Sunday, December 26, 2010

Don’t Believe Everything You Hear
Daniel O’Neill

I had always been one to talk back to my parents and authority. I didn’t mean anything by it—some kids did it for attention from either their peers or from the authority in question. I only talked back when someone was bullshitting the facts. “Don’t make that face it will get stuck that way,” my mom would say. “No it won’t! I do this all the time, again and again, and it hasn’t gotten stuck yet!”

I learned early enough that people can alter the facts the way they want in order to get their way, or to get a point across.

Was my mom lying? I suppose she was—of course your face won’t get stuck. But what I know now, and what at that age I didn’t know, was that my mom wasn’t a mastermind pulling strings behind the curtain. She was just trying to keep the peace and get me to stop pestering my sister. Being a young boy, I was far from getting ready to jump on the table, point my finger and declare “fraud!” But I knew there was something I had to keep my eye on. What I learned early on, and what everyone eventually learns, is that not everything you hear is going to be true.

When I started getting older, and making faces at my brothers and sisters wasn’t occupying much more of my time, I still kept the same attitude—still questioned authority. I found people everywhere withholding information and oversimplifying things, sometimes to get their way. I found that people love reasoning. People could reason their way through anything.

At this point I’d like to say that I am not a paranoid person. At least I don’t think I am…

I’m in college now and I’ve seen over and over how humans change up ideas. They oversimplify things, they associate things together that actually have nothing to do with each other, and they sometimes even resist factual information when it goes against their principles. They choose to go against scientific and/or statistical results. Recently I’ve been interested in indentifying situations where this “manipulation” of information becomes a serious problem such as in politics and decision making.

Some claims made recently by conservatives and those with right-leaning biases are a prime example of manipulation of data. It was not uncommon to hear that Obama’s health care reform, signed in March of 2010, was the largest tax increase in American history.

I remember hearing this left and right. Friends I didn’t even think knew or cared about politics or taxes had this opinion. They had somehow acquired that knee-jerk reaction that comes with watching too much TV, or that comes with reading just the headlines from newspapers or online news articles. Obama raised taxes. Makes sense right? He is a Democrat. And Democrats’ thing is raising taxes. I’m afraid it’s not that simple.

The three highest tax hikes in American history came from George Bush I, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan.

First off, we must keep in mind that in order to argue about taxes we need to have an accurate way to measure increases and decreases. The revenue effect as a percentage of GDP (gross domestic product) is considered the best way. Using the percent GDP this way we can account for inflation and therefore have the most accurate measure. Secondly, the Obama administration’s health care reformation is not just one bill. It is comprised of two pieces of legislation: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) and the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act. Both of these were signed by Obama at the end of March 2010.

These two acts that make up Obama’s reform of health care are full of many extreme changes in government spending and revenue collection. There is a lot of money going in and a lot of money going out. We have to look at the net effect of the tax cuts and tax increases.

The government’s nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicts that the “total net effect is that the bill would bring in an additional $525 billion in total revenues over the next 10 years.” $525 billion coming in sounds like a lot. But does that mean that it is the biggest tax increase in American history? Nope. Using the measure of percent GDP, Obama’s plan is “slightly smaller than the tax effect in the fifth years of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990 (a tax increase signed by President George H.W. Bush) and the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 (a tax increase signed by President Bill Clinton)” (Farley)

Republicans and conservatives, after sidestepping past Clinton’s and Bush’s tax hikes, then went on to completely disregard the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 signed by Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s reform package constituted 0.8% GDP (average for the first two years). This was the largest tax hike in recent American history. Obama’s health care reform package comes to less than ½ a percent of GDP.  Jim Horney who is the director of federal fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has said of this 0.5%: "It's not insignificant. But it is far from being the largest tax increase in recent history."

Partisan bickering in American Politics is full of this kind of manipulation of data. Those against Obama’s health care reform were able to highlight spending while diminishing revenue collections. A particular side can construct facts or sometimes lie completely.

An interesting study done by the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School showed that people have a tendency to resist factual information if it happens to go against their beliefs. The study, entitled The Second National Risk and Culture Study: Making Sense of - and Making Progress In - The American Culture War of Fact, was conducted between December 2006 and September 2007 and includes data obtained from surveys and experiments of some 5,000 Americans.

This study attempted to assess the opinions of people with differing cultural outlooks on varying controversial issues such as gun control, global warming, nanotechnology, and mandatory HPV vaccinations for school age girls. The analysis of opinions regarding global warming was quite interesting.

The conclusion of this study found that the policy solution to global warming “strongly influences […] willingness to credit information about climate change.”

When told the solution to global warming is increased antipollution measures, persons of individualistic and hierarchic worldviews become less willing to credit information suggesting that global warming exists, is caused by humans, and poses significant societal dangers. Persons with such outlooks are more willing to credit the same information when told the solution to global warming is increased reliance on nuclear power generation. (Kahan)

The worldviews which they talk about in the study come from this framework for classifying individual’s cultural values:

The Hierarchical worldview is one in which people believe that “rights, duties, goods, and offices should be distributed differentially and on the basis of clearly defined and stable social characteristics” such as gender, wealth, lineage, ethnicity. This is generally known as a Conservative ideology. Opposite this worldview is Egalitarianism, where rights, duties, goods, and offices should be distributed equally and without regard to things like gender, wealth, etc. This is a Liberal perspective.

The Communitarian worldview is the belief that the interests of the society should take precedence over individual ones. The Communitarian perspective believes that society “should bear the responsibility for securing the conditions of individual flourishing.” This is also a Liberal ideology.

Opposing this worldview is the Individualistic view. This is a very Conservative, Libertarian ideology. Individualism holds the belief that it is individual who should “secure the conditions of their own flourishing” without assistance of “collective interference.” (Kahan)

In the experiment, each subject was given one of two versions of a newspaper article which reported a study by scientists. In both versions of the newspaper it was reported “that the temperature of the earth is increasing, that humans are the source of this condition, and that this change in the earth’s climate could have disastrous environmental economic consequences.” The difference between the two articles is that one called for “increased anti-pollution regulation” and the other called for “revitalization of the nation’s nuclear power industry.” (Kahan)

Here is a graphical display of the results taken from the study:

From this study it is seen that the ways people shape their ideas on policies relies heavily on their cultural views and individual worldviews. Instead of arriving at sensible conclusions by thoroughly looking at scientific evidence, free from biases, Americans end up resisting factual information simply because it goes against their beliefs.

Everybody knows, or at least everybody should know, that you can’t believe everything you hear. You’ve heard this time and again. You have to also keep an open mind. From what I’ve encountered in researching the ways people think and the way people respond to information, perhaps the public should take another look at this old adage and try to find the energy not to take the easy way out of their information gathering.

 Kahan, Dan M. The Second National Risk and Culture Study: Making Sense of—and Making Progress In— the American Culture War of Fact. PDF file. Sept 27, 2007. <http://papers.ssrn.
com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1017189> <> <

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