Knowing more doesn’t necessarily lead to correct reasoning: Politics changes problem-solving

September 23, 2013 at 1:13 am 2 comments

Thanks to Elizabeth Patitsas for this piece.  Fascinating experiment — people solve the exact same math problem differently if the context is “whether a skin cream works” or “whether gun control laws work,” depending on their politics.  The statement below is an interesting interpretation of the results and relates to my questions about whether computing education research actually leads to any change.

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. “If the people who have the greatest capacities are the ones most prone to this, that’s reason to believe that the problem isn’t some kind of deficit in comprehension,” Kahan explained in an interview.

via Science Confirms: Politics Wrecks Your Ability to Do Math | Mother Jones.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  September 23, 2013 at 2:03 am

    Hi Mark

    Old stuff, and omits the much more interesting studies of scientists who are biased by their backgrounds and environments, conducted by various “behavioral economists” (such as Leiserowitz) and “risk decision making” scientists (such as Slovic).

    If trained scientists have real difficulties thinking scientifically when making judgements, then we have to look far beyond just getting skilled at reasoning.

    There is nothing new here, but what’s been carefully teased out over the last 40-50 years is important by going beyond the intuitive reasons for setting up science as a social activity amongst scientists to help debug “fond opinions” and “facile rationalizations”.

    This is why most of the rhetoric about “computational thinking” is quite off. In fact, if one were to do a study of the current population of “people who can program” I’m guessing that they would be found to be distressingly unenlightened and full of prejudgements and rationalizations.



  • 2. dennisfrailey  |  September 23, 2013 at 11:11 pm

    I have to agree in the sense that in my 40+ years in the field of computing I began by thinking that computer experts were more logical and rational than others but over time came to realize that we are little different from others of our human species. We do happen to understand certain rather arcane details that make us seem like wizards to many people, but we aren’t really that different. We just think we are.

    This is one of the reasons that I encourage CS students to take some elective courses outside of their major, not because they will help with their first job, but because they will help round them out as human beings.


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