Tom Atlee: Bias warps reason. Does deliberation ameliorate that?

Cultural Intelligence
Tom Atlee
Tom Atlee

Research shows that individuals bend facts and math to align with their existing views. But does this happen when they’re in high quality interactive deliberative forums?

A recent Salon article “Study Proves That Politics and Math Are Incompatible” reports that research led by Yale law professor Dan Kahan demonstrates that “it’s easier than we think for reasonable people to trick themselves into reaching unreasonable conclusions. Kahan and his team found that, when it comes to controversial issues, people’s ability to do math is impacted by their political beliefs.”

Researchers reported that both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats got poor grades on mathematically interpreting data about “the effectiveness of concealed carry laws… [W]hether or not people got the question right depended on their political beliefs – and whether or not the correct answer supported their preconceived notions of gun control.” Interestingly, “The people who were normally best at mathematical reasoning… were the most susceptible to getting the politically charged question wrong.”

“For study author Kahan, these results are a fairly strong refutation of what is called the ‘deficit model’ in the field of science and technology studies–the idea that if people just had more knowledge, or more reasoning ability, then they would be better able to come to consensus with scientists and experts on issues like climate change, evolution, the safety of vaccines, and pretty much anything else involving science or data (for instance, whether concealed weapons bans work). Kahan’s data suggest the opposite–that political biases skew our reasoning abilities, and this problem seems to be worse for people with advanced capacities like scientific literacy and numeracy.”

As fascinating and significant as this study is for democratic theory and practice, it misses a factor that might well modify its conclusions in important ways–the role of well designed, well facilitated, well informed deliberative forums involving diverse citizens who have a mandate to work together to come up with findings that are useful for their community or country.

So much of both political activism and deliberative democracy efforts focus on informing the opinions of individual voters rather than on the capacity of high-quality deliberative activity to generate higher forms of collective political wisdom that take into account and transcend the separate opinions of the participants.

I would like to see research that explores that collective deliberative potential. And I would offer this as the experimental hypothesis:

In the context of well designed group deliberations to produce collective public policy recommendations, diverse citizens’ mathematical, scientific, and rational capacities prove much more sound than when those same citizens reflect on an issue by themselves or with like-minded fellows.

I believe that the fairly balanced briefings, quality conversations, and shared mandate involved in such forums significantly reduce the tendency for “reasonable people to trick themselves into reaching unreasonable conclusions.” I believe that the research I recommend above would show that such forums measurably reduce the tendency for “political biases [to] skew our reasoning abilities” and that they can and do help citizens “come to consensus with scientists and experts on issues like climate change, evolution, the safety of vaccines, and pretty much anything else involving science or data.”

Until such research is done, I urge us to notice the extent to which the hypotheses above manifests in the citizen engagements with which we are involved and to promote exercising and empowering our collective political wisdom-generating capacity beyond its mere impact on individual participants and observers.