Oct 10 2013

Extreme Dogmatism

It is the standard skeptical narrative that people are biased in numerous ways. The “default mode” of human behavior is to drift along with the currents of our cognitive biases, unless we have critical thinking skills as a rudder or paddle (choose your nautical metaphor). Metacognition – thinking about thinking – is the only way for our higher cognitive function (evidence, analysis, logic) to take control of our beliefs from our baser instincts.

Political ideology is one form of such bias. Psychologists have demonstrated that people generally will identify with a stated belief, and then will defend their existing belief by default simply because it’s theirs. This phenomenon seems to be exacerbated by ideology – identifying with a suite of beliefs that come as a package deal, with a convenient label.

One type of ideology is political. In the US this is usually thought of as a dichotomy between conservative and liberal, represented by the Republican and Democratic parties respectively. In reality the political landscape is more complex. Libertarians, for example, are economically conservative but socially liberal, because in reality they care about something else entirely, something tangential to the typical conservative-liberal axis, and that is personal freedom over government control.

Within the conservative-liberal paradigm, however, there has been an ongoing debate about which side, if either, is more dogmatic, anti-science, irrational, or biased. Chris Mooney in The Republican Brain argues that conservatives are more authoritarian by nature, and that explains why they tend to be more dogmatic even to the point of being anti-science.

The alternate hypothesis, however, is that it is really extremism that drives dogmatism (defined as holding your opinions to be objectively correct or superior). In this view extreme liberals can be just as dogmatic as extreme conservatives.

A recent psychological study looks directly at that controversy – Feeling Superior Is a Bipartisan Issue Extremity (Not Direction) of Political Views Predicts Perceived Belief Superiority, by Toner et al, published in Psychological Science.

In the study the researchers distinguish between dogmatism (the arrogant assertion of one’s opinions as facts) and belief superiority (holding that one’s specific opinions are superior to others). They questioned 527 Americans on issues that tend to be politically contentious, like immigration and abortion, and found that dogmatism (evaluated on a standard scale) was indeed higher among conservatives. Belief superiority (assessed for each individual belief), however, correlated with extremism, and not conservative vs liberal. They did also find a correlation between belief superiority and dogmatism, which makes sense.

There does seem to be a pattern in recent studies that conservatives tend to be more dogmatic and authoritarian. On this point I think that Mooney and others are onto something. At the same time there appears to be basic human psychological forces at work that transcend political ideology. This study supports that, noting that it is extremism, and not political orientation, that really correlates with hardened and irrational views.

As with all psychological studies, the real complexity is in the interpretation. There are two basic levels on which the interpretation of this kind of data is tricky. The first is that we may be seeing the influence of topic choice and current culture rather than something inherently different about the conservative vs liberal mind.

In other words, if you choose to study topics about which conservatives are more passionate, this may introduce an artifact that makes conservatives look more dogmatic and extreme. If you question conservatives about abortion, and liberals about nuclear power, you may find that conservatives are more dogmatic – but only because they care more about abortion than liberals do about nuclear power. In other words, the difference in intensity may be at the topic level, and not inherent to the political spectrum.

This is my main problem with Mooney’s work. I would like to see further replication across a broader range of issues, and some measure of topic intensity to see how that variable is affecting the outcome.

The other variable that comes into play is recent American culture. I call this the Fox News effect. My subjective experience is that conservative outlets like Fox News have had a radicalizing effect on Republicans, pushing them in an extreme direction.

It also seems to be true that the party that is out of office tends to be more passionate. Some liberals during the Bush administration were radicalized by their opposition to Bush. There was even a term invented for this – post election selection trauma (remember that one?).

In order for data on inherent differences between liberal and conservative to be compelling, therefore, we would need to see data across a wide spectrum of issues, some measure of issue intensity, and data across decades to measure the influence of current politics (such as which party is in the White House).

So – while I am prepared to believe that there are differences between conservatives and liberals that go deeper than their specific political opinions, including conservatives being more authoritarian and dogmatic, we need to be cautious before making any sweeping conclusions. We need to tease apart a host of influences and artifacts.

Meanwhile, the psychological literature is fairly consistent in demonstrating that people in general labor under a host of cognitive biases. Further, extremism (rigidly holding strong opinions) seems to be the main problem, rather than the opinions themselves. It is ideology itself, and not the details of a specific ideology, that renders people irrational.

In many ways, metacognition, critical thinking, and skepticism are about divesting oneself of ideology in favor of logic and evidence.

59 responses so far

59 thoughts on “Extreme Dogmatism”

  1. geogavino says:

    I like the discussion about political ideologies and biases. I would like to see a greater discussion of ethics in this. People will generally not divest oneself of ideology when their ideology, they perceive, is an expression of ethics.

  2. Factoidjunkie says:

    I agree with your observation that there isn’t a political teeter-totter, but a more nuanced, more varied set of political vectors. The extremism view is supported by other research into what some researchers call “congeniality bias.” This is the bias that stems from a mixture of wanting to be accurate (my facts are better than yours) and wanting certain values to be upheld (my moral or ethical principles are valuable and I want them maintained). One paper by Albarracin and Hart can be found by searching for the terms “feeling validated versus being correct.”

    We experience congeniality bias not only in our political beliefs (ideology) but across ideas such as how to clean the kitchen, maintain a science blog, or raise a child.

  3. mufi says:

    Having only read this post and the abstract of the cited psychological study, it’s unclear to me what is meant here by “extremism.” Is it simply “belief superiority (i.e., belief that one’s position is more correct than another’s)”? or does it possess additional traits?

    Also, if the study found both “a correlation between belief superiority and dogmatism” and that “[d]ogmatism was higher for people endorsing conservative views than for people endorsing liberal views”, then is belief superiority not higher among conservatives, as well as dogmatism?

