The Limits to Explanatory Journalism

In recent years, as I have paid closer attention to how our individual biases influence the way we think about everything from climate change to gun control, I have periodically been overcome with a sense of futility.

I blame Dan Kahan for this. His research at Yale, along with the pioneering work of Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and his long-time collaborator Amos Tversky, have revealed the limitations of the rational mind.

I am not the only one in my profession who has wondered if journalism can penetrate confirmation bias. The findings of social scientists and cognitive researchers has also led Andrew Revkin of the New York Times to call himself a “recovering journalist.”  His “denial,” he wrote several years ago,

lay in my longstanding presumption, like that of many scientists and journalists, that better communication of information will tend to change people’s perceptions, priorities and behavior.

If our evolutionary brain functions in a way that filters information subjectively and how we view the world and, say, the science behind climate change or genetically modified crops, then how can journalists penetrate a lens already colored by politics or ideology? (For example, ask Grist editors how its core audience responded to this deep dive into the facts surrounding GMOs.)

According to the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project, “journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.” Not in an absolute sense, but in a practical sense, the Center says:

This “journalistic truth” is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts.

Of course, we know that not everyone is deriving their facts from the same pool of knowledge. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many people who believe the earth was created 6,000 years ago.

In an explanatory piece on Kahan’s research, Ezra Klein writes at his new Vox site:

Perhaps there are some kinds of debates where people don’t want to find the right answer so much as they want to win the argument. Perhaps humans reason for purposes other than finding the truth — purposes like increasing their standing in their community, or ensuring they don’t piss off the leaders of their tribe. If this hypothesis proved true, then a smarter, better-educated citizenry wouldn’t put an end to these disagreements. It would just mean the participants are better equipped to argue for their own side.

If this hypothesis is true, then the implications are obvious for the noble pursuit of journalistic truth, including new start-up operations that put facts in an easier-to-understand and more nuanced context, as science journalist Carl Zimmer observes in a tweet:

29 Responses to “The Limits to Explanatory Journalism”

  1. Richard Reiss says:

    You know what’s good for understanding the science discussion in the US? Learning something about the history of the US. A place to start is David Hackett Fischer’s history, “Albion’s Seed.” After that, Colin Woodard’s “American Nations” and James Webb’s “Born Fighting” add additional depth. But “Albion’s Seed” is one of the best books about climate politics (or any US politics) available. I respect Dan Kahan’s work, but the foundation of American politics is regional — if the coasts set national policy, national policy would look much more like Europe. On the other hand, we all selfishly benefit to some respect by hiding behind Oklahoma’s intransigence — choosing Oklahoma to stand for ‘red states’ as a whole. Since they won’t let us govern ourselves, we don’t have to pay a carbon tax or cut back on flying.

    In fact, the whole fuel-hungry world benefits (in the very short term) from figuratively hiding behind Oklahoma. And since the US can’t govern itself, the world can’t govern itself in terms of reaching binding global agreements on emissions. At least, so far. (At this point, if you’re an oil company or a hedge funder, you say — “Thank God for the Scots-Irish. The best antidote to government ever invented!”)

    So, if you’re thinking about this issue, understanding Oklahoma, and New York, and California, and Massachusetts, is a really good way to start.

    About the limits of explanation that Kahan points out, with limits and polarization even to educated audiences — again, look at politics on the ground and how it is shaped. Creationism drops steeply as education levels go up, and the voting weight that blocks rational US policy comes mostly from that existing culturally conservative group (among whom evolution serves as a litmus, if you observe Republican Presidential primaries).

  2. bobito says:

    “I am not the only one in my profession who has wondered if journalism can penetrate confirmation bias.”

    Confirmation bias can only be penetrated if the biased person seeks out other views. If one only goes to FoxNews and Drudge they will receive confirmation of their beleifs and little else. Same goes if someone only goes to HuffPo and Slate.

    Is it the journalists job to give both sides of the story (as Keith does so well), or is it the person’s responsibility to seek different perspectives? I’d prefer the former, because I don’t have much hope in the latter.

  3. Tom C says:

    You deleted my comment? Wow, you have a thin skin. Maybe, just maybe, (gasp) journalists and scientists suffer from confirmation bias also.

  4. Keith Kloor says:

    Huh? I haven’t delete anything. You should always ask first, before assuming. It’s probably stuck in a spam filter. Look for it again in a few minutes.

    UPDATE: There is no comment by you in “pending” or spam folders. You must have deleted it accidentally. If I ever send a comment to the “trash” pile, I always let the commenter know. I don’t even remember the last time I did it, it’s been so long.

