Content Editor: Adam Daroff

Monday, July 10, 2017

How to Learn About Science Like a Scientist

Politics these days can feel like a war between those who believe in science and those that don’t. Many conservatives are ignoring the scientific consensus on climate change, while President Trump lives in a word of "alternative facts," yelling "fake news!" at any scientific results he doesn't like. But conservatives aren't the only ones who have trouble with science. No matter what side they're coming from, media reports about science almost never the whole story, and sometimes they get it totally wrong.

 As a scientist, this has been a pet peeve of mine for a while, so I was thrilled to find1 this excellent piece on Last Week Tonight, where John Oliver breaks down this issue:

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Breaking News: 0.00003% of Trump supporters said something dumb on Twitter

Did you see this? NPR Tweeted Declaration Of Independence, And Trump Supporters Flipped Out.

 I have to admit, I got a rush of Shadenfreude when I heard about this – it confirms everything thing I believe about how dumb Trump supporters really are.

But then I took a step back, and remembered that I hate stories that treat the internet comments of a few dozen people as “news,” and then use it to make claims about how millions of Americans think and act.

I know it's just meant to be fun, but I think that these sorts of articles are actually harming our ability to be talk intelligently and persuasively about politics, by feeding our most powerful biases and making us worse at constructing good arguments.

Friday, May 26, 2017


What do you think about this?

 I can only imagine what's going through your head. What kind of short-sighted idiot would say such a thing?

This is America after allThe freedom to "defy" and oppose the President is at the very core of who we are as a country.  Heck, it's practically out duty as citizens to oppose our leaders when they do something evil or stupid.

After all, this isn't a dictatorship....yet.

The fact that people actually believe this sort of thing about Trump just shows how dangerous he is.


Another Side to the Story?

Earlier I wrote a post about how our political beliefs influence the way all of us perceive things in politics. 

I see a conservative making some argument to advance their point of view and I think to myself "that's a terrible argument." But if a liberal used the exact same argument to advance a liberal position, I might see it as totally legit.

I said that this happens to all of us all the time, but that you're probably not going to believe me that it happens to you, because one of our strongest cognitive biases is the mistaken belief that we're somehow immune to cognitive bias. 

You probably still didn't believe me.

Now let's go back to this meme. There's something I didn't tell you before

This meme isn’t real.

Adam, who edits this blog, Photoshopped it for this post. He just made one slight change to a widely circulated liberal meme from a few years ago.

Now what do you think? This meme is responding to a statement Rush Limbaugh’s made in 2009, where he said that he hoped Obama “fails, and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell's quip that his "top priority" was making Obama a "one term president."

At the time there was a lot of GOP “obstruction” of Obama’s agenda, and Democrats were ticked about it. This wasn't the only meme that used the word "treason" to describe what the GOP was doing:

These memes used provocative (and, in retrospect, kind of scary) language to get Democrats to like and share them, trusting that Democrats would be so swept up in the moment that they wouldn't see how terrible these arguments actually were.

They’ve since forgotten this whole episode, but the GOP hasn’t.

The Obama "treason" meme is now getting circulated, for real, on conservative social media feeds, and making Democrats seem like hypocrites, and fascists. But I wonder how many of those same conservatives would have liked our new “Trump” meme if they hadn’t already seen this one?

Cognitive Bias is no Joke

None of us are totally immune to cognitive bias. But we can be better about recognizing when it might be affecting us.

Here's an exercise. The next time you see an incendiary meme, like one of these, with a politician's face and some provocative slogan, take a moment, and mentally "flip" the photo.

If it's a photo of Trump, pretend it's Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. If the meme's praising Bernie, pretend it's praising Trump (or Hillary, if you're not a fan of her either.) If the meme is attacking "the other guy," pretend it's attacking "your guy,"  and vice versa. Now how do you feel? Does the argument still hold up, or is there something missing?

This can be uncomfortable. But if we want to make good arguments, and not get sucked in by bad ones, it's important to at least try.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Don't Get Distracted

Effective activism in the Trump era is largely about deciding where to funnel your energy. You can’t have a march or rally or an internet campaign about every crazy tweet Trump fires off. You need to pick your battles and focus on the stuff that really makes a difference to people’s lives.

This is harder than it sounds.

The Terrible Budget that Doesn’t Matter

On March 18th President Trump released his budget proposal and liberals on the internet went bananas. They had a good reason to be concerned. The budget proposed slashing funding for a number of critical departments and programs, like the National Institute of Health:
…and even the program that funds “Meals on Wheels”

These memes make it sound that we need to ensure that Trump’s budget isn’t passed, in order to protect our health, and our seniors. 

But what these memes don’t tell you (and what their authors might not even know) is that even in the unlikely event that Trump's budget passes, it wouldn’t have any impact on the funding of any of these programs.

That sounds too bizarre to be true, but to understand why it is you have to spend a few minutes wading through…

The American Federal Budget Process!

Don't fall asleep. Don't zone out. Even though it's boring, it's important to understand this.