  4. Thanks for yet another sensible post Steve.

    The concept of “cultural cognition of risk” as described by Dan Kahan and others http://www.culturalcognition.net/ also has explanatory power when applied to the strongly held views at either pole of our culture wars.

  5. mufi – in this study, they asked opinions about politically-hot topics and gave a 4 or 5 point scale for response. eg:

    “Items that allowed for a neutral midpoint were rated on a 5-point scale, whereas items that did not (e.g., “When should the United States use torture to obtain information from terrorists?”) were rated on a 4-point scale (e.g., 1 = never, 2 = only in extreme circumstances to prevent an impending terrorist act, 3 = whenever it might yield useful information, 4 = all terrorists should be tortured).”

    They operationally defined “extreme” as a 1 or 4 on a 4-point scale, or 1 or 5 on a 5-point scale – the extremes.

    Those who answered a specific question with the lowest or highest number, also tended to endorse a higher rating of belief superiority. More moderate views (2 and 3) had lower belief superiority.

    When liberals and conservatives were rated for dogmatism in general, conservatives scored higher (consistent with prior research). Those scoring high on dogmatism (regardless of ideology) also tended to score higher on belief superiority. However, this did not show up when you look at specific issues. Rather, liberals scored higher on liberal issues, and conservatives scored higher on conservative issues, with equal frequency.

  6. Bruce says:

    Since I started on my skeptical journey I have to say I have become a lot more apolitical, and this post justifies just why. Thanks for another fascinating post Steve.

    On an aside I started thinking about whether there was a measure for metacognition (ie are some people more conscious of their thoughts than others.. etc.) and was looking through wikipedia and found this: “Metacognologists believe that the ability to consciously think about thinking is unique to sapient species and indeed is one of the definitions of sapience.[citation needed] There is evidence that rhesus monkeys and apes can make accurate judgments about the strengths of their memories of fact and monitor their own uncertainty,[24] while attempts to demonstrate metacognition in birds have been inconclusive.” Yet more evidence that monkeys are superior to birds!

  7. mufi says:

    Got it, thanks.

    FWIW, I take my lead on this topic, not from psychology, but from political science, as the latter seems the more appropriate level of analysis in this case.

    For example, in the analysis of political scientist Corey Robin (in The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin), “conservatism is … the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” So how do libertarians fit that description, such that we often find them aligned with “family values” (socially conservative) and “law and order” (authoritarian-statist) types, rather than with liberals (or progressives)?

    When the libertarian looks out upon society, he does not see isolated individuals; he sees private, often hierarchical, groups, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees. … This vision of the connection between excellence and rule is what brings together in postwar America that unlikely alliance of the libertarian, with his vision of the employer’s untrammeled power in the workplace; the traditionalist, with his vision of the father’s rule at home; and the statist, with his vision of a heroic leader pressing his hand upon the face of the earth.

    Not that Robin’s conclusion is necessarily correct (although it sounds highly plausible to me), as my point here is that: Exploring the psychological and biological correlates of political behavior, as some popular writers have done (e.g. Mooney, Haidt, and Lakoff), is an interesting pursuit, but let’s not forget that we already have plenty of relevant data at the level(s) of society and culture.

  8. mufi says:

    Bruce: Since I started on my skeptical journey I have to say I have become a lot more apolitical, and this post justifies just why.

    I don’t see the logical connection between skepticism and an apolitical stance.

    To use Steven’s example above of the 5-point questions used in this study, even if you choose #3, thereby avoiding the extremes, you still have to justify that choice somehow, don’t you? In which case, I would argue that you’re taking a political stance (as well as a moral one, btw).

  9. Bruce says:

    A political stance requires a certain adherance to views and beliefs about how society should operate. The more I look at the promises and ways in which politicians act and how they justify their stances, the more fallacies I see.

    I think the root of this is my growing mistrust of the extremes and I find that almost all political stances try to bed themselves in being patriotic in some way, and my skeptical mind is actually quite repelled by the idea that someone deserves more or is better in some way purely based on where they happened to be born. I firmly believe patriotism is really just a form of racism.

    In short, the more I critically think through my now old political stances, the more I see they are based on some very flawed assumptions and where I do fit into a political “side” in one aspect, I very much differ on others.

  10. TheFlyingPig says:


    “So how do libertarians fit that description, such that we often find them aligned with “family values” (socially conservative) and “law and order” (authoritarian-statist) types, rather than with liberals (or progressives)?”

    I’m libertarian and everything about your description and the quoted paragraph is antithetical to my politics. You’re describing specific aspects of conservatism that libertarians strongly disagree with; the reasons we don’t call ourselves conservatives.

  11. mufi says:

    Bruce: So long as different policies lead to different outcomes, some of which we evaluate as preferable to others, we have justification to take an interest in politics.

    For example, on the global warming issue, I would argue that a policy that curbs GHG emissions is a better one than a policy that largely ignores the threat. I don’t have to be 100% certain about that: I need only possess enough knowledge of what the relevant experts predict (i.e. regarding the probable outcomes of different courses of action) and enough self-knowledge about my own values and priorities on which to base an opinion.

    If that’s not skeptical enough for you, then your understanding and practice of skepticism must be way more radical than mine.

  12. TheFlyingPig says:


    “Since I started on my skeptical journey I have to say I have become a lot more apolitical, and this post justifies just why.”

    I’ve experienced a similar change. That is, I’m extremely skeptical of my own political views and so it’s difficult for me to be too strong of an advocate for most of them (or against the opposition). Also, the arguments against most political stances tend to be far more convincing than those in favor of them. This is a problem.

    I also agree on your stance against patriotism, but it’s no fair to call it a form of racism. Instead, I’d call them both forms of tribalism; that is, there is an in-group and an out-group, and people are biased for their own group and against the other(s). I think this system of thinking allows us to better evaluate certain phenomena regarding sports team fans, racism, patriotism, political affiliation, religion, skepticism, etc.

