Does Education Close Minds?

A recent article in Ars Technica points out a study showing that more educated people are more tenacious in holding on to their preexisting biases when faced with factual evidence challenging those biases. The authors of this study conclude their abstract with “Our primary concern resides with the inability of education to overcome powerful partisan motives; education intensifies those motives.”

Consider for instance the cause of global warming in a 2008 poll among those acknowledging that there was global warming:

Fraction answering that global warming is largely caused by human activity as a function of education (1=less than high school, 4=bachelor's+). From Joslyn and Haider-Markel, Politics and Policy, 2014.

Fraction answering that global warming is largely caused by human activity as a function of education (1=less than high school, 4=bachelor’s+). From Joslyn and Haider-Markel, Politics and Policy, 2014.

In this instance, arguably education hurt understanding by Republicans (there are other instances where education hurt Democrats), though it is worth noting that the question asked for a personal belief.

A very disturbing finding and one echoed by other studies (in contrast to numerous polls that pop up on the web claiming to show that conservatives are better informed than liberals or vice versa, nearly all of which are demonstrations of finding or amplifying what you already want to believe). So what is going on?  Why are better educated people more apt to reject evidence that challenges their beliefs? [This slightly exaggerates most of the findings in the Joslyn and Haider-Markel paper, where in most cases the positive effect of education is reduced–not reversed–when a finding is contrary to political identification.]

Well, it is fun to guess, but note that the speculation that follows is informed in large part from teaching large undergraduate classes and doing scientific research.  One element is that we ask educated people to assess issues for themselves and not accept the word of some self-proclaimed expert. Unfortunately, this results in educated people anointing themselves as experts.  You kind of see this in college students after taking Psych 1; such students might inform parents of just why their upbringing was so bad, why their behavior now is caused by some childhood injustice, etc.  [GG is in favor of intro classes being careful to show enough to make very clear that the students do NOT know everything about the topic once they have completed the class, though this does tend to produce lower student evaluations]. So we have educated folks imagining any number of flaws with a particular study and, not hearing answers to their concerns, they smugly assume that they know more than the experts or media are telling them.

This of course exposes another weak link.  Educated individuals are rarely addressing the experts or factual observers; they might be yelling at their TV set or radio or arguing with a neighbor who saw this report in the newspaper. Absent a well-informed sounding board, the educated individual is convinced from the absence of a response that he or she was right all along.

No doubt a third element is the continued fragmentation of the news media into politically biased echo chambers.  This is not as new a phenomenon as many might think: in the 1850s, U.S. newspapers were frequently partisan rags with highly biased accounts of happenings.  Sedition laws in the South actually prevented circulation of many Northern papers, leaving the Southern populace with one basic view of growing tensions in the country.  The end result was a civil war–kind of an extreme way to enforce recognition of a viewpoint. So if you get your news from Fox or MSNBC, you might miss the contrary point and its ability to address your concerns. (Maybe this is why viewers of satires like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report score higher on knowledge of current events–aside from making such events more entertaining through comedy–they both would often show clips from opposing views and then skewer them–and while the clips are probably a bit unfair, they do provide some window into other modes of thought).

Now it would be interesting to see if the pattern of more-educated = more closed-minded is constant across different disciplines. Scientists, in theory, should be better prepared to question their own beliefs, but GG suspects otherwise. Scientists are trained to be a critical lot (and GG is lightyears from being an exception), so nearly any new thing that comes along gets subjected to withering criticism.  This works when the subject of the criticism can use the constructive parts and respond to the unconstructive stuff, as should be the case in scientific publication, but this fails just as considered above for more general situations. What this often means is that you will see scientists outside a specialty criticize results from inside that specialty.  This has been quite evident in climate change arguments as well-credentialed physicists (for instance) claim that climate change must be a sham despite the strong consensus within that community.

So what is to be done?  First, the very hardest lesson for a scientist is to not fool him- or herself. To do this, you must play devil’s advocate against your own positions.  Frankly, this is quite draining within your own research program: to sit and contemplate that you’ve just spent months or years doing the wrong thing and/or getting the wrong answer is, um, discouraging to even consider.  But it is valuable: either you learn where the weaknesses are in your current arguments or you learn that you should change course. Doing this for other, less factually-based opinions is also of value.

Second, try sitting in the other chair and advocating the other side.  This isn’t quite the same as challenging your own position but is similar.  Make your arguments against something and then imagine trying to answer them.  If you want to start easy, consider a movie where you think there are gaping plot holes–hardly the stuff you are apt to cling to with all your being.  Now pretend you are the screenwriter–what stuff maybe occurred offscreen that would fill that plot hole? Maybe you find that the movie wasn’t quite as preposterous as you thought.

Of course, another thing to do is to be informed about news that clashes with your existing beliefs.  A number of the items in the study mentioned at the top of this post were relatively factual: did the educated folks read those articles or view this news-stories, or did they just pass them by? If they didn’t read them, it would be hard to learn from them.

Overall the challenge to those of us who are educators is to find a way to make educated citizens better able to incorporate new facts into their worldview and not merely be better at justifying personal biases. [Interestingly, a part of the effort in teaching is to find ways of overthrowing misconceptions by generating teachable moments–getting enough information out there to cause cognitive dissonance.  This is hard in a classroom; how do we teach students to do it to themselves?]

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