• The Debunked Backfire Effect and Its Implications

    Monty Python Argument Clinic Sketch

    In 2010, researchers Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler published a study documenting a phenomena they called the “backfire effect.” When shown facts that contradict their ideologically-held beliefs, says the study, many people double down and take an even more extreme position than before.

    The story the backfire effect tells about the intransigence of our political opponents is a very appealing one for American political commentators. If you’ve concluded that the opposition is beyond reason, no longer have to attempt to persuade them, just threaten them.

    But like many social science truisms of the last 40 years, the backfire effect has failed the replication test.

    Ethan Wood and Thomas Porter assessed the reactions of over 10,000 subjects to “52 issues of potential backfire” in a series of studies and were unable to replicate the backfire effect. From an interview Wood and Porter did with Poynter:

    I’m hesitant to use the word “unicorn,” but there’s something about backfire… I have seen so many videos of people making a soufflé and I have tried for years but I cannot get a soufflé to rise.

    Backfire is not quite like that, but it does feel like something that you should write to your friends and be excited about when you observe it. Backfire is very unusual, and I don’t think it should be something that affects the way fact-checkers work.

    But, says Wood, “we didn’t see any differences on policy preferences among corrected and uncorrected groups…[w]e can make the factual intervention and they’ll cohere with the facts but they may still have the preferences they had beforehand.” [Emphasis mine.]

    This may sound like more excuse-making; more bulwarks members of the other team have erected to protect themselves against empirical reality. But as the data gathered in the Wood-Porter studies indicate, humans are pretty good at internalizing new information. It’s just that, as Wood points out, facts are “only one component of the way that average people come to hold political preferences.”

    Explaining to an opponent of gun-control, for example, that firearms kept in the home are by far more likely to be used on someone living in the home than a dangerous criminal breaking into the home will not be persuasive if she believes the Second Amendment is an important check against a tyrannical government. She understands the statistic, but it doesn’t override her main concerns.

    She is not stupid or evil. She just has a different worldview. And just because she hasn’t changed her position on guns doesn’t mean that presenting her with that statistic has had no effect.

    In an episode of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast, neurologist Steven Novella notes that you’re never going to end an argument with your opponent changing sides. What you can do is plant a seed of doubt in your opponent’s mind. Then, weeks or months later, she find herself repeating your points in an argument with someone else.

    But even if you never actually persuade other people to change their minds, I don’t think arguing is pointless. You’re forcing them to reflect on their values in a way they probably wouldn’t by themselves. And at the very least, they’ll come away understanding that the situation is more nuanced that they previously thought. That alone seems valuable.

  • Politics as Religion

    “Politics at its most basic isn’t a Princeton debating society,” wrote Matt Taibbi, “[i]t’s a desperate battle over who gets what.” If that’s true, then it’s probably best if that fight remains a boring one.

    In college, Professor Ackroyd (no relation to the Blues Brother) told us that politics can be three things:

    1. A question of policy. How many exits should the new highway have, and where should they be? What should the new tax rate be to pay for the highway? It’s fairly easy to compromise on policy.

    2. A question of ideology. What is your lens for viewing the world? Oppressor vs. Oppressed? Civilization vs. Barbarism? Liberty vs. Coercion? It’s harder to compromise on ideology.

    3. A question of morality. Bob’s political positions makes him a bad person, a dangerous person. You can’t compromise on your morals.

    American politics is at the third stage. There was a time when people said, “he may be a Democrat, but he’s also good Christian.” As religion has faded in importance in American society, politics has taken its place as a signifier of one’s morality. Now every policy debate is an opportunity to display your moral righteousness.

    As our personal identities are increasingly wrapped up in ideological identity, there’s more to to lose when our political team loses. In such an environment, compromise is portrayed as a loss. In fact, the desire for a team victory surpasses policy success. As we’ve seen with the congressional Republicans currently hyping up protectionism—who in the evening before the election were extolling the virtues of the free market—we will even change policy positions to increase our team’s chances of victory.

    And because our identities are tied to our team’s victory in a zero-sum war, we start to view the culture as source of endless potential fronts on which to fight that war, and thus everything becomes politicized. A friend pointed out to me the obvious but nonetheless depressing fact that for children growing up today, this will seem normal.

    Politics isn’t boring anymore because our politics has become a fight between good and evil on a fractal battlefield.