  13. mufi says:

    TheFlyingPig: This probably isn’t the place to defend Robin’s thesis, so suffice it to say that a “vision of the employer’s untrammeled power in the workplace” strikes me as an apt description of libertarianism, and that libertarians would prefer a different (i.e. more flattering) description of their ideology is only to be expected.

  14. pmcdowell says:

    While I agree with you to some extent, I would like to refer you to a self-published paper called “The Authoritarians” by Bob Altemeyer, Associate Professor Department of Psychology University of Manitoba Winnipeg, Canada. He did find a striking increase in dogmatism in conservatives over liberals, and while he is teaching in Cananda is an American.

    Further, his studies indicated that authoritarian followers (they are the key as without followers, leaders wouldn’t be) tend not to actually know much about the subjects about which they are the most dogmatic, and tend to merely spout what they have been told.

    I could go on and on but would prefer to discuss this more with people who had read this paper, which by the way is very readable and quite entertaining as well as enlightening.

  15. ccbowers says:

    “If you question conservatives about abortion, and liberals about nuclear power, you may find that conservatives are more dogmatic – but only because they care more about abortion than liberals do about nuclear power. In other words, the difference in intensity may be at the topic level, and not inherent to the political spectrum.”

    Perhaps, but if conservatives are more prone to having this “intensity” towards topics then this may just describes one mechanism for an increase in dogmatism. Yes, it is clearly influenced by topic, but that does not preclude a role for political spectrum (have you read the comments section of nearly any new article? It is dominated by one aspect of the political spectrum, and the reasonableness level is very low).

    I agree that Mooney’s perspective is flawed… and is clearly too simplistic and incomplete. There are huge factors of American culture and the societal and political structures in the U.S. that are not explained well by his perspective. When you try to see the groups corresponding to conservatism and liberalism in Europe and Japan, for example, his arguments do not hold up as well.

    While I agree that authoritarianism and openness to new ideas do correlate to certain thinking styles, and those thinking styles do correlate to certain political ideologies, the problem is that we are now talking about correlations of correlations, which become far too messy to come up with simple conclusions.

  16. ccbowers says:

    *news articles

    Also, in case it is unclear- the last 2 paragraphs above are my criticisms of Mooney’s arguments, not Steve’s. As usual, I think Steve’s thinking is correct on this topic

  17. sonic says:

    I have read numerous analysis of this situation. This is the best, most even handed by far. It appears Dr. N. has managed to transcend the political (at least for a moment).

    You have started an interesting experiment in claiming the libertarian position has been misrepresented.

    The experiment involves two questions—
    1) will a non-libertarian attempt to correct the error by finding out what the error is?
    2) would it be possible for a non-libertarian to understand the libertarian’s position if they did attempt to correct the error?

    I’m guessing the answer is “no” to both.

    I hope I’m wrong about that– but the unwillingness and/or inability to understand the ‘other’ seems to me to be very basic in the divide you are calling ‘tribalism’.

    (Based on Mufi’s response– I’m right so far… darn it. I really am hoping I’m wrong.)

    I think ‘triabalism’ is a better way to describe what you are saying as well. It is more general and less accusitory.

  18. Bruce says:

    I guess tribalism is an easier pill to swallow, but is it really different aside from semantics? It is not accepting people because they are different in one way or another.

    Mufi, I guess apolitical is perhaps the wrong word, there might not be a word to describe it, but I find myself less and less interested in what politicians have to say and personally I don’t think the different sides of the political spectrums we have (here in the UK as well as in the USA) really make too much of a difference long term. I am not sure this is provable, or disprovable, so not really meaningful in a forum like this, but it is how I feel about the political system.

    FlyingPig also said pretty much exactly how I am these days, and I do find it hard to trust my own political views and I figure while I am not really able to formulate a meaningful rules and policies myself, I am not really qualified to endorse one or another political party.

  19. mufi says:

    sonic: I recommend that you read Corey Robin’s book (or see here), if you’re sincerely interested in understanding how and why he arrives at a conclusion about libertarianism that runs counter to what its advocates publicly say about it. Somehow, I doubt that you are, but it’s worth putting out there, anyway.

  20. mufi says:

    Bruce: I used to feel more politically apathetic than I do now, and while I still wouldn’t quite characterize myself as an activist or a wonk, I would say that by now I’ve consumed enough relevant information (e.g. from journalism, history, and the sciences) to support the conclusion that policies can have big impacts on the quality of life of whole societies and on specific groups and individuals living within them. I wish that I could easily share that process with you, but the truth is that I cannot. You have to feel motivated enough to engage in it yourself.

  21. tmac57 says:

    I keep bringing this up in the context of similar discussions,but I think we keep missing what I believe to be a major and dangerous factor in what is going wrong in political life these days.
    It is not just seeing the facts as supporting either a liberal or conservative ideology(or whatever in-between) differently that is causing the biggest rift,it is that there is an enormous machine of disinformation that is creating “facts” that are driving the more extreme factions in society.
    It’s hard enough to get people to come together and reason on the facts that we agree are in play,but now when you throw in not just spin or distortions,but actual bald face lies that people cannot be disabused of by any amount of reasoning or evidence,then by Jove we have a grave situation regarding the future of reality itself….
    Am I overstating this?

  22. ConspicuousCarl says:

    I would like to see the relative dogmatism of conservative issues broken down into the more religious issues vs. non-religious (e.g., gay marriage vs. capitalism). I suspect the obvious, but maybe the “personal values” aspect is a bigger factor than the religious source.

  23. mufi says:

    I’m reminded of something that journalist Ezra Klein wrote earlier this year:

    If you imagine a policy spectrum that that goes from 1-10 in which 1 is the most liberal policy, 10 is the most conservative policy, and 5 is that middle zone that used to hold both moderate Democrats and Republicans, the basic shape of American politics today is that the Obama administration can and will get Democrats to agree to anything ranging from 1 to 7.5 and Republicans will reject anything that’s not an 8, 9, or 10. The result, as I’ve written before, is that President Obama’s record makes him look like a moderate Republicans from the late-90s.