Here’s how the federal budget process works in a nutshell:

Step 1: Every year the president proposes a budget (like Trump did back in March), outlining how much money they think should be allocated to each program and department in the federal government

Step 2: The proposal gets submitted to Congress, which usually ignores it and comes up with its own budget proposal

Step 3: Congress passes a “budget resolution.”

Step 4: None of this matters.

The “budget resolution” that comes out of Congress isn’t legally binding in any way. It’s just a suggestion of how much money Congress thinks it would be nice to spend on various things. It has no legal authority and doesn’t actually allocate real money to anything. 

That means that if Trump proposed a budget saying that he wanted to cut all funding to the Department of Education and use the money to pay for a giant gold statue of himself on the National Mall, and Congress passed it, nothing would happen. 

The budget resolution is just a wish-list. Which makes the President’s budget proposal a wish-list for things he’d like to be on the wish-list. So it's basically another big campaign speech, full of promises he knows he can't keep. Everyone in Washington knows this.1

The reason we go through the "budget show" every year is partly tradition, partly a vain hope that one day we'll actually follow the budget recommendations, and partly because it gives the President a chance to outline his priorities in a way that people are sure to notice, because most Americans don't understand that it doesn't matter.

 So How Do We Actually Decide How Much Money the Government Spends on Stuff?

The reason that the Federal budget doesn't really matter is that, unlike individual states, the Federal government doesn't have to balance its budget every year.  If we want to spend more money than we have, we just borrow whatever we need.

Of course when you borrow money you eventually have to pay it back, and intelligent people in the US disagree about how much the US can borrow before it becomes a big problem.2

But because we don't need to make sure everything follows a budget it’s the much less visible appropriations process that actually determines how much money gets allocated to different programs and departments. The appropriations process is simple. Congress passes an omnibus spending bill which allocates a bunch of money to different parts of the federal government, and the President signs it. 

But this one matters. If you are a Federal department, you only get money if the spending bill says you do. And if Congress can’t pass a spending bill before the last one expires, then the government shuts down. 

The 2017 “Budget” that Actually Matters

Last Friday Trump signed the omnibus spending bill sent to him by Congress, which will fund the government until next September. It’s huge and complicated but here are some highlights:

Planned Parenthood is still funded!

Meals on Wheels is still funded!

The National Institute of Health gets $2 billion increase in funding

It’s not all good news for Liberals of course. 

The Department of Education loses $1.2 billion -- $68 billion, down from $69.2 billion. The Environmental Protection Agency loses $0.2 billion -- $8 billion, down from $8.2 billion. On the other hand, none of the additional $1.5 billion for border security can go towards building Trump's wall. 

Picking the Wrong Battles

We can't solve everything. If we pick up the phone for every congressional vote or executive order, we'll get burned out, and lose passion. If we take to the internet after every Tweet, our message becomes diluted.  That means we need to focus on what's really important, and not waste energy on what's not.

All of the effort activists put into "saving" Meals on Wheels and Planned Parenthood from Trump's budget was wasted energy - because those programs weren't in serious danger anyways - or at least, not from Trump's budget.. 

Unlike many activists, Democratic members of Congress knew that the budget was a smokescreen, and without any support from their activist base, they forced the GOP and Trump to accept a funding bill that preserved key liberal priorities.

But there will be times where activism is necessary, and when that time comes we don't want to be distracted by protesting something that doesn't actually matter.

Trump understands this. He's a master of misdirection. He fires off an inflammatory Tweet, or makes some bone-headed statement (like "I didn't know being President would be so hard!) and liberal activists go nuts – pulling up old Tweets where Trump said exactly the opposite of what he’s saying now, providing “fact checking,” and doing a genuinely awesome job of making Trump look like an idiot.

And while everyone is distracted by all this Trump has an opportunity to sign an executive order, or move a bill through Congress, which can actually impact people's lives but which isn’t as obviously inflammatory. And because activists are distracted by his tweet they don’t notice.

The problem is that “important stuff” is often boring and complicated. You might have to dig a little harder, and learn a little more about the way government works in order to even understand what the issue is. 

So What About Health Care?

The American Health Care Act that the House passed last week is one of those things that really matters. For one thing, unlike Trump's budget proposal, the ACHA really would cut funding for Planned Parenthood. You've probably already heard about all the other stuff it would do as well.

 However,  the ACHA is still a long way from becoming law. The Senate (which tends to move pretty slowly) has to debate and pass their own version, and then the House has to vote on it again  to approve whatever changes the Senate made. Then Trump has to sign it. So if you care about this bill, there is a lot of time to make your voice heard. But it's important not to get distracted.

In the next few weeks Trump will probably say or Tweet something so crazy that you can't help but rant about it. It might be about the Civil War, or science, or CNN, or Mexicans, or chocolate cake. It will make him sound like a total moron. It will make us laugh at how dumb he is. But if we focus on that and forget about the huge, complicated health care bill wending it's way through Congress, Trump will be the one who laughs last.


Congress often doesn’t even bother to pass a budget resolution. It didn’t pass a one in 2011, 2012 2013, 2013 or 2015. But it passed one in 2016. But because none of this really matters, you probably didn't notice.

