Can Data Literacy Protect Us from Misleading Political Ads?

Walter Frick at Harvard Business Review: “It’s campaign season in the U.S., and politicians have no compunction about twisting facts and figures, as a quick skim of the fact-checking website Politifact illustrates.

Can data literacy guard against the worst of these offenses? Maybe, according to research.

There is substantial evidence that numeracy can aid critical thinking, and some reason to think it can help in the political realm, within limits. But there is also evidence that numbers can mislead even data-savvy people when it’s in service of those people’s politics.

In a study published at the end of last year, Vittorio Merola of Ohio State University and Matthew Hitt of Louisiana State examined how numeracy might guard against partisan messaging. They showed participants information comparing the costs of probation and prison, and then asked whether participants agreed with the statement, “Probation should be used as an alternative form of punishment, instead of prison, for felons.”

Some of the participants were shown highly relevant numeric information arguing for the benefits of probation: that it costs less and has a better cost-benefit ratio, and that the cost of U.S. prisons has been rising. Another group was shown weaker, less-relevant numeric information. This message didn’t contain anything about the costs or benefits of parole, and instead compared prison costs to transportation spending, with no mention of why these might be at all related. The experiment also varied whether the information was supposedly from a study commissioned by Democrats or Republicans.

The researchers scored participants’ numeracy by asking questions like, “The chance of getting a viral infection is 0.0005. Out of 10,000 people, about how
many of them are expected to get infected?”

For participants who scored low in numeracy, their support depended more on the political party making the argument than on the strength of the data. When the information came from those participants’ own party, they were more likely to agree with it, no matter whether it was weak or strong.

By contrast, participants who scored higher in numeracy were persuaded by the stronger numeric information, even when it came from the other party. The results held up even after accounting for participants’ education, among other variables….

In 2013, Dan Kahan of Yale and several colleagues conducted a study in which they asked participants to draw conclusions from data. In one group, the data was about a treatment for skin rashes, a nonpolitical topic. Another group was asked to evaluate data on gun control, comparing crime rates for cities that have banned concealed weapons to cities that haven’t.

Additionally, in the skin rash group some participants were shown data indicating that the use of skin cream correlated with rashes getting better, while some were shown the opposite. Similarly, some in the gun control group were shown less crime in cities that have banned concealed weapons, while some were shown the reverse…. They found that highly numerate people did better than less-numerate ones in drawing the correct inference in the skin rash case. But comfort with numbers didn’t seem to help when it came to gun control. In fact, highly numerate participants were more polarized over the gun control data than less-numerate ones. The reason seemed to be that the numerate participants used their skill with data selectively, employing it only when doing so helped them reach a conclusion that fit with their political ideology.

Two other lines of research are relevant here.

First, work by Philip Tetlock and Barbara Mellers of the University of Pennsylvania suggests that numerate people tend to make better forecasts, including about geopolitical events. They’ve also documented that even very basic training in probabilistic thinking can improve one’s forecasting accuracy. And this approach works best, Tetlock argues, when it’s part of a whole style of thinking that emphasizes multiple points of view.

Second, two papers, one from the University of Texas at Austin and one from Princeton, found that partisan bias can be diminished with incentives: People are more likely to report factually correct beliefs about the economy when money is on the line…..(More)”