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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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
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.