There are a bunch of reason why it's so difficult to agree on whether it's OK for the US to keep borrowing money every year. One reason is that "money" is something that the government (really the Federal Reserve, or the "Fed" for short) creates in the first place. The Fed can create new money out of thin air (some people don't like that this is how money works, but it's how basically every other country in the world has been doing things for the past 50 years or so). But if it creates too much money, really bad things (like hyperinflation) can happen. The other issue is that when the US government borrows money it's often borrowing it from....other parts of the US government. The Federal government borrows money by issuing Treasury Bonds, and one of the biggest buyers of Treasury Bonds is the Social Security program's trust fund. Right now the US government owes Social Security around $2 trillion. So does that mean the government owes itself $2 trillion? What does that even mean? Well, it depends on how you look at it. If all this sounds insanely complicated you're correct, and hopefully this helps to explain why questions about whether the US is borrowing "too much" are really difficult to answer.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

This is Your Brain on Bias

These days it seems like Trump and his supporters are living in their own alternate universe. If you've ever tried to talk to a Trump voter about politics, you know how frustrating it can be. It's like they refuse to accept basic facts about reality, even when the proof is right in front of their eyes, but they're willing to believe whatever "fake news" they read online, or whatever crazy thing Trump says, even if there's no evidence at all.

What do we do about this?

Clearly conservatives just need to stop being dumb and admit that we’re correct, right? Our views are supported by science and data; theirs are not.

But it's not that simple.

Remember This?

To me, this is obviously a white dress with gold trim. Maybe you agree with me, or maybe you're one of those people who sees it as a blue dress with black trim. While the internet was losing its collective mind arguing about this in 2015 someone found out that the dress really is blue and black. But even after learning that, I still can't help but see is as white and gold, no matter how hard I try. If you're part of team "blue and black" I probably sound crazy.

How can different people disagree so profoundly about something so simple as the color of a dress? 

"The Dress" highlights a quirk on how all of our minds work. When we perceive things in the world, like a picture of a dress, we don't just "see it," we construct it.

How Do We Actually SEE Things?

The problem is that we can’t get all the information we need to actually “see” things from our eyes alone. Our brains have to do a lot of additional work to transform the patterns of light that shine on our eyes into actual perceptions.
What are we looking at here? It's obviously a sphere covered in pointy spikes. But what your eyes "see" is just a bunch of black triangles, some with rounded bottoms. Without you ever being aware of it your brain "fills in the blanks" and makes you "see" a three dimensional spiky ball.

My brain (like yours) knows that colors look different in different kinds of light. So when I see a picture of a dress on the internet, my brain needs to decide what sort of light the dress is under, before it can "tell" me what color it actually is. But the photo of "The Dress" is ambiguous enough that different people's brains end up making different assumptions, and so we “see” the dress differently.1 My brain tells me, "sure the color of the dress looks blue, but white things look blue when they're in the shade, so what you are seeing is actually a white dress." No matter how smart we are, we can sometimes get fooled by what we see, just because of the way our brains are wired.

It's Tough Being a Brain

This sort of “construction” doesn’t just happen with visual images. When I put a piece of paper in a drawer my brain tells me that it’s still there, even though I can’t see it. When I kick a soccer ball my brain tells me that my foot caused the ball to start moving - it wasn’t just some freak coincidence that it decided to fly off right then for no reason. 2 Our brains are doing this sort of thing all the time without us ever being aware of it.

But, as “The Dress” makes clear, sometimes the "tricks" our brains use to help us live in the world end up leading us astray.

Try reading this sentence:


Notice anything odd? Read it again. Still don't see it? Try reading it aloud, one word at a time.3

When confronted with something familiar, our brain tries to make things easier for us. It says "Oh, I know this one. You don't have to bother reading every word, I've already figured out what the sentence means." But when we do that we end up missing important details. The good news is that, like in this example, sometimes our brains get things wrong in really predictable ways. We make the same sorts of mistakes over and over again. Psychologists call these mental goofs “cognitive biases.”

Cognitive Bias

We all know about bias, and we're quick to point it out when we see it. Cops are biased against Blacks. Employers are biased against women. Fox News is biased against liberals. But the things we call "bias" are really just the most obvious examples of how "cognitive biases" impact the way all of us think about politics, and everything else for that matter.

Psychologists have identified hundreds of different types of cognitive biases and studied how they lead us astray. In 2011 the psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on cognitive bias, and his collaborator Richard Thaler made a cameo in The Big Short to help Selena Gomez explain how cognitive bias led to the 2009 financial crisis.4

Because these cognitive biases come from the way the human brain processes information, none of us are immune. Declaring yourself to be "above bias" is like claiming that you are immune to cancer, or don't need to breathe - it's a biological impossibility. 

That probably won't stop you from thinking to yourself, "Not me! I'm not biased!"

Psychologists study this too. They've found that even after we learn about cognitive biases we think they don't apply to us. And then we still get fooled just as badly as before.5

Wishful Thinking

I want to focus on a kind of cognitive bias that's really important for understanding “fake news,” and politics in general:

When we want things to be true, we find it easier to believe that they are true.

