Confirmation Bias

I’m continuing my read of Somin’s book on ignorance and democracy, and getting increasingly depressed, as he methodically marshals research demonstrating both the depths of our ignorance and the inadequacy of the so-called “shortcuts” we use (reliance on our everyday experience, political parties, etc.) to improve the bases on which we make our political choices.

Somin talks a lot about the very human tendency to “cherry pick,” to focus on information that supports our preconceptions and preferred beliefs. (As the old Simon and Garfunkel lyric goes: man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest…) I am going to prove the point by sharing research that supports one of my preconceptions: studies indicating that highly informed voters are disproportionately socially liberal, fiscally conservative, and supportive of higher taxes.

Now, without going back to the cited research and examining its definition of these terms, we can’t know for sure what is meant by “socially liberal”—although we can reasonably assume that it means what it does in everyday parlance– pro-choice, pro-gay rights, “live and let live” folks.

Fiscal conservatism is a more ambiguous descriptor. For me, at a minimum it means paying as we go: if you invade a country, you pay for it. Then and there, not three generations hence. It doesn’t mean government emulating business, but it does mean that government operates in a businesslike fashion. For some self-described “fiscal conservatives,” of course, it means cutting social programs (but generally not business subsidies, or favored tax treatment for farmers and oil interests). I would hope that all people who consider themselves fiscally conservative would endorse lots of transparency, so that (the few) voters who follow such things could know what is on or off the books (and increasingly, who’s cooking them).

Likewise, “supportive of higher taxes” raises the reasonable question: higher than what? For what?

That caveat aside, a willingness to support “higher taxes” is often shorthand for a willingness to pay for the common good.

Evidently, it’s also a shorthand for understanding the way things work—and the fact that we get what we pay for.


  1. A social liberal advocates for the role of government in addressing common-good issues, such as education, health care, housing, and employment, in addition to supporting individual “live and let live” rights. One without the other is fruitless.

  2. Perhaps someone has done testing humans via MRI’s etc., to determine “hard wiring” vs the “soft wiring.” Great white sharks crocodiles and snakes do not have to be taught to hunt. Mammals on the other hand need socialization or “soft wiring” to exist. Lion cubs need to be taught to hunt in the pack.

    Human beliefs are “Soft Wired” in a sense. A person born in Thailand will likely grow-up to be a Buddhist, an Arab would be a follower of Islam, etc. Certain concepts like the effects of gravity, at a point must move from a “soft wired” observation to the fact I could be hurt if a fall off of this tree limb.

    The Religious Right will use science and technology to communicate on cell phones or map out a route on the GPS. These devices rely upon a constant speed of light. Yet, some believe that the light from distant galaxies could not have possibly traveled billions of years since the universe was created 10,000 or so years ago. The geology and chemical properties of the minerals discovered in fossils or sediments proving an ancient origin are denied. Some science is OK, but other Science is not.

    The point I am trying to make is when do our beliefs become so entrenched they become “hard wired” that is no matter how compelling a different point is, it is rejected. Healthcare in Western Europe and Japan is less expensive per capita than in the US, and Longevity is just as good if not better. However, a move toward Medicare for all would be instantly dismissed by some, not based upon facts but based upon beliefs.

  3. Sheila, don’ you have a hard time with labeling one a “fiscal conservative.” What I mean by this is that literally everyone in the country would consider themselves a fiscal conservative (yes, R’s , even those D’s who support social programs). It’s just what you want to spend the money on is the difference (e.g. tax cuts, health care). It seems to me no one really wants to throw money away.

    I’m as liberal as they come. In fact I would consider myself a social democrat, but in a sense I would consider myself a fiscal conservative as I would want to spend money on things that work or at least show evidence that they will. This stuff always reminds me of Truman. What a GREAT president.

  4. I was hoping this would be about confirmation bias and not taxes.

    Confirmation bias is interesting. I consider it the primary factor in the avoidance of virtue and the justification for immorality.

    Take for example taxation. If one says, “taxation is theft”, a statist will respond by saying “it is necessary, who will build the roads.” In essence making a utilitarian argument to excuse the immorality of theft. Is this not the same argument made by southern slave owners when they asked, “but who will pick the cotton”?

    Certainly we can quibble over the claim “taxation is theft”, but perhaps we we should stop allowing the utility arguments to bias our more central motives and excuse immoral behavior.

Comments are closed.