Staring into the Abyss: Health policy discourse, cognitive bias, and the value of philosophy

The readers of TIE care about health policy and empirical science, so I urge you to read Ezra Klein’s post on how political partisanship makes us stupid. It’s a great introduction to the research of Dan Kahan. (A brief TIE post on some of Kahan’s work can also be found here.)

Kahan studies the psychology of how we reason about problems that engage our social identities. Health policy is a prime example. Macro health policy change is accomplished through politics. Being engaged in politics means that, to a greater or lesser degree, you are on a team, and being on that team shapes your identity. The problem is that the values you share with your fellow partisans strongly bias how you read empirical evidence. Instead of reasoning from the evidence, you cherry pick the facts that will allow you to keep your views consistent with those of your friends. Klein summarizes:

Kahan calls this theory Identity-Protective Cognition: “As a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.”

This isn’t a new idea and Kahan doesn’t claim that it is. What he’s done is to clarify the specific situations that elicit motivated cognition. The truth that you need to internalize is that if you are engaged in health policy debate, and you have a side, you are in that situation. So if you are also committed to reasoning from evidence, then Kahan’s work should convince you that you too are engaging in identity-protective cognition.

Klein observes that

To spend much time with Kahan’s research is to stare into a kind of intellectual abyss. If the work of gathering evidence and reasoning through thorny, polarizing political questions is actually the process by which we trick ourselves into finding the answers we want, then what’s the right way to search for answers? How can we know the answers we come up with, no matter how well-intentioned, aren’t just more motivated cognition?

It doesn’t help to just tell yourself to be scientific, because your ability to follow the evidence is precisely what identity-protective cognition impairs. So how can we debias ourselves?

I think that moral philosophy helps. And not just reading moral philosophy, but doing it: reading it and then arguing about it with people who are good at the trade. This isn’t easy: philosophy seminars are infamous for their “blood on the floor” argumentative style. Moreover, philosophers do not have special technical methods that give them privileged access to policy truths. But doing philosophy gives you two important things in your personal fight against identity-protective cognition.

First, moral philosophers are skilled at exposing the values underlying your position and confronting you with their implications. This is where you go to learn more about who you are inside. Analyzing your values can help break you from unreflective reliance on the values of your friends. And maybe seeing the values that shape your thought can help you anticipate your own biases. This way of learning about yourself can involve a live dissection before an audience. But that’s just how it’s done.

The second thing you learn in seminar is an important discipline of argumentation. What these people are good at — so far as I can tell, the only thing they are good at — is arguing. And to get taken seriously in philosophy, you have to tackle the best version of the argument you hope to defeat. Cheap-shotting, straw man arguments work in political debates, but in seminar they make you look like the chump. So you learn the discipline of reading charitably, that is, reading to construct and then defeat the strongest possible version of the opposing argument; if possible a better one than your opponent made. And making the best possible argument for your opponent is the best way to make yourself responsible to all of the empirical evidence.

Klein asked Kahan

how he tries to guard against identity protection in his everyday life. The answer, he said, is to try to find disagreement that doesn’t threaten you and your social group — and one way to do that is to consciously seek it out in your group. “I try to find people who I actually think are like me — people I’d like to hang out with — but they don’t believe the things that everyone else like me believes,” he says. “If I find some people I identify with, I don’t find them as threatening when they disagree with me.”

It’s a good idea, but it’s not enough. You should also seek identity threat. You need to expose yourself to people who fight by the rules, and who can and will beat the intellectual crap out of you.


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