Nowadays psychologists use the terms "confirmation bias," "myside bias" and "motivated reasoning" when they study this general tendency, but we’ve known that this happens for a long time. Over 2,500 years ago the Greek historian Thucydides6 observed that:

“It is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy.”

This is confirmation bias in a nutshell. Humans have been falling for it for thousands of years, and none of us are immune. Take this online quiz to see for yourself how powerful it can be.

Confirmation bias is why we tend to believe election polls when they tell us our candidate is winning, but think that polls are bogus when they tell us our candidate is losing.

It’s why we shout “I love science!” when we read that the headline: “recent study shows that thing you believe is probably true!” but we just sort of skip over headlines that say “recent study shows that thing you believe is probably false!” 

And it's why people believe "fake news."

Fake news and Confirmation Bias

When Trump tweets that millions of undocumented voters cost him the popular vote, or that Obama wiretapped Trump tower, his supporters believe him, even though he didn’t provide any evidence. It seems “obvious” to them that these statements are true - the same way that The Dress seems “obviously” white and gold to me.

But at the same time, many liberals are quick to believe any allegation about Trump being a puppet of the Kremlin. Even though the evidence of that right now is pretty limited, we assume that there must be a “smoking gun” somewhere, we just have to find it.

Trump may well have colluded with Putin to rig the 2016 election. Certainly there is some evidence that something shady might have been going on. But everything we know about how our brains work suggests that liberals like me are going to be biased in our evaluation of these allegations.

Let's say that one day I read that an anonymous source claims that Trump personally asked Putin to help him win the election.

The next day I read that a second anonymous source claims that the Democrats manufactured evidence to tie Trump to Russia.

Both of these stories are based on anonymous sources, with no corroboration. I don't have a good reason to believe one over the other. But because I'm a liberal I'm more likely to believe the first source than the second.

Setting a Good Example

Admitting your own biases is a great way to avoid being wrong about things and making a fool of yourself when reality comes crashing down. But it’s also essential if we want to convince people to stop believing “fake news.” Whenever liberals fall for confirmation bias, it provides ammunition to people like Trump, who can point to “liberal fake news” as a way of deflecting from their own bogus claims.

Just this year The Atlantic published a provocative piece on conservative efforts to mandate ultrasounds as part of a pro-life agenda. It was a piece of “cheering” designed to be read only by liberals, but conservatives read it too, and they picked out tons of factual errors. The Atlantic eventually issued an official correction (buried at the bottom of the article), but it’s pretty embarrassing:

“This article originally stated that there is "no heart to speak of" in a 6-week-old fetus. In fact, the heart has already begun to form by that point in a pregnancy. The article also originally stated that an expectant mother participating in a study decided to carry her pregnancy to term even after learning that the fetus was suffering from a genetic disorder, when in fact.....

[This goes on for a while. I'll just skip to the end]

...... the article originally stated that John Kasich vetoed a bill from Indiana's legislature, instead of Ohio's legislature, after which the article was incorrectly amended to state that Mike Pence had vetoed the bill. We regret the errors.”

This journalistic train wreck was seized upon by the right wing press to show that the left is guilty of “fake news” as well.

The liberal editors at The Atlantic didn’t notice all of these errors because of their natural bias towards accepting liberal conclusions. But conservatives had no trouble noticing them, because conservatives aren’t biased towards accepting liberal conclusions - they’re biased towards accepting conservative conclusions. This is important:

Conservatives are often better at spotting biased liberal reporting that liberals are, not because conservatives are less biased (they're not) but because of the way that their biases work.

What Can We Do?

Not all bias is equal. Even The Atlantic’s massive screw up was based on some evidence, and when the editors realized they were wrong they admitted it. Trump often makes claims based on no evidence whatsoever, and never even thinks about admitting he was wrong.

If we want to call him out, and have moderates and conservatives take us seriously, we have to show them that we’re better than this. In order for it to mean something when we call out bias and fake news on the right, we need to also call it out on the left.

We need to admit that our own political beliefs bias the way we process information.

My own strategy goes something like this. When I see a piece of political news that I want to be true, I force myself to stop for five seconds and at least consider the possibility that it might be false. When I see a piece of political news I don’t want to be true, I force myself to stop for five seconds and at least consider the possibility that it might be true. Even if this doesn’t cause me to change my mind, it’s a good way to keep from getting completely sucked in by my own confirmation bias.

The better we get at this, the more convincing and effective our attacks on “fake news” will be. We also won't be wrong quite so often, which would be a nice bonus.