  5. Keith Kloor says:

    Because the media landscape has become so fragmented and specialized, with niches popping up to appeal to all interests and views, I think the impetus is on news consumers to guard against their own prejudices and seek out multiple perspectives/forums, as you suggest.

  6. Dante Alighieri says:

    Of all people to discuss confirmation bias with…you use your platform for more science bias than…hell, why bother

  7. mem_somerville says:

    Martin Robbins and I went ’round and ’round on twitter with some scicomm professionals one day a few months back. We got nowhere–they give us lists of books to read, but claim we’ll just really never get to effective communication without a philosophy degree or something. So I laughed out loud when I read this the other day:

    It’s possible that we’ll find better ways to communicate science to the
    public, but the academic field of science communication has yet to
    produce anything of any practical value for people actually
    communicating in the real world, and in fact tends to hold them in a
    sort of weird contempt.

    It was in a longer rant of total frustration about the public discourse on science issues. I sympathize. I used to try facts, but then I was told the deficit model is wrong. I have tried to be part of the tribe and use the tribe language–you know, my tribe, libruls–but that hasn’t helped. I’ve seen a number of social media attempts from scientists–seems to reach largely folks who are already fans. Watching Nathanael Johnson take on his tribe was interesting–but did it have any real impact? From what I saw the sciencey folks liked his efforts, and the core–not so much. But wasn’t the point getting to the core?

    Maybe there are no methods that work for this kind of material. I try not to think that–it’s too depressing. Maybe all you can do is leave the breadcrumbs for the ones who decide to look for them.

  8. Tom Scharf says:

    It’s a marathon, not a sprint. People who have already made a judgment on a subject are rarely going to change it based on somebody’s blog post or latest “silver bullet” talking point from an opponent.

    They may however start taking a more nuanced position as time goes by, and they receive contradicting information from people they trust. The more polarizing a subject is, the less likely someone will change their position. High profile people changing their positions on GMO’s or nuclear power tend to be media events because it is so rare. They can be tossed out of the tribe for this disloyalty.

    On climate change, I can’t think of anything that has happened in the last 3 years that would be significant enough that it would be likely to change someone’s view. This science just doesn’t move very fast.

    Other views such as abortion or religion are deeply based on moral values that are not rooted in the scientific method, so are pretty much off topic for solving by an information deficit problem.

    Is it worth alienating your deeply devout parents just because you find their beliefs illogical? Are they going to leave their primary lifelong social center because they just figured out maybe Noah’s ark was a legend? Nobody got kicked out of heaven for checking the box that he believes the earth is only 6000 years old, Pascal’s wager.

  9. Tom Scharf says:

    I do kind of laugh (being on the opposite side of the aisle) when the full power of the social sciences is turned loose on a politically polarized topic.

    These experts on communications never seem to feel that their overwhelmingly leftist bent could somehow impede their ability to subjectively analyze the subject (they are scientists don’t you know…).

    Anthropologists and sociologists, Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 21.1 to 1 ratio. Of course many call themselves independents.

    I’ll commit hari-kari when they release a study that doesn’t inherently support the liberal position du jour, or isn’t a study of the mental disorder that is conservative thinking.

  10. JH says:

    I don’t put much stock in the idea that people, as a fundamental rule, don’t change their minds about things. Nor do I give much value to Dan Kahan’s research. Here’s why:

    ONE: People’s beliefs and ideas etc are moving targets. The way they respond to, for example, new evidence, is couched in social trends and norms of the moment. It’s not a fixed property of the human mind.

    I was reminded of this today when I heard the details of Ryan’s nutcracker budget that the house will soon vote on. 30 years ago, his extreme ideological position would have been laughed at. Today, it’s a “social norm” to go tribal. Times change. Norms change. Dan Kahan is measuring today’s norms, not properties of the human mind or human emotions.

    TWO: The idea that people don’t respond to evidence is based on a biased sample. Most of the people we hear from – people, for example, that comment on blogs – are people that have a set position on certain issues. But that’s not where most of the population sits. Most people know relatively little about most issues and they lean one way today and a different way tomorrow.

    THREE: social science research is notoriously biasable. It’s so easy to set up the problem to get the results you want that much of it is meaningless.

    A while back there was a big movement in social science research to “prove” people were inherently good and generous. Numerous experiments were conducted where people were given a small amount of money and had to decide how split it with another person. Happiness reigned in social science quarters when the experimental subjects frequently gave their money away without much fuss.

