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Politics really do alter your perception of reality
According to Harvard economists, Democrats and Republicans both perceive reality very wrong.
There are certain debates we may never reach a consensus on. In philosophy, those perennial problems circle around questions of free will, the birth of consciousness, and the nature of mathematical objects. In politics, they focus on the size of government, how to establish a functional immigration system, and how to best promote equitable social mobility.
Unlike philosophy—which is arguably an a priori "armchair" discipline—political arguments can often be fact-checked against verifiable data. If the other side of the aisle bothered to test their beliefs against that information, we imagine, then surely their policy views would shift and the intractable problems of our partisan times could be resolved.
Obviously, it won't be that easy. According to a working paper by Harvard economists, political beliefs don't just shape our convictions; they shape our perception of objective reality.
Different views, equally wrong
The paper is being written by Stefanie Stantcheva, a professor of economics at Harvard University, and Armando Miano, a doctoral candidate. Famed economist Albert Alesina also worked on the paper until his tragic death earlier this year.
According to Stantcheva, the impetus for the research was to get into people's heads to see what really drives their policy views. As she told the Harvard Gazette:
"One thing that we've been doing a lot is to study what we can observe...like what people actually do, what people learn, and what people decide. What we really have not known until now so much is: What's going on in the background? How do people think about their decisions? How do they decide which policies to support or not? How do they reason about these?"
To answer those questions, the researchers sent detailed surveys to thousands of respondents. The surveys covered topics such as social mobility, tax policy, social inequality, and immigration.
To the surprise of no one, Republicans and Democrats sported different views. The difference proved even wider when comparing respondents who did or did not vote for President Donald Trump. But which group had a more distorted view of reality?
As Stantcheva summed it up, "One group is not necessarily more wrong than the other. Everybody's quite wrong."
Signals lost in political white noise
A graph showing Democrat and Republican perceptions of politically-charged facts against the reality of those facts.
For their survey on social mobility, the researchers asked respondents how likely children born in the bottom quintile could rise to the top income bracket. Republicans believed the probability to be 12 percent, while Democrats thought it was 10.5 percent. The true probability is 7.8 percent.
While neither average was too far off, the results show that Americans as a whole overestimate social mobility in their country, and respondents from places were social mobility is lowest, such as the South and Southwest, overestimated the American Dream the most. Conversely, European respondents proved much more pessimistic of social mobility, helping to explain their widespread support of progressive social programs.
To establish causality, the researchers provided a randomly-selected group of respondents with information about social mobility. For example, they may prime respondents with data showing the high probability that rich families stay rich, while poor children struggle to even reach the middle class. The controls received no such information.
Seeing such information made the experimental respondents more pessimistic of social mobility; however, only Democrats became more supportive of progressive social programs. Republicans tended to view the government as the problem, showing that the same factual information "translate[d] into political preferences in different ways based on their other existing perceptions."
"How much you're going to change your belief as a function of that information is going to depend on the weight you put on it, and that weight will depend on what you already think," Stantcheva told the Gazette. "Without interruption, it's just a cycle that will reinforce itself."
The researchers found a similar pattern with their tax policy survey. For example, Republicans and Democrats both underestimated the top income tax rate to be 31 percent and 25 percent respectively. It's 37 percent.
But the starkest disconnect from reality was on immigration. On average, respondents believed immigrants comprised 36 percent of the U.S. population. In fact, foreign-born peoples account for only around 13.5 percent of the U.S. population, a figure that counts both naturalized citizens and undocumented immigrants.
The survey also showed that Democrats and Republicans overestimated the share of Muslim immigrants, underestimated the share of immigrants that graduated high school, and completely missed the mark on the share of immigrants who were unemployed.
Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in 2019 only 3.1 percent of foreign-born workers were unemployed—less than the 3.8 percentage of native-born workers.
The persistence of misperception
How do misperceptions persist despite verifiable facts being a mere Google search away?
One reason, the researchers note, is that such issues are permeated by political narratives. Even if a signal cuts through that noise, we're operating on different frequencies. As shown in the social mobility survey, our perceptions will lead us to weigh its value based on its narrative use, not its empirical merit.
They also note that the demand for accurate information is politically charged, too. In one experiment, respondents were allowed to pay a randomized amount to receive accurate information about immigration in the United States. Care to guess who was least likely to pony up?
"The people who most need the information are going to be the least likely to seek out that information. It seems that either they don't realize that they're wrong, or they're just very entrenched in their beliefs, and do not want their beliefs to be changed," Stantcheva told the Gazette.
But Stantcheva and her fellow researchers aren't entirely pessimistic about the future. By understanding the political thought process and how we create our own reality barriers, we may be able to intervene in that process and let a more accurate picture of reality seep through.
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What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.