1 Check out the 2017 paper by Witzel et al. below for the full physiological explanation of what's going on with "The Dress"

2 Even before modern psychology philosophers like Kant had already argued that our mind must construct our perceptions, by "adding on" things like causality. Nowadays philosophers tend to say that "perception is theory laden" - meaning that our perceptions of reality are never totally pure, but are always filtered through our "theories" (which could just be unconscious mental assumptions)

3 The word "The" appears twice. I borrowed this example from Nassim Taleb's book The Black Swan.

4 Kahneman's excellent, and best-selling book Thinking Fast and Slow is an excellent guide to the power of cognitive bias. Michael Lewis (of Money Ball and The Big Short fame) also wrote an excellent, and very readable biography of Kahneman and his collaborator Amos Tversky called The Undoing Project which is also a great intro to their work on bias.

5 In her 2002 paper, the psychologist Emily Pronin calls this the "Bias Blind Spot." 

The Peloponnesian War, 4:108.4 (p. 266)


Kant, Immanuel (1990) Critique of Pure Reason (J. M. D. Meiklejohn, Trans.). Amherst, NY. Prometheus Books

Kahneman, Daniel (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow. New York, NY. Farrar, Straus and Girox.

Lewis, Michael. (2017). The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed our Minds. New York, NY. W.W. Norton & Co.

Pronin, E., Lin, D. Y., & Ross, L. (2002). The Bias Blind Spot: Perceptions of Bias in Self Versus Others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(3), 369-381.

Taleb, Nassim N. (2007). The Black Swan: The impact of the highly improbable (Vol. 2). New York, NY: Random House.

Thucydides (1951) The Peloponnesian War (R. Crawley, Trans. J. Finley, Jr, , Ed.). New York, NY. Random Rouse.

Witzel, C., Racey, C., & O'Reagan, J. K. (2017). The most reasonable explanation of ‘‘the dress’’: Implicit assumptions about illumination. Journal of Vision, 17(2), 1-19. 

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Political Persuasion 101

If your social media feed is anything like mine, you probably see a lot of political memes like these:

Memes are funny, and they can be insightful. But sometimes we get fooled into thinking they’re persuasive. They're not.

Take that “Obamacare” meme. For many conservatives it felt like an “epic burn” to liberal supporters of the Affordable Care Act.

But if you’re a liberal like me, it doesn’t even make sense. Obamacare isn’t a “thing” you can “have.” It’s an individual mandate to purchase health insurance, a Medicaid expansion, a bunch of regulations, and tons of other stuff. But aside from that, it’s not even clear what point this meme is making. Why wouldn’t Democrats want to be “first in line” to “have” Obamacare?

The meme only makes sense when you realize that the author just can’t wrap his or her mind around the fact that some people actually like Obamacare. In the world this author lives in, that's not something that's even conceivable.

We can laugh, but the liberal “Willy Wonka” meme is no better.

This meme is making the argument that Obama obviously couldn’t have been the worst President ever because George W. Bush was clearly so much worse. Maybe that sounds reasonable to you and me, but to a conservative it would make no sense at all. After all, the reason a conservative would want to say that Obama was the worst President ever was because they thought he was so much worse than the guy who was President right before him.

Sure, lots of bad stuff happened in the Bush years, like 9/11, the financial crisis, and the Iraq war, but most conservatives don’t think all of that stuff was Bush’s fault, just like liberals don’t think that the rise of ISIS was Obama’s fault. Maybe conservatives are wrong - maybe all that bad stuff really was Bush’s fault, but this meme doesn’t make that argument. It assumes that you already think that Bush’s presidency was terrible. But anyone who believes that probably doesn't also think Obama was the worst President ever. 

In both of these cases we have “arguments” that appear persuasive to the people who already agree with them, but which are unpersuasive (or incomprehensible) to the very people they are supposedly trying to persuade. If you look through your social media feed you'll see that most political memes are like this.

The Art of Persuasion

Persuading people to change their minds about politics is an essential part of political activism. This is especially true in America where there are roughly equal numbers of Liberals and Conservatives. If you are a liberal activist and you want to win elections and actually change policy then you are going to need to convince at least some conservatives to stop being so conservative.

The study of rhetoric (the art of persuasion by language) goes all the way back to Aristotle and Cicero, and with 2,000 years of research, we can say pretty definitively that, when it comes to political rhetoric - Americans suck. We're just terrible. We’re so bad at rhetoric that we can't even recognize when we’re doing it and when we’re not.

Persuasion and Cheering. 

There are lots of times, like when we post political memes, where we think that we’re engaging in rhetoric with people who disagree with us, but we’re not really doing rhetoric or persuasion at all. We’re doing something else. The best word I can come up with is “cheering.”

Cheering is what we do with a group of people when we all want to express how we feel about something. At a sporting event or concert or rally, when something happens that we all enjoy we let out a cheer. Similarly, when something happens that we all dislike, we all shout “Boo!” together. Same basic concept.

Cheering isn’t bad. It’s fun and cathartic and therapeutic. It lets us know we’re not alone, that we’re part of a group of people who see things the same way. It gives us hope and comfort and passion, and it’s an essential part of activism. But only a part.

Even Micah White, who co-founded Occupy, now says that, if we want to produce social change, we need to move beyond protests and memes. We need to move beyond cheering and start being persuasive.

The big problem is that we sometimes get confused and think that we’re engaging in rhetoric when we’re really just cheering. Then we start to think that, because our opponents aren’t persuaded by cheering, that they can’t be persuaded at all. 

