science still let their beliefs cloud their judgment," Cambridge mathematician Dr. James Grime said in a video about the study. "If your conclusion reinforces your preconceived ideas, then you stop looking further" to make sure your conclusion is right.
This paper is part of a series designed to examine the tendency of people to bend or manipulate data or events in order to fit preconceived opinions, Kahan told The Huffington Post in an email.
The study, "Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government," was published online through the Social Science Research Network on Sept. 3.