I Was Wrong, and So Are You: Our political leanings leave us more biased than we think
BACK IN JUNE 2010, I published a Wall Street Journal op-ed arguing that the American left was unenlightened, by and large, as to economic matters. Responding to a set of survey questions that tested people’s real-world understanding of basic economic principles, self-identified progressives and liberals did much worse than conservatives and libertarians, I reported. To sharpen the ax, The Journal titled the piece “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?”—the implication being that people on the left were not.
The op-ed set off fireworks. On The Journal’s Web site, the piece peaked at No.2 in most-e-mailed for the month it was published. The Examiner, in Washington, D.C., ran two opinion pieces in response, one approving and one critical. (The latter noted, correctly, that conservatives were “happily disseminating the results across the right-wing blogosphere.”) The Washington Timesreported, “Liberals Livid Over Economic Enlightenment Gauge.” My inbox exploded with messages haranguing me for cynically rigging my results or blessing me for providing proof of a long-suspected truth.
The Wall Street Journal piece was based on an article that Zeljka Buturovic and I had published inEcon Journal Watch, a journal that I edit. In short order, more than 10,000 people downloaded a PDF of the scholarly article. The attention, while slightly unnerving, was also pleasing, and I’ll confess that I found the study results congenial: I’m a libertarian, and I found it easy to believe that people on the left had an especially bad grasp of economics.
But one year later, in May 2011, Buturovic and I published a new scholarly article reporting on a new survey. It turned out that I needed to retract the conclusions I’d trumpeted in The Wall Street Journal. The new results invalidated our original result: under the right circumstances, conservatives and libertarians were as likely as anyone on the left to give wrong answers to economic questions. The proper inference from our work is not that one group is more enlightened, or less. It’s that “myside bias”—the tendency to judge a statement according to how conveniently it fits with one’s settled position—is pervasive among all of America’s political groups. The bias is seen in the data, and in my actions.