In reality, we haven’t even tried.

What makes a "good" argument?

In recent years liberals have argued that White Male Privilege pervades American culture. We’ve argued that Black Lives Matter and that diversity is essential to American prosperity and that Consent is Sexy and that No means No.

And then Donald Trump ran for President. He bragged about committing sexual assault, made countless disparaging remarks about minorities and immigrants, blamed America’s problems on people with brown skin, and sixty million Americans voted for him anyways.

That doesn’t mean that they’re right and we’re wrong. But it does mean that our arguments must not have been very good, because they didn’t persuade these people to not vote for Trump.

A good argument is one that persuades your opponent to change their mind. 

Here’s the weird thing about rhetoric. When it comes to persuasion, the only thing that makes an argument good or bad is whether your opponent finds it convincing. 

The fact that you think it’s a good argument doesn’t matter at all because you’re not the one who you’re trying to persuade! I could make an argument that follows all the rules of formal logic, and which is backed by with flawless data, but if it doesn’t convince you then, by definition, it can't be a "good" argument.

We can complain that are arguments about structural racism and White Privilege would have convinced Americans to not vote for Trump if only they hadn’t been so stupid and unenlightened.

But that would be like me complaining that I would have won a game of basketball if only the net weren’t so high.

If we want to persuade people to change their minds in reality, then we have to live in reality – where basketball hoops are 10 feet tall, being "conservative" is more popular than being "liberal," and almost 70% of Americans think that Blacks can overcome prejudice themselves, without any special favors.1 That's the field we have to play on.

Liberal Rhetoric Fail

In fact, many Trump voters say that our arguments actually made them more likely to support Trump. Remember the way Trump's supporters started calling themselves “deplorable” after Hillary Clinton used that term? 

This is something that moderates (and even some liberals) have been saying for a while – that liberal rhetoric is actually making them more conservative. One recent example is the gay, formerly liberal journalist Chadwick Moore. After he published a (critical) profile of ex-Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, Chadwick Moore was shunned by his liberal friends, and called a Nazi and a White Supremacist by internet commentators, for even giving Yiannopoulos a voice in his column.

Now he tweets things like this:
Maybe Moore is wrong and his critics were right. But from a rhetorical perspective, this is about as bad you can get. You had someone who already agreed with you, and by talking to them, you somehow convinced them that you were wrong.

Liberal Rhetoric Win

Now look at Megan Phelps-Roper, who grew up in the virulently fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church. Phelps-Roper's views on politics and religion were far more extreme than anything Trump or his supporters have ever said. She called 9/11 "awesome," and waved signs saying "God hates Fags" and "God hates Jews" while protesting the funerals of American veterans. But then, in 2009 a Jewish blogger named David Abitbol started to talk with her on Twitter, and tried to persuade her to change her mind.

Six years later, here's what she tweeted the day the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage:
What happened? Megan Phelps-Roper herself gave a TED talk explaining how the arguments that Abitbol and others made on Twitter convinced her to leave the Westboro Baptist Church, and how we can use her experience to help convince others to turn away from hate and prejudice. Phelps-Ropers gives some great advice on how to talk productivly with people we disagree with, and much of what she says echoes what students of rhetoric have been saying for thousands of years.

Three tips for being more persuasive in American politics. 

Rhetoric is an art like painting or singing. There's no quick and easy way to get good at it. It takes practice and hard work. The main reason we as a country suck so much at it is because we haven't had much practice. But here are three simple tips that can help us to suck a little less. 2

Tip #1: Make sure you are actually talking to the people you want to persuade

If you want to persuade someone, you have to talk to them in place where they will hear you. Most conservatives don’t watch the Daily Show, or read Slate or Huffington Post. If someone makes an argument in one of these places most conservatives are not even going to hear it.

For Phelps-Roper Twitter provided an opportunity to talk, and listen, to those with different views. Social media can be a powerful force for persuasion, but only of we step outside our own network of like-minded friends.

Tip #2: Use arguments that YOUR OPPONENTS find convincing

When you are arguing with someone you need to figure out what sorts of arguments they will be persuaded by.

Most conservatives don't believe that White Privilege or Implicit Bias exist. So an "argument" that already takes these things as given isn't really an argument at all. It's just cheering.

When David Abitbol argued with Phelps-Roper on Twitter, he cited Bible verses, which he could quote in the original Hebrew, to show Phelps-Roper the theological flaws in her church's position. Because she was part of a religiously fundamentalist church, she found these arguments convincing.

You have to put yourself in your opponent's shoes. You need to know what they believe, what they care about, what makes them angry, and what makes them happy. What is it about you that they don’t like? Otherwise your arguments won't even make sense.

This probably requires some research. Reading the New York Times and listening to NPR might help you learn what conservatives are doing but it won’t tell you much about how they think. For that you’ll need to read what they read. FoxNews, Redstate, National Review. Even Breitbart

Once you’ve done this, you can start to construct an argument that conservatives might actually be convinced by. 

