Monday, February 21, 2011

On Biased Research and Enlightenment

Last spring, researchers published the results of a study in which 5,000 Americans were asked to choose one of five responses—strongly agree, somewhat agree, strongly disagree, somewhat disagree, or not sure—to the following statements:
  1. Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable.
  2. Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services.
  3. Overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago.
  4. Rent control leads to housing shortages.
  5. A company with the largest market share is a monopoly.
  6. Third-world workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited.
  7. Free trade leads to unemployment.
  8. Minimum wage laws raise unemployment.
Every "correct" answer was taken as a sign of "economic enlightenment," which, I'm sorry, is a ludicrous term, and I'm going to insist on using scare quotes. Even if we go along with the premise that each of these statements is either undeniably true or undeniably false, there's nothing especially enlightened about acing a multiple-choice quiz where three of the five possibilities—including, in all cases, "not sure"—are considered correct.[1]

The researchers were caught entirely by surprise, I'm sure, to find that respondents who claimed to be conservative or libertarian were more "enlightened" than those who claimed to be liberal or progressive, with moderates, as is their wont, landing somewhere in between. They also found no correlation between attending college and being "enlightened," for which four possible explanations are suggested:
  1. The liberal-dominated academic environment makes students "not only unreceptive to economic enlightenment, but actually unfriendly to it."
  2. The college experience generally shelters students from economic realities.
  3. The college admissions process, with its emphasis on abominable Marxist concepts like community service, is inherently biased in favor of liberals.
  4. The "enlightened" are less likely to go to college in the first place, possibly due to concerns about the factors above.
I have no major complaints with the theories (which isn't to say I agree or disagree, just that they do seem logically connected to the data). In fact, for a study clearly designed to reach a pre-determined, ideologically-driven outcome, the authors do a pretty good job of acknowledging the flaws. Among other caveats, right at the top they concede the "asymmetry in sometimes challenging leftist mentalities without ever specifically challenging conservative and libertarian mentalities."

Still, I'd like to posit a hypothesis of my own: People are disinclined to acknowledge the negative aspects of views they support, or the positive aspects of views they oppose.

I say this, in part, because if I had taken the quiz myself I would've gotten seven of eight "correct,"[2] making me more economically "enlightened" than even the average conservative or libertarian, and more than twice as "enlightened" as the average liberal or progressive. So, great for me, except that I don't know anything about economics. On the comprehensive list of my areas of expertise, economics ranks somewhere above particle physics and below Australian rules football, which I believe is played on a field shaped like an oval.

On the "rent control leads to housing shortages" question, for example, my thought process went something like this: "Rent control restricts natural market forces; natural market forces are generally good—therefore, rent control is bad. Housing shortages are also bad. Is the latter causally related to the former? I don't know, probably." And with that, I patiently await my letter from the Nobel Committee.


Everything above this line was written several months ago. The plan was to illustrate my point by creating a similar quiz where the "correct" answers favored liberal views, but I never got around to it. I should've known if I waited long enough someone would do it for me. Specifically, I'm thinking of that study I ranted about back in January—the one that found Fox News viewers to be "misinformed" by asking questions like this:
  • Is it your impression that economists believe the economic stimulus (a) caused job losses, (b) saved or created a few jobs, or (c) saved or created several million jobs?
  • Is it your impression that among economists who have estimated the effect of the health reform law on the federal budget deficit over the next ten years, (a) more think it will increase the deficit, (b) more think it will not increase the deficit, or (c) views are evenly divided?
  • Do you think that most scientists believe that (a) climate change is occurring, (b) climate change is not occurring, or (c) views are evenly divided?
Asking for the opinions of experts, rather than the respondents themselves, allowed the researchers to plausibly (but not indisputably) say that the questions have objective answers, but this study has exactly the same problem as the other one, with the ideologies reversed.

For both questionnaires, there are two groups of people likely to give the "correct" answers—those who actually know the answers, and those whose thought processes haven't evolved past "MY SIDE RIGHT, OTHER SIDE WRONG." When no attempt is made to distinguish one group from the other, the data probably won't tell us anything we don't already know, and it certainly won't support a conclusion that conservatives are in some way superior to liberals, or vice versa.

Being enlightened, or well-informed, or whatever you want to call it, and being a close-minded ideologue aren't the same thing—in fact, they're diametrically opposed. It really seems like that should go without saying, but apparently it doesn't.

1. That's not to disparage those who answered "not sure." In fact, I'd argue "not sure" is the only truly enlightened answer. In the translated words of Socrates:
And how is not this the most reprehensible ignorance, to think that one knows what one does not know?
2. The exception? Number six: "Third-world workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited." defines "exploit" as (1) to utilize, esp. for profit; (2) to use selfishly for one's own ends. How it can be said that overseas workers are not utilized as part of a larger scheme to generate profit, or that the managers of such a scheme are not motivated at least in part by their own selfish interests (providing for their family, buying a nicer car, funding an army to overthrow the local dictator, etc.), is beyond me. But I guess that's why I'm unenlightened.

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