  • How I Got Bigfoot to Work with the Minima Jekyll Theme

    This site is created with Jekyll using the Minima theme. The footnotes are created with Bigfoot. Sherif Soliman, whose site design I aped, made an excellent tutorial on getting Bigfoot footnotes to work in Jekyll.

    I’d just like to clarify one of his instructions. It took me weeks of frustrating trial and error to realize that the main.scss file referred to in Soliman’s instructions is not the same thing as the minima.scss file. The main.scss file should be copied to your _assets directory in your site’s root folder. Create one if you don’t already have one.

    My main.scss file initially looked like this:

    ---
    # Only the main Sass file needs front matter (the dashes are enough)
    ---
    
    @import "minima";
    

    I got Bigfoot working by adding "bigfoot-number" between the @import "minima" statement and the closing ; like this:

    ---
    # Only the main Sass file needs front matter (the dashes are enough)
    ---
    
    @import "minima",
    
    "bigfoot-number"
    ;
    

    Good luck!

    Notes:

    At the time of this writing, my Jekyll version is 3.8.2. My Minima version is 2.5.0. My Bigfoot version is 2.1.1.

    For the curious, main.scss seems to be where you would create and modify elements and classes like blockquotes or footers, or add a wrapper to make embedded videos responsive. The minima.scss file defines defaults for variables like font size, spacing, and text color.

  • A Point About Immigration to America

    In a February 2017 episode of This American Life, released shortly after the Trump travel ban, Benjamin Wittes of the Lawfare blog responds to an administration official who predicted that without more immigration restrictions, the U.S. will face “a situation where 20, 30 years from now, it’s just a given thing that, on a fairly regular basis, there’s domestic terrorist strikes, that stores are shut up or airports have explosive devices planted, or people are mowed down in the street by cars and automobiles and things of that nature. These are realities that we’re living in today.”

    Wittes says this representation of Muslim immigration to the U.S. has “absolutely no empirical support” and is dismissed by most of the U.S. counterterrorism community.

    He’s correct of course. The threat of crime and terrorism from immigrants is vanishingly small in the U.S.

    However, the U.S. admits very few immigrants into the country. France and Belgium, for example, have far larger Muslim populations and have seen very different results.

    Now I’m not convinced that Europe’s poor results in assimilating their Muslim populations is entirely or even mostly due to Islam, so much as the relative lack of economic opportunity in those countries. I suspect that immigrants are far more likely to like their new home if they’re doing well there.

    So perhaps in this way, the U.S. is a far more powerful assimilation machine than Europe will ever be, and thus we have little to fear from a growing Muslim population. However, it’s dishonest to point to the tiny number of crimes committed by immigrants in the U.S. and suggest that we should not fear Muslim immigration when there are 3 million Muslims in North America and 43 million in Europe.

    I also get the impression that Muslims who end up in Southern Europe, for example, are there because it’s the closest refuge away from the violence of their native countries. They’re there because that’s as far as they were able to go with the resources they had. Whereas Muslims who immigrate to the U.S. are wealthy enough to make the journey and connected enough to navigate the bureaucratic hurdles necessary to achieve residency and citizenship. Such people are probably more likely to be amenable to American society and culture.

    That said, despite its much larger Muslim population and recent string of terrorist attacks, Europe is still not a sea of fire as predicted by the likes of Geert Wilders. But it’s still reasonable for the U.S. government and citizens to look at Europe and decide that they don’t want the increased social tensions and risk of jihadist violence that has accompanied its large Muslim population.

  • McCutcheon is Bad, But for Different Reasons

    I rediscovered this post I wrote this post for a class blog back in college in 2014. Since then, I think it’s become clear that money is no guarantee of electoral success, and yet, a small handful of people still exercise disproportionate influence in U.S. politics through their donations to candidates.

    To say “money isn’t speech,” is like saying “guns don’t kill people, people do.” To paraphrase comedian Eddie Izzard, I think the money helps.

    Money lets you amplify your speech, present your speech on different mediums, hire people to help you make your speech sound better. Speech made on your behalf by others costs money.

    When the New York Times endorses a candidate, that speech has tremendous monetary value. So should the Times be limited to endorsing sixteen candidates and no more?

    The amicus briefs that the American Civil Liberties Union and Brennan Center for Justice file in court cases cost huge sums to prepare. Should donors to those organizations be limited by either by dollar amount or by the number of other organizations which they are allowed to support?

