Thursday, April 10, 2014

Confirmation bias has a conservative bias

Yuval Levin on the hot topic of confirmation bias at the National Review:
Without (it seems) a hint of irony, Paul Krugman argued on Monday that everyone is subject to confirmation bias except for people who agree with him. He was responding to this essay Ezra Klein wrote for his newly launched site,, which took up the question of confirmation bias and the challenges it poses to democratic politics. Krugman acknowledged the research that Klein cites but then insisted that his own experience suggests it is actually mostly people he disagrees with who tend to ignore evidence and research that contradicts what they want to believe, while people who share his own views are more open-minded, skeptical, and evidence driven. I don’t know when I’ve seen a neater real-world example of an argument that disproves itself.
With the implication that I'm rubber, you're glue, and neener neener neener. Or as Jennifer Rubin calls it,

Personally I've always thought Yuval Levin's brilliance is a confirmation-bias case: everybody knows he's brilliant for some reason lost to history, and therefore you know everything he says is brilliant without needing to take a look at it. I couldn't speak to his generosity, but I'm glad I don't depend on it for dinner.

But anyway I was wondering whether there could be some kind of empirical test where you could find out whether, in fact, one opinionationist is more likely to submit to data that challenges her or his views than another, and came up with the following: you could Google "X changed his mind", inserting the pandit's name, and see what proportion of the hits included instances in which X in fact changed his mind.

So here are some preliminary results of this study:

"Paul Krugman changed his mind"

Of the first 10 results, 5 (or 50%) do indeed feature cases in which Krugman revised his views on the basis wholly or partially of evidence suggesting that his initial opinion was wrong:
  • Back in 2003, Krugman believed to some extent that huge government deficits will cause interest rates to soar, and now he doesn't, and Greg Mankiw called him out for this inconsistency; "My thinking has evolved," said Dr. Krgthulu in response to Mankiw's criticism—"If you haven't updated your views in the face of new experiences, you're not doing your job." (Business Insider)
  • In early December 2013, Krugman published a Times column expressing surprise that so many people oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which he thought was not a really big deal; in February, taking into account the treaty's pro–Behemoth provisions on intellectual property, he revised that, opining that TPP is not horrible, but on balance not very good. (TechDirt)
  • Twenty years ago, Krugman wasn't worried about robots, or "capital-biased technological change" and its tendency to increase inequality between workers and capitalists; now he thinks it's a very serious issue, and explains why he didn't see the point sooner in interesting fashion: "It has echoes of old-fashioned Marxism—which shouldn’t be a reason to ignore facts, but too often is." (AngryBear)
  • Commenter csning at the great blog Noahpinion compared Krugman to the UK magazine The Economist: "The economist is arguably more stridently idealogical than Krugman. Krugman has changed his mind when shown to be wrong. The economist, on the other hand, frequently endorses presidential candidates based on how often they obey right wing economic shibboleths rather than properly examine the substance of their proposals. See their endorsement of Bush junior, for example, or of UK's austerity program vs France (following the austerity program, uk was doing worse)." This writer doesn't cite any direct instances (as well as failing on the criteria of capitalization and spelling "ideological" right) but we can see from our other evidence that he's right. (Noahpinion)
  • The economics journalist Paul Solman, discussing the Mankiw-Krugman spat referenced above at the end of 2012, adds "What I like about this story is that even Paul Krugman, known for his tenacity or, detractors would say, blind stubbornness, is sometimes wrong, knows it, and is willing to acknowledge it," contributes a list of his own confessed errors of the past year, and notes: "I emailed Mankiw to ask if he had ever corrected his wrong-way call or, if not, if he wished to now. He wrote back that he and co-author David Weil 'have not revisited that paper.'" (PBS)

"Yuval Levin changed his mind"

Not a single instance, or zero percent, in the first ten hits. Amazing, huh?

[Cross-posted at No More Mister Nice Blog]

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