Tip #3: Be Nice

I’m not telling you to be nice because I think that it’s moral and ethical (although I do). When I engage in arguments I try to be nice for the same reason LeBron James spends most of his waking life practicing and working out– I like winning and hate losing. If you want to persuade someone of something, you have to be nice to them, even if they’re not being nice to you.

Think about it: if you were having an argument with someone, and all of a sudden they called you a moron, or a racist, or accused you of "hating poor people," would that make you more or less likely to be persuaded by their arguments? 

Liberals were mean to Chadwick Moore, so he decided to stop being a liberal. Maybe he was wrong, but he also used to be a liberal and now he’s not. 

When Phelps-Roper flung antisemitic slurs at David Abitbol on Twitter, he could have responded by calling her a Nazi. Instead he responded with kindness and compassion, and she changed her mind.

Even if the person you are arguing with is a racist moron, calling them those names is probably going to make them get up and walk away, and that means you’ve given up the chance to convince them to change their mind.

Like lifting weights and practicing jump shots for hours on end, being nice while arguing about politics is a lot of work. It can really wear you down - especially when your opponent is not being nice. But just like in basketball – if you want to win, you’ve got to just suck it up and do it.

Our challenge

Sixty million Americans voted for Trump. Most Americans think "liberal" is a bad word. Most Americans think the government has no business trying to reduce racial inequality.

We need to do a better job of convincing people like this to change their minds To do that we need to:
  1. Talk to them 
  2. Make arguments that they find convincing, and 
  3. Be nice to them. 
Some of these people have views that we might think of as racist. It might seem "wrong" to be nice to people like this. But in a democracy racists can vote. 

We can’t stop them from voting unless we are willing to sacrifice the entire idea of democracy. So if there are enough racists in America to swing an election, and we don’t want them running the place, our only option is to convince at least some of them to stop being racists. That requires that we listen to them, talk to them, and be nice to them.

It's not going to be easy, but as Megan Phelps-Roper's story shows us, it's not impossible. It seems like we should at least give it a try.


1 This analysis is from the 2014 General Social Survey (also known as the GSS, an excellent source of data on American public opinion, You can download the data yourself here). The full question is "Irish, Italians, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without special favors." 39% of Americans "strongly agreed," and 29% "somewhat agreed." I've warned that it's dangerous to give too much credence to Americans' answers to a single public opinion question. However the basic result that most Americans are opposed to special efforts to help African Americans can be found on many different questions asked in many different surveys. For a more robust analysis of this tendency, take a look at Tuch and Hughes' papers below.

Although these “tips” are mostly common sense, they are also drawn from classic works on rhetoric and language. In particular, the idea that we need to “step into our opponents shoes” in order to make arguments that they understand draws on the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s view that we all play different “language games,” and the rules of these games come from our differing backgrounds and “forms of life.” By this logic trying to persuade a conservative using arguments that are convincing to liberals would be like trying to win a basketball game by trying to hit a home run. If you want to win a rhetorical game, you need to play by your opponents rules, no matter how weird they sound to you.


Aristotle. (1991). On Rhetoric. (G. Kennedy, Trans.). New York, NY. Oxford University Press.

Cicero, M. (2016). How to Win an Argument. (J. May, Ed & Trans.) Oxford, England. Princeton University Press.

Tuch, Steven, & Hughes, Michael. (1996). Whites' Racial Policy Attitudes. Social Science Quarterly, 77(4).

Tuch, Steven, & Hughes, Michael. (2011). Whites' Racial Policy Attitudes in the Twenty-First Century: The Continuing Significance of Racial Resentment. The Annals for the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 364(1), 134-152.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations (G. E. M. Anscombe, Trans., 2 ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc.

Wittgenstein, L. (1969). On Certainty (D. Paul, & G. E. M. Anscombe, Trans.). Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Obama made America more conservative (but Trump is probably making it more liberal)

In America, there are about as many conservatives as there are liberals. That means that, if you are a liberal, you are going to need to convince some conservatives to become liberal in order to get anything done - because of the whole "democracy" thing.

But maybe not. I sometimes hear liberal activists say that that if only conservative Americans could get a taste of how awesome liberal policy actually is, they would "come to their senses" and become liberals, without us ever having to talk to them.

By this logic, all we need to do is just use whatever tricks we can come up with (even potentially "undemocratic" ones - like a coup or revolution) to impose  more liberal policy. Even if most Americans say they don't want these sorts of policies, they'll change their minds once they see how well things are going. Right?

Unfortunately, history tells us that's probably not going to happen.

The Public is a Thermostat.

There's this weird thing that happens in American politics. Believe it or not, the following are both true:

  • Americans tend to become more liberal when a Republican is President
  • Americans tend to become more conservative when a Democrat is President. 

Political scientists have known this happens for a while now. They call this sort of behavior “thermostatic” - because the public seems to be acting like a thermostat.  When American government gets too “cold” (conservative) the public gets warmer (more liberal) and when government gets too “warm” (liberal) the public gets cooler (more conservative). This is easy to see if you know how to look.