    Photo of girl shouting.
    Even your throat lozenges cost money. Photo by Donald Judge.

    Because that’s essentially what the Supreme Court struck down in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.

    The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act put a $46,200 cap on contributions to candidates for federal elections, $70,088 per political party, with a $117,000 overall limit. These laws limited plaintiff Shaun McCutcheon to donating to a total of sixteen federal candidates. Why should he only be allowed to back his support of candidates with money sixteen times?

    That’s why I think “money doesn’t equal speech” makes a poor argument. And setting arbitrary limits on the amount of money one can spend on a candidate is a bad way to go about campaign finance reform. But it’s also clear that there is a problem with money and elections in this country.

    Loudspeakers and Bad Pizza

    There’s a man standing in front of a pizza joint. He shouts to passersby that the owners are evil, they adulterate the food, and treat their employees poorly. Some people listen, some ignore him.

    But then, the pizza joint owners hire someone with a bullhorn to stand next to the first guy and sing the pizza joint’s praises. It’s hard to hear what first guy has to say over the man hired by the owners.

    What if instead, the pizza joint owners hire one of those sound trucks. The man still only has his voice. What he’s saying about the pizza joint might be true, but it doesn’t matter because no one can hear him.

    Man with megaphone.
    "Ignore what that other guy is saying. He's like totally wrong." Photo by Garry Knight.

    Harvard law Professor Lawrence Lessig provides a much more concrete explanation of what happens when only the loudest (richest) voices are heard:


    Lessig dives even further here.

    The insidious problem with the McCutcheon decision is that if the townspeople in our analogy above were to pass a law that provided a mechanism by which they could more easily hear the man shouting in front of the pizza joint, perhaps by limiting the volume of voice amplification devices used in public, that would be unconstitutional.

    From page 18 of the majority’s decision penned by Chief Justice John Roberts:

    We have consistently rejected attempts to suppress campaign speech based on other legislative objectives. No matter how desirable it may seem, it is not an acceptable governmental objective to “level the playing field,” or to “level electoral opportunities,” or to “equaliz[e] the financial resources of candidates.”

    Since when do the justices of the Supreme Court tell the American people what is or is not an “acceptable governmental objective?” It’s one thing to strike down bits of legislation that an aggrieved party brings before the Court, but it’s quite another for Roberts to tell us what political goals we are and aren’t allowed to pursue.

    Campaign donations are largely spent on advertising, so what if we decided to ban political ads on television as the Danes have done? Well the Citizens United decision pretty much put the nail in that coffin.

    What if we had a public matching funds system? If Candidate A receives a $35,000 donation, Candidate B automatically gets $35,000. Everyone would be free to give as much as they like, so no one’s free speech rights are being infringed, but the overall amount of money spent on elections would be reduced. After all, why would you bother donating $35,000 to a candidate when his opponent will get the same amount?

    Dennis Nedry GIF from Jurassic Park.
    Dennis Nedry would’ve made a great Supreme Court Justice

    That won’t work either. As Roberts just told us, that’s not an acceptable governmental objective. Indeed, the Roberts court ruled in Arizona Free Enterprise Club Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett, matching funds are unconstitutional because people might feel discouraged from donating to a candidate if their donation (speech) will, as Adam Liptak put it in the article linked above, “give rise to counterspeech paid for by the government.”

    Okay then, what if we make it illegal for elected officials to accept campaign money or gifts or any favors so their decisions while in office won’t be swayed by the loss or gain of campaign cash. Or, what if, like judges, we require lawmakers to recuse themselves from votes in which they have a conflict-of-interest?

    Well, as Roberts explains on page 2 of the decision, you just don’t get it.

    We have said that government regulation may not target the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him or his allies, or the political access such support may afford. “Ingratiation and access . . . are not corruption.” […] They embody a central feature of democracy—that constituents support candidates who share their beliefs and interests, and candidates who are elected can be expected to be responsive to those concerns. [Emphasis mine.]

    You see, it turns out that the corrosive cycle in which lawmakers do what their biggest donors want, which leads to more donations and a tighter adherence to the wishes of their donors, simultaneously allowing said donors to enrich themselves through their governmental influence, all while the fundamental issues festering in this country (like campaign finance reform) go untreated—that’s not a bug, it’s a central feature of our republic and you’re not allowed to do anything about it.