    Yet, from the “pox on both houses” theme that I detect running through this thread, one might think that both sides of the aisle are equally dogmatic and extreme.

    In case there’s not already a name for this fallacy, I’ll give it one now: the centrist fallacy.

  24. ccbowers says:

    “In case there’s not already a name for this fallacy, I’ll give it one now: the centrist fallacy.”

    I’m not quite sure what you would mean by the centrist fallacy, but I’m thinking that it is similar to ‘the golden mean fallacy,’ a.k.a. ‘argument to moderation.’ Also you may also be implying ‘false balance.’

  25. mufi says:

    ccbowers: Thanks for the fallacy names. I was thinking “false equivalence”, but I thought that “centrist fallacy” had a more poignant ring to it, given the political context.

    If Klein’s thesis is correct, then it seems that the Democrats are more like the party of pragmatists and the GOP is more like the party of dogmatists. Unfortunately, the former still has to make compromises with the latter, given their control of the House (thanks to gerrymandered districting, btw).

    How well these American party categories map to “liberals” and “conservatives” seems rather academic, given practical concerns about the current trends in Washington.

  26. ccbowers says:

    Yeah, ‘false equivalence’ is what I meant to suggest. False balance is related, but is more of a term regarding media treatment of a given topic rather than the more broad informal logical fallacy, ‘false equivalence.’

  27. sonic says:

    thanks for the link. I read some of the links that were linked to. Good stuff.

    From what I can see Robin doesn’t really grasp the issues important to the Libertarian.

    The quick version–
    No employer has any coercive power over me.
    The government where I live does.

    That’s because I’m free to have a contract or not with an employer. That is not the case with the government.

    He is correct in that it is easier to say ‘no’ when one is financially better off than when one is hungry and without a place to stay.
    But I have said ‘no’ in both situations– it really can be done. And having said ‘no’ the person who had been my employer with all the powers that entails was left with no power over me whatsoever.

    I can’t do that with the government. When I say ‘no’ to them I go to prison.

    I think this is a big difference.

    I think the biggest problem in understanding is illustrated by this paragraph–

    “That, it seems to me, is the great divide between right and left: not that the former stands for freedom, while the latter stands for equality (or statism or whatever), but that the former stands for freedom for the few, while the latter stands for freedom for the many. ”We are all agreed as to our own liberty,” wrote Samuel Johnson. “But we are not agreed as to the liberty of others: for in proportion as we take, others must lose. I believe we hardly wish that the mob should have liberty to govern us.” That’s why libertarians like Sanchez can sense so clearly the impending infringement of his freedom while remaining indifferent to the constraints of others.”

    What Robin isn’t understanding is that freedom isn’t a zero sum game.
    Many people can become freer without anyone else losing anything.
    For example- while I might find the boss intolerable and I am free not to be around him– another might actually like the situation.
    In this case I go and the other comes in.
    We both win.

    Until that is understood, I’m not sure there is anyway for Robin to grasp what the Libertarian is looking at.

    This is a quick version- I hope I have gotten the idea across.

  28. Mlema says:

    “No employer has any coercive power over me.
    The government where I live does.”

    If your employers got together, they would have coercive power over you.
    The government is what writes and enforces legislation that prevents such activity.

  29. mufi – regarding the centrist fallacy, I agree that we should not take the moderate or centrist position on any particular issue just because it is centrist. Some issues are very asymmetrical.

    I would, rather, advocate an ideologically neutral approach to specific issues – goals are identified by values, and then evidence is used to determine how best to achieve those goals, rather than supporting policy because it conforms to one’s philosophy.

    I have to disagree with Ezra’s characterization. There are many counter-examples. But I would agree that at present the House Republicans are acting very extreme. By all accounts, the minority of Tea Party Republicans are having a disproportionate effect, made possible by the current intolerable Republican culture that demands purity. There are plenty of Republican moderates, they just are being marginalized.

    This culture, in turn, is a reaction to recent events. It is partly just being the out-party. It is also a continuation of the rise of the religious right, which in part was a reaction to Roe v Wade. The Tea Party was in part a reaction to Obama’s administration, and the current House Republican Tea Party members largely got there in opposition to the Affordable Care Act, which was major legislation squeaked past unified Republican opposition.

    Which comes back to my original point – it is difficult to tease apart historical and sociological influences from inherent personality traits.

  30. sonic says:

    I should have included this– and vice versa.
    I didn’t mean to make this about Libertarianism and you. Sorry about that. I would make the same point about Republicans and Democrats.

    I’ve been a ‘member’ of each of those and a few other parties.
    The people in one group really don’t understand the people in the other group– and as far as I can tell that’s the case for each group I’ve been involved in. You think the people in your group talk bad about the others. Well the others are saying the exact same thing about you.

    It’s the same all around, IMHO.

    and that is an excellent example of why even the most libertarian of libertarians I’ve ever talked to agrees there is a role for government.
    Of course one could have no employer at all.

    Dr. N.-
    Anytime you are identifying goals based on values, you are dealing with ideology.

  31. ccbowers says:

    “Which comes back to my original point – it is difficult to tease apart historical and sociological influences from inherent personality traits.”

    I think the best way to illustrate this point is think across different countries and across time, and how the analogous groups corresponding to conservatives and progressives at those places/times do not fit very neatly to how those groups are structured in the U.S. today. How disparate ideologies cluster into groups (particularly in regards to political parties) is at least partially, if not primarily, determined by historical, cultural, and other situational factors.