    Except that the amounts were small, the experimental subjects had done little or nothing to obtain the money, and most were students, who have virtually no real-world experience with money. In short, an experimental design that had nothing to do with real conditions in the real world. Not surprisingly, when the glowing conclusions were tested on unknowing subjects in real situations, the subjects were much more likely to be horribly selfish, to the point of lying and cheating to keep more of the money.

  11. Matt B says:

    In 2008:

    Ann Curry said it: “Mt. Kilimanjaro has become a kind of poster-child for climate change. Eighty-four percent of the ice has disappeared in less than 100 years and by 2020, scientists expect as early as that it could all be gone.”

    In 2014:

    “There are ongoing several studies, but preliminary findings show that the ice is nowhere near melting,” said Mount Kilimanjaro National Park (KINAPA)’s Ecologist, Imani Kikoti.
    and “journalists” wonder why they can’t “communicate”? Andy? McFly? Hello?

  12. Tom Scharf says:

    Definitely a climate science communication problem

    FTA: “Only about a quarter of British people don’t think that the floods were linked to climate change.”

    IPCC AR5: “In summary, there continues to be a lack of evidence and thus low confidence regarding the sign of trend in the magnitude and/or frequency of floods on a global scale”

    There is nowhere the media coverage of climate science has gone further off the rails than extreme events.

  13. Matt B says:

    Hello Dante,
    Just curious, who would you list as the unbiased science blogs in the area that KK plays in (climate, gmo, American Southwest dusty archeology)?

  14. JH says:

    “Watching Nathanael Johnson take on his tribe was interesting–but did it have any real impact?”

    You can’t move the meter over night. If you want to move the meter – and it will move – you have to stay at it for years. Think about the “Chicago School” of economics? How long did they slug away at it before their ideas became accepted?

    “he academic field of science communication has yet to
    produce anything of any practical value….”

    That IS a funny one. I mean, DUHHHH!!! How is “science communication” any different than any other kind of communication? 🙂 The much ballyhooed new field of “science communication” is not about communicating science at all. I can translate what “science communication”
    actually means to politically active scientists: “communication that
    gets people to agree with us”. Note there’s nothing in there about understanding science.

    If you want people to accept the science, several things have to happen. First, the science has to be robust. If you’re just hard-spinning it like the climate nutters, people will eventually start ignoring you or realize that you’re full of it. Second, you have to be honest and knowledgeable. Third, you have to stick it out for the long haul.

  15. Dante Alighieri says:

    Well, in sum,blogs not to be science. Try Nat Geo or Sci Am,not anyone presenting forums for disparaging real, immediate, and significant threats to our ecosystem like GMOs, MRSA and the like, and climate change. Discover in general, and KK in particular, have become the Jerry Springer show of science. Try Wade Davis, maybe he can help.

  16. mem_somerville says:

    My main issue isn’t actually climate, actually, I’ve been doing the biology side of creationism, vaccines, and GMOs. The data there is not as reliant on modeling, it’s much more concrete on most fronts. But the social front lines look quite similar to me. And we would very much like people to understand the science on these issues because things are clear.

    But studying the anti-vaxxers has shown that no amount of robust data from trusted sources has mattered. It actually makes them more resistant. Creationists and anti-GMO personalities haven’t been studied to that degree as far as I know, but the phenotype looks like a match from my side of the front lines.

    Certainly though you have to have the energy for the long haul. And that’s the strength of science in this case. If you stand on the data you have a good foundation. If you have just fiction and emotion, that generally devolves into conspiracy and craziness. In the actual policy front lines, so far science and data has mostly won because it’s easy to dismiss young earth creationism, vax cranks, and anti-GMO hysteria.

    But in the meantime a lot of bad info has been spread. And there are pure fictions that just persist. Nobody (meaning professional communicators) is helping us to work with the playing field that we are on. They talk about the communication as if we get to pick where we are starting from and how some kind of idealized communication strategy might work. But Martin’s point was the pros keep telling us we’re doing it wrong. Yet nobody’s telling us what the right method is.

  17. mem_somerville says:

    Well, I assure you that I have become convinced that crackpottery is bipartisan 🙂 . And it was the GMOs and vaccines that demonstrated that to me.

    I’ve watched the same exact strategies play out from liberals that they condemn from conservatives. The parallel between stem cell research and GMOs is probably the most curious and directly comparable one, and in a similar time frame. SSDD.

  18. RogerSweeny says:

    I seem to recall Thomas Kuhn saying something about this a half century ago.