  • Democratic Action vs. the Law

    Many Americans think of the courts as a mechanism to change the law when legislatures won’t. In the courtroom, an aggrieved minority can find justice.

    History does not exactly bear this narrative out, however.

    Courts may uphold the rights of a minority, maybe not. Not only is the argument that the judiciary exists to protect us from the tyranny of the majority suspect, but reversing state and local laws through the courts might also be counterproductive for the interests of the minority in the long-run.

    In 2015, the year of the Obgerfell decision, 55 percent of U.S adults favored same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court’s ruling caught up with public opinion, which had changed amazingly quickly in a decade, largely due to the work of activists working in civil society and popular culture.

    In the 1973 decision Roe v. Wade, seven people made abortion legal for the entire U.S. overnight.

    Two different issues, yes, but compare the progress made in the shift of societal attitudes on gay rights to abortion where as of last year, 40 percent of Americans believe it “should be illegal in all or most cases,” which is up slightly from where it was in 1995.

    The American civil rights movement also had its court victories, but it combined strategic legal battles with two decades of robust democratic action—public protests, boycotts, sit-ins, persuasive public writing—which culminated in a series of laws passed by Congress.

    Public attitudes on racial issues are certainly not where many activists today would like them to be, but it’s disturbing to consider where they might be if the question of legal racial discrimination in the U.S. had been decided in the courts alone.

  • Americans Don't Want Federalism

    When Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis defied the Obgerfell decision by refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, many Americans asked “why hasn’t she been fired?”

    They were disappointed to learn that the Rowan County Clerk is elected and can’t be recalled by people who live ten states away, not matter how vociferously they express their outrage on the Internet.

    This is the problem with the United States today. The Founders created a federal system that delegated most governmental powers to the states. But 140 years ago, some Americans decided to make their stand on states’ rights with the assertion that they had the right to own other humans as property, thereby ruining federalism for the rest of us forever after.

    Unfortunately, politics in the contemporary United States mostly revolves around wedge issues in which roughly half of the country demands that the other half change its value system.

    So national politics has become a zero-sum game in which the Red Tribe and Blue Tribe fight for control of the federal government so they can use its power to ensure that people who live ten states away can’t smoke weed1, can’t own guns2, can’t get abortions3, and must bake wedding cakes for LGBT couples4.

    The U.S. constitution has a mechanism for creating laws that all of the states must follow. But passing amendments is hard. The last amendment this country ratified came about in an Hands-Across-America-style burst of aimless Gen-X do-something-for-the-sake-of-seeing-if-it-can-be-done hijinks. But the Laid-Back ’90s Man is not here anymore and probably wouldn’t be of much help in our age of identity politics anyway.

    What Americans actually seem to want is a set of federal commissars who are empowered to override state officials when they act in opposition to federal policies.

    True, federal judges often serve a similar role by reversing state laws and countermanding state officials. But the president only gets to pick when them he’s lucky enough to have some retiring during his term. That doesn’t seem fair for the political tribe who’s candidate wins the presidency only have those black-robed geriatrics stubbornly fighting senility and death. Sometimes appointed judges even get uppity and start ruling with some semblance of independence!

    Commissars appointed and dismissed at the behest of the Executive Branch, on the other hand, would be far more efficient, fair, and, most importantly, devoted to carrying out the president’s mandate.

    Americans believe that power in U.S. system of government resides with the president anyway. Don’t you want the Federal Commissar of California immediately slapping down state officials who declare their jurisdictions to be sanctuary cities? Granted, if the Blue Tribe wins the presidency, you’ll have to put up with the Federal Commissar of Missouri mandating that abortion information be posted at crisis pregnancy centers.

    Don’t dismiss this idea too quickly. Not opting for the Federal Commissariat would necessitate wielding federal power over the states far more sparingly, employed only in specific, extreme situations with no other remedy. It would mean accepting that some of your fellow citizens wish to live under a different set of values than you. We can’t have that.

    1. Or must allow the smoking of weed. 

    2. Or must allow everyone to carry any gun anywhere they want. 

    3. Or must permit and subsidize the murder of babies, as perceived by the Red Tribe. 

    4. Or are permitted to exclude LGBT people from the marketplace and public life, as the Blue Tribe sees it. 


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