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Everything You Need to Know About Vox

There's a kind of willful blindness at Vox that is almost poignant. How can a site purportedly devoted to avoiding the pitfalls of partisanship so often fail to acknowledge their own baked-in bias.

From its inception Vox has linked itself with the social science research of Dan Kahan. Kahan, who teaches at Yale Law School, has researched an idea called Cultural Cognition. What he has demonstrated, in brief, is that once an issue becomes part of the partisan meat-grinder, public responses become indicators of social positioning rather than evidence of clear thought about the actual issue at hand. Kahan put it this way in a recent blog post:

What valid public-policy survey items measure is an affective orientation -- a feeling that is either positive or negative, strong or weak...Often, such affective sensibilities are an expression of a vital element of the respondent's self-conception, one more convincingly seen as a cause than as a consequence of how that person makes sense of all manner of evidence and information, from raw data to brute sense impressions.

One other aspect of Kahan's research is that both sides of the aisle appear to be equally prone to thinking with their ideology. Kahan has done experiments that show that the most clever people tend to engage their brains when something appears to threaten their ideology, but mostly seem to idle when the answer is one they agree with.

Getting back to Vox, the site's founder made Kahan's research a kind of central idea which, presumably, would guide and direct their operation. He wrote a long piece about it titled "How politics makes us stupid" in which he compared thinking about Kahan's research to staring into an abyss. After all, if people naturally turn off their brains where ideology enters, that's not a great recommendation for starting a thoughtful site about public policy. In fact, it sort of suggests you're wasting your time.

Which brings me to this piece about the Bowe Bergdahl controversy. What the Vox author has done is collect tweets previously gathered by a left wing Twitter user. The eight examples show conservatives who had at one point agitated for Bergdahl's release and then seemingly switched sides and criticized the President after the deal was done (though in several cases these tweets emphasize facts that were not well known prior to the release).

Some of the collected tweets are pretty incendiary, including a couple that suggest impeaching Obama and one that seems to suggest executing Bergdahl and Obama as traitors. After showing us all this anger and partisanship, the author writes one of the least self-aware paragraphs you'll ever see. Rather than present it all at once, let's step through it carefully:

Now, you can find people saying just about anything if you search long enough on Twitter.

Uh-huh, but you didn't find just anything. You found tweets gathered by someone on the left to make people on the right look like flip-flopping hypocrites.

But these tweets perfectly demonstrate the larger principle that politics makes you stupid.

So, in theory, we're talking about everyone. Politics makes everyone stupid according to Dan Kahan, but don't forget this post isn't about everyone. It's about one current controversy and only offers red meat examples of people acting "stupid" on one side of the aisle. I wonder why that is?

A raft of social science research finds that people seek out facts that prove their political worldview correct, and ignore or reject the ones that challenge it.

Ah, yes, that's right. People seek out facts, or in this case tweets, that prove their political worldview. That does explain it quite well. Thanks, Vox!

It's so bad that, in experiments, people reject the right answers to math problems when their conclusion is ideologically threatening.

People often fail to overcome their own ideological tendencies. So if I told you there was a new political site staffed exclusively by progressives concerned with climate change, income inequality and the need for immigration reform, what would you expect it's output to look like? A lot like Vox does now in fact. Vox isn't overcoming the problem of Cultural Cognition so much as it's attempting to profit from it.

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