Why do we ignore science and facts?

We have often been perplexed when the public and the Legislature ignore science and simple facts.  No more so than when it comes to Internet voting where there is overwhelming recognition of the risks by scientists AND overwhelming evidence that individual, business, and government computers have been repeatedly compromised.

A recent article and a recent book hint that it might be human nature.

The Hartford Courant’s Science Columnist, Robert Thorson, looking at climate change and a new Yale study says: When Politicians Fight, Facts Take Beating <read>

The study attributes the problem to political conflict:

Psychologist Dan M. Kahan and his colleagues proved that political fighting diminishes our ability to think about evidence-based science.

Think climate change, which was well understood 20 years ago, yet conflict persists. Ditto for gun control, for which the data are compelling. Think nuclear power, genetically modified foods, national health care, commercial drones or any politically contentious topic that could be easily solved with evidence-based reasoning.

Congress is not alone. All of us are vulnerable to bias, prejudice, narrow-mindedness and tunnel vision. In short, seeing what we want to see, rather than what actually is.

This study’s technical name for this phenomenon is the “Identity-Protective Cognition Thesis” or ICT. It says cultural conflict disables the faculties we use to make sense of science that would better inform decisions. The key word here is “disabling.” When there’s no conflict, we’re fine. When there is, we’re disabled.

The ICT thesis is true. We maintain our allegiances by skewing our thinking. Kahan’s clever experiment yielded results so robust that no political partisan could explain them away…

The results are compelling. Both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats did far worse on tests of evidence-based thinking when the scenario was politically contentious than when it was not. The more political things became, the more the subject’s mental biases kicked in to disable their reasoning skills. And the more scientifically inclined an issue was, the worse they did, perhaps because they were more facile at manipulating the numbers to match their versions of reality. Importantly, self-identified liberals were no more open-minded than conservatives, even though that’s how they’re defined.

Scientists like me have long tried to explain bad policy decisions on a dearth of scientific data or the lack of voter science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. Others fault an excess of highly paid lobbyists. Kahan’s study tags the ICT as a major culprit, advocating that governments must “adopt measures that effectively shield decision-relevant science from the influences that generate this reason-disabling state.”

That might explain some of the problems we see in some election integrity issues. Democrats and Republicans are generally on opposite sides for:

  • Voter Id where Republicans ignore the facts of very very little votER fraud.
  • Absentee voting or mail-in voting, where Democrats ignore the facts of frequent cases of organized votING fraud, and the obvious opportunities.
  • National Popular Vote where both sides ignore the technical risks.

Internet voting seems different in character, where the parties are aligned, not  divided, and in many cases, like Connecticut, the entire Legislature ignores all the risks and unanimously passes Internet voting two years in a row. Even the Governor, knowing the risks and unconstitutionality as articulated in his veto message, signs the bill the second time it hits his desk. By and large, the public goes along with favoring Internet voting, especially for the Military, saying “If we can bank online, why can’t we vote online?”, completely ignoring science, the frequently documented hacks, and NSA disclosures.

A perfect storm: a harder to verify application than banking, a less technically competent/financed election function expected to provide security, and high apparent motivations for insider manipulation of election results. Yet, in the face of all this legislative and public support for Military Internet Voting. Why?

One clue may come from the the Trolley Problem as covered in the book Moral Tribes recently reviewed here.  As we said in the review:

How do we make moral decisions and cooperate or not? It is the result of two systems, thinking fast and slow – a fast intuitive system and a slower logical system. Much of the book and the interesting aspects center around how these systems work, studying the brain, often by experiments in ‘trolleyology‘ – we can save five people who will be killed a trolley by sacrificing one, either by throwing a switch, throwing a fat man onto the tracks, or by other variations. Why do we make different choices based on the method of sacrifice? Research reviewed in the book provides an answer, and demonstrates the two modes of moral choice, their flaws, and their limits – limits we are challenged to transcend.

From the book:

(p. 111) Turning the trolley away from five and onto one…makes utilitarian sense and doesn’t trigger much of an opposing emotional response, causing most people to approve. Pushing the man off the footbridge…likewise makes utilitarian sense, but it also it also triggers a significant negative emotional response, causing most people to disapprove.

(p. 129)Thus, we see dual-process brain design not just in moral judgement but in the choices we make about food, money, and the attitudes we’d like to change. For most things that we do, our brains have automatic settings that tell us how to proceed. But we can also override those automatic settings, provided we are aware of the opportunity to do so and motivated to take it.

I speculate:

  • Providing for online voting by the military evokes a strong emotional response along the lines of “Solders in remote battlefields and other isolated locations obviously have challenges in voting. They are voluntarily sacrificing for us. My experience tells me that online voting would be a convenient way for them to vote. We must to do anything and everything for them to make up for our lack of sacrifice…”.
  • The risks of online voting are a secondary, rational risk, no matter how great or small, our emotional brain does not see that risk. It only sees the sacrificing soldiers.
  • The alternative facts are only available to the rational brain:
    • That all forms of Internet voting, online, email, and fax, face documented obvious, yet not intuitive threats;
    • That online voting is more risky than online banking; That online banking has proven vulnerable to the tune of several billion dollars in losses each year, yet those losses are not seen by individuals;
    • That other states have had great success with providing blank ballot download, effective help, and effective web information following the MOVE Act;
    • That states such as RI, touted as successful with Internet voting have on a small percentage of votes returned by fax, and the similarly “successful” WV pilot did not convince their legislature to move forward.
  • Legislators are additionally at risk of being emotionally persuaded that voters will interpret any vote against soldiers and being weak on the military, security, and defense.

So, we have quite a challenge in personally and collectively making the rational decision. Not just for online vetoing, but for other issues that get highly emotional, either from political polarization for emotional blockage


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