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.
Also on HuffPost:
The Monkey and the Hunter The <a href="http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=monkey and hunter&source=web&cd=6&ved=0CFsQFjAF&url=http%3A%2F%2Fbuphy.bu.edu%2F~duffy%2Fsemester1%2Fc04_monkeyhunter.html&ei=iB75Tr_HNYfTiAL-ltCFDQ&usg=AFQjCNHrgX0aj5yuH9JxlyPi-xREdluKHg&cad=rja" target="_hplink">Boston University department of Physics website</a> puts it thus: <blockquote>"A hunter spies a monkey in a tree, takes aim, and fires. At the moment the bullet leaves the gun the monkey lets go of the tree branch and drops straight down. How should the hunter aim to hit the monkey? 1. Aim directly at the monkey 2. Aim high (over the monkey's head) 3. Aim low (below the monkey)"</blockquote> The result may be counterintuitive; gravity acts on the monkey and the bullet at the same rate, so no matter how fast the bullet is going (controlling for air resistance, among other things) the hunter should start by aiming at the monkey. In case you're not convinced, try <a href="http://www.waowen.screaming.net/revision/force&motion/mandh.htm" target="_hplink">this simulation</a>. Photo: Flickr: BinaryApe
Newton's Cannonball In this thought experiment, we're meant to imagine a cannon (elevated high enough so that its projectile will avoid hitting anything on Earth) that fires its cannonball at a 90 degree angle to the Earth below it. The diagram above shows several possibilities for the cannonball's flight, depending on how fast it's going at the moment of launch. If it's too slow, it will eventually fall back down to Earth. If it's too fast, it will escape Earth's gravitation entirely and head out into space. If it's somewhere in the middle, it will be sent into orbit. This realization was a landmark in the study of gravitation, and laid the groundwork for satellites and space flight.
<a href="http://analysis.oxfordjournals.org/content/43/1/33.full.pdf" target="_hplink">Kavka's Toxin Puzzle</a>: <blockquote>"An eccentric billionaire places before you a vial of toxin that, if you drink it, will make you painfully ill for a day, but will not threaten your life or have any lasting effects. The billionaire will pay you one million dollars tomorrow morning if, at midnight tonight, you intend to drink the toxin tomorrow afternoon. He emphasizes that you need not drink the toxin to receive the money; in fact, the money will already be in your bank account hours before the time for drinking it arrives, if you succeed. All you have to do is. . . intend at midnight tonight to drink the stuff tomorrow afternoon. You are perfectly free to change your mind after receiving the money and not drink the toxin."</blockquote> Is it possible to intend to drink the toxin? We're not sure. There's an interesting discussion on the puzzle <a href="http://jsomers.net/blog/toxin" target="_hplink">here</a>. Photo: Flickr: The University of Iowa Libraries
<a href="http://web.archive.org/web/20060831124229/http://www.newyorker.com/archive/content/articles/060619fr_archive01" target="_hplink">Molyneux's Problem</a> <blockquote>"Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube and a sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and the other, which is the cube, which is the sphere. Suppose then the cube and the sphere placed on a table, and the blind man made to see: query, Whether by his sight, before he touched them, he could now distinguish and tell which is the globe, which the cube? To which the acute and judicious proposer answers: 'Not. For though he has obtained the experience of how a globe, and how a cube, affects his touch; yet he has not yet attained the experience, that what affects his touch so or so, must affect his sight so or so...'"</blockquote> Philosopher John Locke, who referenced the problem in his 'Essay On Human Understanding,' agreed, but the thought experiment lay essentially unsolved until last year, when MIT Professor of Vision and Computational Neuroscience Pawan Sinha led a study of patients whose blindness had been reversed. The results agreed with Molyneux's original hypothesis.
<a href="http://books.google.com/books?id=Yfo3rnt3bkEC&pg=PA21&lpg=PA21&dq="If+we+placed+a+living+organism+in+a+box"&source=bl&ots=-dbzGJt86Y&sig=TBI9HJi4Ux4uCU5TW0EXowoMQVs&hl=en&sa=X&ei=XYH5TuT6E9LoiALru_inDg&ved=0CGAQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q="If we placed a living organism in a box"&f=false" target="_hplink">Twin Paradox</a> Einstein gave the basic formulation as follows: <blockquote>"If we placed a living organism in a box ... one could arrange that the organism, after any arbitrary lengthy flight, could be returned to its original spot in a scarcely altered condition, while corresponding organisms which had remained in their original positions had already long since given way to new generations. For the moving organism, the lengthy time of the journey was a mere instant, provided the motion took place with approximately the speed of light."</blockquote> But what if the two organisms happened to be twins? This helps us realize that either one could think of the other as the "traveler," but if that's the case then why has one aged normally and one quickly? It's not quite a "paradox" in the traditional sense of a logical contradiction, but in Einstein's time it was pretty odd. It's been resolved (the traveling twin experiences two instances of acceleration with regard to the stationary twin--one on the way out and one on the way back--that justify the asymmetrical aging), but it's still interesting to think about, if only to imagine how the twins must feel when they meet. Photo: Getty
Flat-Land In the video above, the great science educator and astrophysicist Carl Sagan gives a thought experiment meant to illustrate the incomprehensibility of higher dimensions to lower-dimensional beings. We'll let him speak for himself.
Feynman Sprinkler If you were to force water through a sprinkler with spouts angled, say, clockwise, the sprinkler head would rotate counterclockwise. But what happens if you built a "reverse sprinkler," or a device with the same construction that sucked water in instead of shooting it out? This was only a thought experiment until Physicist Richard Feynman sought to test it (he didn't come up with it) during undergrad at Princeton, and before his rig exploded he found that there was no motion in the reversed version. Stumped? There's a discussion of a real—albeit air-driven—Feynman Sprinkler <a href="http://web.mit.edu/Edgerton/www/FeynmanSprinkler.html" target="_hplink">here</a>.
Galileo's Ship This thought experiment envisions a subject performing various actions and observing various creatures in a closed room in a ship, and then performing the same actions and making the same observations when the ship is in motion at a constant velocity. The full version, too long to reproduce here, can be found at <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galileo's_ship#The_proposal" target="_hplink">this link</a>. Galileo's discovery—that it's not velocity but acceleration that changes the trajectory of a thrown ball, say, or the flight of a bird—was ahead of its time. It wouldn't be fully utilized for centuries, when Einstein used it to help formulate his theory of special relativity.
Quantum Immortality and Quantum Suicide The video above, titled 'Quantum Immortality,' is a basic illustration of one of the more disturbing thought experiments. In the original formulation, the unlucky subject pulls the trigger of a gun, rigged with a subatomic mechanism that has a 50% chance of activating the bullet, and dies if the gun fires. This hypothetical process is known as quantum suicide. In the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, there's a world in which the subject lives and one in which he or she dies. A branching point is created at each pull of the trigger; eventually, no matter how many shots are taken, there will be a version of the subject in some world who has survived every shot. He or she is said to have attained quantum immortality.