Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.
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From the Yampa Valley to Washington, D.C., it is nearly impossible to cut through the deliberately misleading political noise that clouds any search for facts required at the outset of meaningful public policy debate.
How can residents of Routt County decide whether universal background checks for gun sales will reduce murders in the U.S. when Democrats and Republicans jockeying for political advantage distort the current percentage of sales that take place without a background check?
How can Coloradans determine what steps are reasonable to protect air and water quality from potential hydraulic fracturing pollution when the environmental movement and the oil and gas industry trumpet wildly different statistics about existing fracking pollution?
How can Americans make decisions about whether we need to alter our national energy policy in order to combat global warming when lobbyists on both sides of the issue skew and hide scientific data in order to appease their respective puppet masters?
The distortion of facts when it comes to public policy issues only benefits politicians, lobbyists and the media. Meanwhile, the nonstop spinning often prevents us from addressing an extensive list of problems we truly need to confront. In short, how will we solve the economic and social crises that burden our communities and nation if we can’t agree on basic facts?
To illustrate this point, take as much time as you need before answering this question: To date, did federal spending increase more on an annual average basis under President George W. Bush or President Barack Obama?
What is your answer? How did you arrive at that answer? Did you go to a resource you frequently use? If so, why do you use that resource? Did you use a search engine like Google, Yahoo or Bing? If so, how did you select your answer from the dozens of returned resources? Or, like most of us, did you answer the question by drawing upon what you think is common knowledge? If so, how did that answer come to be common knowledge to you?
Given human nature, no matter how you arrived at your answer, it’s a safe bet you were influenced by confirmation bias. In other words, it’s likely that what you think is common knowledge or the resource you select as authoritative when seeking answers to questions with political implications is heavily influenced by your preexisting political ideology. Further, the more confusion surrounding a public policy issue, the more likely you are to seek sources — no matter how wildly inaccurate and easily refuted — that substantiate your view.
So if you lean to the right politically, you probably think spending has increased more while Obama has been in office, and you will seek out a resource that provides information that matches your predisposition. If your politics reside on the left side of the spectrum, you probably think spending increased more under Bush and will seek sources and data that reward that belief. The more partisan your convictions, the more likely you are to blind yourself to any evidence that undercuts your preordained answer.
Eradicating confirmation bias is not as simple as turning off MSNBC or Fox News, the hackneyed examples where confirmation bias constantly is on display. Even those who intentionally expose their minds to information sources that challenge their views easily can fall into the mental trap of denying any countervailing facts that should cause them to question their biases. Still, as individuals, we should strive to reduce confirmation bias if we’re ever going to have meaningful dialogue on the important issues of the day.
Let’s go back to the test question. To date, did federal spending increase more on an annual average basis under Bush or Obama? According to my research, the answer is Bush. Then again, as a libertarian with a record of excoriating Bush for his profligate spending, I might be blinded by political bias, and the resources and metrics I employed to reach my conclusion might have served only to confirm my prejudices.
I’ll let you decide.
To reach Rob Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.