    I do think that thinking styles and inherent personality has an important role, but it is too simplistic to emphasize them excessively, as Mooney seems to. To add to the messiness, even thinking style itself, and other factors that are sometimes thought of as aspects of personality can be strongly influenced by circumstances (e.g. war versus peace, prosperity versus poverty, etc)

  32. sonic – but there is a distinction to be made. There is a difference between stating a goal, such as personal freedom, and stating a method for achieving that goal, small government. Both can be thought of as “ideology” but one is a goal or value, the other is a philosophy about how to achieve certain goals.

    What I am saying is that we should strip the discussion down to what our actual values and goals are (and there will be some disagreement there, to be sure), and then use the best evidence available to decide how to achieve those goals, which will require compromise and negotiation in terms of prioritizing goals and trade-offs. What is destructive is ideological adherence to specific methods, despite the evidence. Or, tribalism that causes people to defend a position simply because they identify with the group advocating that position.

  33. mufi says:

    Dr. N: There are plenty of Republican moderates, they just are being marginalized.

    As Norm Ornstein put it: “America’s partisan battle isn’t between Democrats and the GOP — it’s among different elements of the conservative movement.”

    I’ll buy that narrative, at least to some degree, but I also see it as compatible with Ezra Klein’s characterization, quoted above.

    And, since you mentioned the Affordable Care Act, here’s a lengthier quote from Klein’s piece, just to better illustrate the situation we’re in:

    Health care is the most obvious example. The basic architecture of the Affordable Care Act is, as has been pointed out ad nauseum, a Republican idea. It was first proposed in a 1993 plan that had 20 Senate Republicans as co-sponsors. It was passed and implemented by Gov. Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. It was supported by Newt Gingrich. Through much of this time, Democrats viewed it with skepticism: They wanted something closer to single payer, and it seemed borderline offensive to insist that Americans buy products from for-profit insurers. But key Democrats dropped those objections in order to actually pass health reform.

    Republicans could’ve pocketed the Democratic concession as a win. They could’ve celebrated the triumph of their ideas and the Democratic abandonment of single payer. They could’ve used the Affordable Care Act as a vehicle to push some of their other health policy initiatives, like medical malpractice reform, capping the employer tax exclusion, and spreading health savings accounts.

    Instead, they abandoned every idea even vaguely related to the Affordable Care Act. In fact, they pretty much abandoned all ideas related to universal coverage, or even big expansions of coverage. They decided some of them were downright unconstitutional. Today, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor can’t even get high-risk pools past his members. The health policy space on the right is radically narrower than it was a decade ago. If you’re a Republican who hasn’t been willing to change your positions on those issues, you’re a heretic today.

    Of course, no generalization is perfect and I don’t doubt that there remains a spectrum of views within the Republican Party. But like Klein said, it’s a “radically narrower” one than it used to be, whereas the Democratic Party repeatedly displays a willingness to make pragmatic compromises (most recently, on budgetary matters), a fact that is easily overlooked if one merely picks out and compares the ideological extremes of both parties (let alone those who identify with neither party, for whatever reason).

  34. tmac57 says:

    Steve wrote:

    What is destructive is ideological adherence to specific methods, despite the evidence.

    I couldn’t agree more,which is why I feel that the “evidence” portion of this problem needs more scrutiny than the “ideological” portion. Not to marginalize the second,but to focus in on the realization that both sides in a dispute cannot come to any agreement unless they first can agree on what the facts are that they are arguing about.
    To illustrate my point,please take a look at this list of ‘Pants on Fire’ ‘Facts’ that PolitiFact has investigated.Many of the ‘facts’ that they are challenging are the basis on which politicians and their constituents are making their strongest arguments:


  35. ccbowers says:

    “I couldn’t agree more,which is why I feel that the “evidence” portion of this problem needs more scrutiny than the ‘ideological’ portion.”

    The trouble is that ideology can and does become a skewed filter for evidence. If not, ideology would not be the problem that it is. Ideological committments are a fuel for motivational reasoning, and can drive this problem of groups creating their own “facts.” Ideally, looking at evidence would do much of the ‘work,’ but this can only occur if people value the evidence and where it leads more than their ideological committments and where they lead.

    At its extreme, this is the problem of denialism. If it were just about the facts and evidence, then denialism would just be a matter of ignorance, and we know that is much more than that.

  36. sonic says:

    Dr. N.-
    I understand the distinction you make and agree there is a problem when adherence to an ideology gets in the way of solving a problem.
    I do wish we would discuss the goals more openly and allow debate about how to achieve them that aren’t completely ideologically based.

  37. tmac57 says:

    ccbowers- Yes I understand that ideology is driving the process,but what I am getting at,is that it has become a positive feedback loop where people who get fooled into believing erroneous and even slanderous information devolve into ever more partisan and hardened positions,whereas if they were just arguing with their opponents about the same set of facts,the divide most likely would be much narrower.
    In other words,inflammatory lies are driving extremism in people who otherwise would not be that way.The ideological masterminds who create the lies are another case altogether.They need to be called out and shown to be part of the problem instead of part of the solution,but that will take a willingness on everyone’s part to be intellectually honest and let the chips of reality fall where they may.

    It’s the difference between being opposed to Obamacare because you think that the existing system is good enough and worry about what the new system might be like,
    being opposed to Obamacare being ‘rammed down our throats in an attempt to bankrupt America,and usher in a one world government who grabs all our guns while preparing FEMA death camps for rounding up all armed patriots because Obama is an extreme secret Muslim who is the anti-Christ who was born in Kenya and hates and apologizes for America’.
    No wonder someone would be an extremist if they truly believed the latter…right?

    It’s a tough fight to keep the facts out in front of the argument,but one that we cannot afford to abandon.The stakes are too high.

  38. mufi says:

    It’s the difference between being opposed to Obamacare because you think that the existing system is good enough and worry about what the new system might be like…

    I guess there’s no way to say this without sounding partisan and ideological, but anyone who thinks that the existing “system” (which was more of a patchwork of systems) was good enough hasn’t done their homework and/or they hold a perverse sense of the good.

