We live in two Americas.
In one America, a mentally unstable president selected partly by Russia lies daily and stirs up bigotry that tears our social fabric.
In another America, a can-do president tries to make America great again as lying journalists stir up hatred that tears our social fabric.
The one thing we all agree on: Our social fabric is torn. In each America, people who inhabit the other are often perceived as not just obtuse but also dangerous. Half of Democrats and Republicans alike say in polls that they are literally afraid of the other political party.
This is not to equate the two worldviews. I largely subscribe to the first, and I’m a villain in the second. But I do believe that all of us, on both sides, frequently spend more time demonizing the other side than trying to understand it, and we all suffer a cognitive bias that makes us inclined to seek out news sources that confirm our worldview.
A classic study offered free research to ordinary Democrats and Republicans. People on both sides were eager to get intelligent arguments reinforcing their views and somewhat interested in arguments for the other side that were so silly they could be mocked and caricatured (it’s very satisfying to dismiss rivals as libtards or bigots). Neither Democrats nor Republicans were interested in intelligent arguments challenging their own views.
Decades ago, a media expert at MIT named Nicholas Negroponte foresaw the emergence of a news product that he called “The Daily Me,” with information tailored to a user’s needs. Negroponte was thinking of local weather, sports, particular interests and so on, but what actually arrived with the internet was a highly political version of “The Daily Me.”
There’s not an exact parallel in the way the right and the left seek out like-minded news sources. The right has spawned conspiracy nuts like Alex Jones who believe that the Sandy Hook school shooting was faked, and one study found that the more people watched Fox News, the worse they did on a current events test.
So I’m not advocating that you waste time on Breitbart propaganda any more than I’m saying that it was worth listening to leftists in the 1970s who praised Chairman Mao. But wherever we stand on the spectrum, there are sane, intelligent voices who disagree with us — and too often we plug our ears to them.
On the left, there has been some outrage at conservative voices on the Times op-ed pages. But as a progressive myself, steeped in the liberal worldview, I must say that I often learn a lot — however painfully — from these conservatives with whom I utterly disagree, partly because they gleefully seize upon inconvenient facts that my side tends to ignore because they don’t fit our narrative.
Moreover, there’s some experimental evidence that our biased approach to getting news actually makes us dumb. For example, one experiment asked 1,000 people to look at a simple data set and draw conclusions about a skin cream’s effectiveness. Not surprisingly, Democrats and Republicans were about equally good at calculating the math and determining how well it worked.
But when the experiment offered the very same data set and said it referred to the effectiveness of a gun control measure, Democrats and Republicans alike went to pieces. In one version, the numbers showed that a gun control measure worked — and Republicans kept flubbing the math. In another version, the gun control measure was ineffective, and this time the Democrats couldn’t manage the calculations.
The evidence on these biases is complex, studies sometimes haven’t replicated well, and I don’t want to exhibit confirmation bias in my warnings of confirmation bias. Researchers also caution that it’s too glib to say we are all locked in our echo chambers, for most Americans still are regularly challenged by dissonant information.
But what does seem clear is that rigid ideological beliefs impair our cognitive functions. For many years, Philip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania has been running experiments measuring the ability of thousands of people to make sound predictions.
The best forecasters, Tetlock finds, are not experts or even intelligence officials with classified information, not liberals and not conservatives, but rather those instinctively empirical, nonideological and willing to change their minds quite nimbly. The poorest marks go to those who are strongly loyal to a worldview.
I wondered whether to write this column, for there are so many urgent — and progressive! — causes on the table that I want to thunder about: Dreamers, guns in American life, White House dismissiveness toward domestic violence, and so on. But the “Daily Me” problem also undermines the capacity of liberals to win these arguments. When we stay within our own tribe, talking mostly to each other, it’s difficult to woo other tribes to achieve our aims.
The ideological blinders may worsen because of our tendency to seek out like-minded people. A 2014 Pew survey found that half of consistent conservatives and 35 percent of consistent liberals say, “It’s important to me to live in a place where most people share my political views.”
It should be possible both to believe deeply in the rightness of one’s own cause and to hear out the other side. Civility is not a sign of weakness, but of civilization.