This chart shows how supportive the American public has been of liberal economic policy (the top line) and how likely they are to think of themselves as liberal (the bottom line) over the last fifty years (see my previous post for more on these two different kinds of liberalism). In both cases, higher values mean “more liberal.”1 Over these lines I’ve put a series of red and blue boxes, corresponding to GOP (red) or Democratic (blue) presidential administrations

When do Americans Become More Liberal? When do they become more Conservative?

The chart shows that Americans were pretty darn conservative in the early 1980s, but become much more liberal in the late 1980s and early 1990s. You can watch support for liberal policy rising steadily through the Reagan and George H.W Bush administrations (1981-1993) but then taking a nosedive right when President Clinton takes office. You can also see that liberal self-identification (the bottom line) gradually climbs during the Nixon administration but then declines all throughout the Carter Administration.2

Notice that support for liberal policy has fallen dramatically since Obama took office in 2009.

Why is this happening?

For many political scientists, the most compelling explanation is that the American public is just more moderate than either of the two major parties. So when either party wins a presidential election, it gives the public either “too much” liberalism, or “too much” conservatism, and the public gets annoyed. 

Let’s imagine that a GOP President takes office. He (or she?) proceeds to enact a bunch of “typical Republican policies" - lower taxes, spending cuts, increased restrictions on abortion, that sort of thing. But these policies are more conservative than most Americans want. So the more “GOP stuff” this President does, the more ticked off the public gets, and they more they start to think “hey, we like the idea of small government, sure, but maybe government has gotten too small.” So when the next election comes around, they choose a Democrat.

The Democratic President then does a bunch of typically “Democratic things” - more generous social safety-net programs, more business regulations, increased support for Planned Parenthood, etc., and Americans start to think “you know, we like it when the government tries to help out, but all this stuff is starting to impede with our personal liberty.” So next time they elect a GOP President and the cycle repeats.

This isn’t the only thing that impacts how American political views change, and it doesn't always work this neatly, which is why the lines above don’t always go up during GOP administrations and down during Democratic ones. It does help to explain some exceptions to this rule in the chart above, like the fact that Americans got more liberal during the latter part of the Clinton Administration. This increase corresponds to the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994, and Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.” Under Gingrich's leadership, the GOP Congress was able to exert a huge influence on Clinton’s policy, making it more conservative. In response, Americans became more liberal, even though a Democrat was in the White House.

What does this mean?

If most Americans are more moderate than the average Democratic (or Republican) President, then they’re much more moderate than the average liberal activist. If you are a liberal activists, you probably should to come to terms with the fact that the vast majority of Americans strongly disagree with your views. That doesn’t mean that they’re right and you’re wrong, but it’s just something you need to account for.

It also means that just imposing liberal policies on Americans won't necessarily make them realize that "liberals were right after all." In fact, history suggests that the opposite would probably happen.

If somehow Bernie Sanders became President, and an Elizabeth Warren-led wing of the Democratic party took over the House and Senate, then history suggests that Americans would probably respond by becoming much more conservative. 

So if you really want to change the political landscape in America, you can't count on conservatives changing their minds on their own. You probably have to go out and use words and arguments to convince them to become more liberal. This is not something that liberal activists have spent a lot of time trying to do.

But there’s a bright side (for liberals) to all this as well. We've learned that one way to convince Americans of the benefits of liberalism is to let a Republican run the country for a few years. This probably isn't going to change the fundamental balance of power in America, but by enacting a policy that is far more conservative than most Americans want Trump may be making America as a whole a more liberal country.


The measure of “support for liberal economic policy” above is known in political science as “policy mood” (it's the same measure I analyzed in my recent paper on American concerns about inequality)  and the measure of “liberal self-identification” is known as “symbolic liberalism.” For boring mathematical reasons the specific numerical values of these measures don’t really mean anything in particular, so I didn’t bother to label the Y axis (which would get me justifiably flogged if this was an academic paper, but I'm trying to keep things as simple as possible here). Both measures were created by political scientist (and my dissertation adviser) James Stimson, and the raw data I used in this cart can be downloaded at his website here.

2 It’s generally not a good idea to assume that a pattern exists just by looking at a chart like this. There are a bunch of statistical and mathematical tests you need to do in order to verify that the trend you are seeing is real, and not an illusion. In this case, that means using the technique of time-series regression analysis, which can help you to be sure that these changes are really correlated with the presidential administration changes themselves, as opposed to various other things like the changing economic situation in America. This relationship still shows up even when you perform such tests. I ran these sorts of models in my article in the journal Political Behavior, but you can also see them in James Stimson’s article in Deadalus, cited below.


Stimson, J. (1999). Public Opinion in America: Moods, Cycles and Swings (Second ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Stimson, J. (2012). On the Meaning & Measurement of Mood. Deadalus, 141(4), 23-34.

Wlezien, C. (1995). The Public as Thermostat: Dynamics of Preferences for Spending. American Journal of Political Science, 39(4), 981-1000

Wright, G (2017). The Political Implications of American Concerns about Economic Inequality. Political Behavior.