  39. tmac57 says:

    mufi- I think that you and I would probably agree on that point. However, I used that as an illustration of a plausibly moderate concern that an average person might reasonably have if they are mainly concerned about their own situation,and may not be aware of other factors.Basically fear of change.
    After all, it is not like they can directly see the difference between the ACA vs the status quo.
    I would place those having such a concern as, at least , rationally evaluating their risk versus benefit based upon what they know as opposed to an unknown that might not be to their advantage.
    Contrast that with my second scenario. Now the problem becomes their status quo vs some (in their mind) monstrously devious plan hatched by dark forces that want no less than to bankrupt and enslave hundreds of millions of people.
    And I want to point out lest I am accused of creating a strawman in such a comparison,that those are only two hypothetical positions from center to extremist. What I believe is happening,is that the constant drumbeat of extremist rhetoric is nudging even mainstream voters ever so slightly into viewing what was once an easily accepted moderate political position to be perceived as undesirable.
    I liken this to the knee-jerk attitude that is widely shared about the post office,and how “they can’t even get a lousy letter/package from point A to point B”,which is ridiculous hyperbole,yet it becomes ‘common wisdom’,just like the common wisdom that nobody wants Obamacare,yet when polled, a majority of people want the provisions of the ACA. The opposition has succeeded in demonizing Obama through a smear campaign (and I’m not talking about factual criticisms here) and it has stuck,even with people who may have previously supported him.

  40. mufi says:

    tmac57: Fair enough.

    I guess it’s impossible for me to speak on this topic in the abstract, or from a value-neutral “view from nowhere.” As an advocate for universal healthcare coverage, I’ve already made my compromise with the ACA, which I see as a flawed solution, but nonetheless a significant improvement over the status quo. And, while I still know of ideologues on the left who will settle for nothing less than a single-payer solution (e.g. Medicare for All), they are a marginal force in American politics, relative to the extremist Tea-Party wing of the Republican Party and their media outlets (e.g. Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, etc.).

    More to the point, we do ourselves no favors by concealing the identities of these right-wing extremists, who are overwhelmingly the source of the disinformation campaign to which you refer.

  41. locutusbrg says:

    I do agree with the comments here, except tmac 57 comment about mail as an example of complaints. Actually I think mail is one of the perceived healthy parts of the US federal Govt. At least as far as doing what it it is supposed to.
    I like to joke and say that the federal government does three things well. Take your money, kill people, and deliver the mail.

    The ACA is a poorly written and functionally problematic law. It is open for large and troubling unintended consequences.
    That said, you had 4 years and a election to turn this around so shut up!

    Related to Ideology, I am not convinced opposition/favor for the ACA is based on mostly on ideology. It is the basis and a tool not the cause. Political leadership are using ideologues to polarize a political move. TO try to kick this down the road one year closer to the congressional election. Letting all the problems and none of the benefits come due closer to an election in a short sited and forgetful US media/public. Ideology? or politics? In a population fed a constant news feed plus a short attention span this is manipulative but is it ideology? For a few sure, but the reasons why both sides are drawing lines is, in my opinion, more political positioning rather than ideological.
    Despite the media coverage it is the leadership on both sides that are using us (again) to maneuver a political advantage for their party. Ideological reasons are a nice cover to polarize public opinion but not very convincing as a motive for the representatives.
    Yet they have gotten most of us to side up with them a nice little distraction from the real problem. The total lack of any real concern for the united states as a nation or as a population. This country for them is means to an end not a platform to make anything better.

  42. tmac57 says:

    locutusbrg- The U.S. postal system has (wrongly in my opinion) been the butt of jokes and a punchline to many public official’s criticisms of the U.S. government’s so called inability to get anything right for as long as I can remember(50 plus years).
    I accept that your personal experience may not have picked up on this,but it was only yesterday that a caller on The Diane Rehm show on NPR said this exact thing when he called in to complain about the ACA. I am certain that others can back me up on this.

  43. tmac57 says:

    I guess I should hasten to add that it was not my intention to start a debate on the ACA,but it was the easiest,most visible example of a timely topic that most exemplified the kind of disinformation campaign that is motivating people to become more extreme in their ideological position.
    I’m sure that examples of extremists on the left can be found, and are also compelling.

  44. tmac57 says:

    mufi- Believe me,I am right there with you.
    Concerning your statement of:
    “More to the point, we do ourselves no favors by concealing the identities of these right-wing extremists, who are overwhelmingly the source of the disinformation campaign to which you refer.”
    I am not at all sure that anyone is concealing their identities.They seem unabashedly open in their over-the-top rhetoric to the point of exhibitionism…except the (looks left…looks right) you know who brothers (in a whisper) 😉

  45. ccbowers says:

    “Related to Ideology, I am not convinced opposition/favor for the ACA is based on mostly on ideology.”

    You seem to be looking at this from the angle of politicians, and from that perspective, I see where you are coming from. With regards to the general public, it is pretty clearly ideological leanings that determine people’s attitude towards the ACA, aka Obamacare. The general public knows very little about it, yet you will not find a lack of opinions that line up well with people’s opinions of the president himself. ‘The Onion’ had an article recently that points out the mismatch between knowledge and strength of opinion on the topic: “Man Who Understands 8% Of Obamacare Vigorously Defends It From Man Who Understands 5%”

    This talk about the USPS reminds me of the Seinfeld episode in which Jerry delivers mail for Newman in order to help him get a transfer to another location. Newman’s boss becomes suspiscious because “Too many people got their mail! Close to 80%. No body from the post office has ever cracked the 50% barrier! It’s like the 3-minute mile!”
    Yes, they are the brunt of jokes, and yes they do a decent job. Much of this has to do with the nature of the job. There are certain jobs that people take for granted, and the work is only noticed when things don’t go well. So the attitudes tend to range from mildly positive (when things go perfectly) to very negative (when things don’t go perfectly). I think many people can relate to this idea.