  19. Tom Scharf says:

    I’d pretty much agree. There’s this push now to link autism to everything and it’s unclear that what is really happening isn’t just more autism diagnoses. The autism spectrum just grew and so did the victims? Some forms of autism now were what we just thought was being super geeky when I was a kid, it wasn’t a mental disorder.

    There likely isn’t a magic communication method. Different people have different buttons that can be pushed (examine your children…). The mistake many people make is that the buttons that work best on themselves, such as the fear card or the science card, will work universally well on others.

  20. Jon Winsor says:

    Check out this piece from 1978 National Review, “Country and Western Marxism”. It’s written by a traditionalist conservative and it explains a ton about the roots of today’s right wing discourse:

    Marry it with analysis like Woodard’s and Fischer’s and you’ve really got something, it seems to me. Also, here’s Steven Pinker with some similar thoughts:

  21. Jon Winsor says:

    Also, check out the overlap between what Dante Chinni calls Evengelical Epicenters and what Colin Woodard calls Greater Appalachia:

  22. Richard Reiss says:

    Yes I remember that Pinker piece — the comments are interesting in that one too.

    “Born Fighting” is worth the read, for a deeper, more thoughtful narrative. Walter Russel Meade has a related essay on the ‘Jacksonian Tradition’ in US politics:

    And here’s a new direction — this is the kind of thinking that would appeal to Robert Trivers (and likely Pinker). Social systems come about as a way to cope with vulnerabilities to disease. With some kickers at the end:

  23. bobito says:

    But if the impetus in on the consumer (which, agreed, is where it rightfully SHOULD be) we are just staying with something that doesn’t work. These specialized niches (the downside of the information age) make it even easier to do what is already the easy path. That is, to just use confirmation bias and go about your day.

    I don’t know how we fix this. (At least realistically, I can come up with a few fascistic ways it could be done…) It’s similar to the problem with the two party system, if you try to find a sane place in the middle you just get killed from both sides.

    What do you think? Is there a market for a true “centrist” media outlet? Or would it quickly die because people are to happy confirming their biases at their biased outlet of choice?

  24. Jon Winsor says:

    Sounds like disease could be a factor. I think this kind of study seems more relevant with regard to Greater Appalachia:

    I could see a personality like Andrew Jackson’s getting “naturally selected” to deal with an environment with lots of conflict. And his opponent John Quincy Adams could be said to come out of a social environment with different ideals (those of “Yankeedom,” as Colin Woodard would say), with different selective pressures. In other words, different traits are viewed as attractive in each respective society, and they get reinforced/selected over generations… Although if you’re going to get biologically deterministic about things, it can get controversial fast, because you’re talking about peoples’ inborn biological capabilities/liabilities. Jackson may challenge you to a duel, sir, you being a mountebank and a poltroon.

  25. JH says:

    ” Nobody (meaning professional communicators) is helping us to work with the playing field that we are on.”

    Agreed and, I guess you realize, that’s because it’s not a communication problem. The idea that professional communicators can solve it is a marketing ploy by – guess who – professional communicators.

  26. Jon Winsor says:

    On the Meade essay: “Victor in the Battle of New Orleans—perhaps the most decisive battle in the shaping of the modern world between Trafalgar and Stalingrad—Andrew Jackson laid the foundation of American politics for most of the nineteenth century, and his influence is still felt today.” Strange thing to say about a battle fought after the peace agreement had already been signed. You would have to say the Battle of New Orleans was MADE into a decisive battle by Jackson and his political political allies… It wasn’t intrinsically decisive.

  27. S.M. Stirling says:

    Well, of course it undermines Vox. Politics isn’t physics; it isn’t a search for truth, it’s a fight for power. This is why, as Max Weber pointed out lo these many years ago, the ultimately decisive means of political action is violence.

  28. S.M. Stirling says:

    Dude, you know who burns more coal than Japan, the EU, Canada and the US put together? Answer: China. And they’re adding 8-10 megawatts of coal-fired capacity a day. India is coming up fast behind.

    The point being we could have all the flying bans and carbon taxes in the world -and it wouldn’t do a thing to restrict C02 emissions-.

    We are, quite literally, helpless. Why is this such a shock?

  29. Richard Reiss says:

    @SM Stirling — China burns that coal, in large part, to power the factories that fill the shelves of our Walmarts, Best Buys, and Apple stores with the stuff we buy, including the MacBook I’m writing on. The US has a strong hand with China, and the Chinese are actually more proactive than we are on renewables. But: Oklahoma. So much for leadership.

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