  46. mufi says:

    tmac57: That statement wasn’t specifically aimed at you, but if you review the thread, I think you’ll find that many (if not most) of the comments speak of anonymous extremists. At least to my mind, that practice connotes a false equivalence or “pox on both houses” message, which is maladapted to our current political situation here in the US.

  47. mufi says:

    PS: This article from last year (i.e. well before we reached our current level dysfunction in Washington) says it better than I can:

    Polarization also has affected the two parties differently. The Republican Party has drifted much farther to the right than the Democratic Party has drifted to the left. Jacob Hacker, a professor at Yale, whose 2006 book, “Off Center,” documented this trend, told me, citing Poole and Rosenthal’s data on congressional voting records, that, since 1975, “Senate Republicans moved roughly twice as far to the right as Senate Democrats moved to the left” and “House Republicans moved roughly six times as far to the right as House Democrats moved to the left.” In other words, the story of the past few decades is asymmetric polarization.

    Two well-known Washington political analysts, Thomas Mann, of the bipartisan Brookings Institution, and Norman Ornstein, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, agree. In a forthcoming book about Washington dysfunction, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” they write, “One of our two major parties, the Republicans, has become an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

    BTW, you can also find that Mann/Ornstein quote in this article, aptly titled “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem.”

  48. ghulse says:

    I am always impressed with Dr. Novella’s gift for language, mainly his ability to present a concise and coherent overview of a complex subject. I truly believe he’s one of our generation’s most gifted science communicators.

    It’s a shame that the realm of political discussion is so often framed by the conservatism vs. liberalism dichotomy, as Novella suggests. The real world is much more complex. In fact the world of politics, which is usually NOT based on empiricism, is arguably so complicated that people have to resort to heuristic “shortcuts” latching on to one party or another and then digging their heels in even when something comes along to contradict their entrenched views. So from a critical thinking perspective, it’s probably good advice to keep your beliefs at arm’s length, especially when such beliefs are not anchored in science.

    I have always believed (not in a dogmatic way), that the spectrum of political beliefs is ultimately a function of game theory at least in part. We tend to be oriented a certain way: liberal or conservative (usually somewhere in the middle), or along a tangential mode such as libertarianism. These are ultimately just labels and only go so far to peg us into one mode of thought or another. But it’s important to recognize that these warring factions of thought are ultimately a good thing. They’re a built-in system of checks and balance to prevent our tribes (societies) from veering dangerously in one direction or another. Or simply, if everyone was conservative, nothing would ever change. And if everyone was liberal we would be too willing to toss out customs and beliefs that serve to promote social cohesion.

    Thanks for the article.

  49. ghulse says:

    Mufi said:

    (It’s the difference between being opposed to Obamacare because you think that the existing system is good enough and worry about what the new system might be like…

    I guess there’s no way to say this without sounding partisan and ideological, but anyone who thinks that the existing “system” (which was more of a patchwork of systems) was good enough hasn’t done their homework and/or they hold a perverse sense of the good.)

    Aren’t you making an assumption that Obamacare will necessarily improve the quality of our health care? A lot of people seem to make that assumption. It is becoming a truism much like the idea that Bush invaded Iraq because of 9/11. Obama made several promises with respect to the ACA, but the legislation is incredible complex. And, furthermore, there have been a few key changes in Obamacare since it was launched, including the Supreme Court’s ruling that allow states to opt out of the expanded Medicaid provision. So Obamacare is arguably crippled in many ways out of the gate. It’s not going to work as originally intended. How it will come to fare with respect to Obama’s political promises remains to be seen and likely won’t be known for many years.

  50. mufi says:

    ghulse: I’ll be surprised if expanded healthcare coverage does not lead to better/healthier outcomes (e.g. in epidemiological terms), but, strictly speaking, I agree that it’s too early to say for sure.

  51. ccbowers says:

    “I am always impressed with Dr. Novella’s gift for language, mainly his ability to present a concise and coherent overview of a complex subject. I truly believe he’s one of our generation’s most gifted science communicators.”

    The first time I listened to the SGU (maybe 6 years ago), I remember thinking ‘whoever this guy is, he is articulating so clearly what I would say if I could take the thoughts out of my head and put them into words.’

    I think that is his biggest influence – being an example of how to communicate science to an audience, perhaps even more than his promotion of skeptical concepts. The one thing that I’ve realized about nearly all great communicators, is that it is not just about a talent or aptitude for communication. There is a lot of deliberate effort, and it is a skilll that is worked on and thought about more than it may be realized by others. From the outside it looks effortless, but that is the payoff for the effort.

  52. sonic says:

    Here is what is freaking me out about the health care– tell me if this is a republican or democrat thing.
    I’m supposed to have health insurance. Apparently this is now the law. Whatever.
    So I go to find out about this and the first thing I find out is that the type of policy that I want is no longer legal– there are limited choices for the policies. I ask my senator- she assures me she has worked very hard to make sure that the type of policy I want won’t be legal. Whatever.

    So then I find out what they are going to charge me–
    It’s more than I spend on food and shelter combined.

    This all seems a bit much to me. Health insurance that costs more than I spend on food and shelter combined– and I don’t even want the coverage offered– and I have no choice.

    Which type of government does that– conservative or liberal? Or is it both?

    I’m thinking there is no place for people like me in the USA anymore.

  53. BillyJoe7 says:


    “I’m thinking there is no place for people like me in the USA anymore”

    Welcome to Australia!
    We have the best healh care system in the world.
    Full coverage, half the price, twice the result.

  54. ccbowers says:

    “So then I find out what they are going to charge me–
    It’s more than I spend on food and shelter combined.”

    Healthcare costs in the U.S. are very high. A large percentage of the population have been sheltered from that in the past for many reasons: e.g. their employer paid much of it, they were going uncovered or undercovered, etc. Since most people at any given time had health insurance and/or were not sick, the ‘majority’ are under-aware of the healthcare problems with regards to cost and access. Everyone gets sick eventually, so it eventually affects everyone. Now you see the problem and don’t like it. Being aware of the problem is the first step.

  55. tmac57 says:

    For people who insist that they don’t want health insurance,and it is not fair to be forced to buy it,maybe we could work out a deal:

    Those individuals must sign a binding contract that they will either cover their future medical expenses privately,or if they cannot,their only recourse is to go without,or depend on a charity that is completely funded by non-governmental sources,including tax breaks.
    This would also have to apply to their dependents.This would be permanent decision,meaning no going back once you commit.This would be necessary because otherwise once people got in to trouble,they would come crawling back for help,pleading that they didn’t realize what they were getting into.For their dependents,a one time open enrollment could be offered them when they come of age to make their own decisions.

    Think we would have many takers?

    It’s easy to think that you can get by without help when you don’t need it…yet

  56. sonic says:

    Well, before the federal government spent all that time making the healthcare affordable, it cost about half as much for the insurance as it does now.
    Further the type of policy that I would prefer- high deductible, low premium, catastrophic, doesn’t exist.

    When they started this mess we (the USA people) were spending about twice as much for healthcare per person as anyone else in the world, and getting very mediocre results. I guess to make it affordable we should have been paying more like three or four times as much as the places that get better results.

    I wish I found this surprising, but it seems pretty typical.

    I think your solution addresses the very few people who are made of straw.
    I’m not sure your proposal will do much to lower the cost so that the care becomes affordable to the people made of flesh and bones, however.
    (straw man– get it?) 🙂

    The real problem is that the cost is too high.
    One measure of that is we are spending way more per person than anywhere else in the world (at least double before it was made affordable– and the prices have gone up considerably lately) and we are getting worse outcomes than many of the places that spend so much less.

    I was thinking our government would spend some time figuring out how to lower the costs so that they would be more in line with places that get better outcomes.
    It seems the insurance bill should be about 1/2 what it was in 2009 and the system outcomes should be better if this is to be considered a success.

    But the insurance bill is more than double what it was in 2009.

    If I offered you a system that cost over twice as much as anywhere else in the world– and then promised you the system would get worse results than ones that cost much less– you think we’d have any takers?

    About 330 million apparently.

    Thanks. But according to the website widget I can’t become a citizen.
    Is there some trick to it?

    You’re right– our government could have copied exactly any number of other systems that work much better and made it more affordable.

    It really blows me away that to make it affordable the price skyrocketed.

    It all probably looks funny from over there.
    It’s certainly farcical from where I sit.

    I have insurance now and that can continue as long as I want it to, I think — but last time I didn’t have insurance every place I went I offered to pay cash on the spot.
    Each place offered to lower my bill by at least 50%. The xray guy explained that he actually made more money from my visit than the ones where he charged twice as much. It’s a wild situation.

    My sister the health care system maven tells me the system is SNAFU and the AFU is only going to get worse. She tells me I’ll just have to get over it. She’s probably right as usual.

    Getting a bit off-topic here.

  57. tmac57 says:

    sonic- Unless you are willing to come forth with personal details such as income,age,state that you live in,and the current plan that you have (level of coverage, carrier) then I am seriously doubting your claim of having to pay twice as much. That sounds much like the strawman Tea-party bitching about the ACA like their claim that ACA has made costs skyrocket out of control.
    In fact, healthcare costs while still rising,are in fact rising at the slowest rate since 1960 due mainly to a slowdown in the economy (77%),but also changes in the healthcare system account for 23% of that slowing *.
    The ACA was enacted in part to try to address the historic skyrocketing costs and inequities in the system by focusing on removing free riders from the system,improving health outcomes with prevention,modernizing health records,and it also addresses one of the long standing problem of redlining people with pre-exisitng conditions which almost everyone wanted to see addressed.
    A single payer system is what allows other, more progressive countries to enjoy cheaper healthcare with better outcomes,but can you imagine,even in your wildest fantasies,the GOP and Tea-people ever letting THAT happen! Why…that would be the end of freedom for all time I reckon.


  58. ccbowers says:

    “I am seriously doubting your claim of having to pay twice as much. That sounds much like the strawman Tea-party bitching about the ACA like their claim that ACA has made costs skyrocket out of control.”

    It is possible that what he says about premium is correct, but if it is he is comparing apples and oranges. He says that what he wants as coverage doesn’t exist anymore, which means that is doesn’t really qualify as health insurance.

    I don’t know anything about his situation, but much of ACA is health insurance reform, which specifies what qualifies as health coverage. There were a lot of plans that had very limited coverage, and there were even “plans’ that sounded like health insurance, but really were not. Apparently, he wants a plan that does not qualify, which of course is cheaper because it doesn’t cover as much. He is incorrect that healthcare costs have been increasing even more recently, they have actually leveled off some, but of course it is still a problem.

    Once again Sonic extrapolates too much from his narrow experiences to determine his view of the larger picture.

  59. Ian Willmore says:

    What is the definition of “extremism” in this context? Broadly speaking, the “centre” of US politics is to the right of most European countries, which also tend to have a wider spectrum, from what would conventionally be described as far right to far left, represented in their political system at national level. They also generally have a wider selection of “unconventional” ideologies in politics, which do not neatly fit the conventional left-right polarity, including libertarians (which Steve Novella’s original post rightly mentioned), but also greens, nationalists and populists.

    Could this study be replicated in Europe? Would those in Europe whose opinions would be fairly mainstream in their own countries, but would be more likely to be regarded as “extreme” in a US context (for example democratic socialists), be less dogmatic than their US equivalents. If so, why?

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