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Partisanship and polarization: Antithesis of good analysis


Circling the Wagons, an Op-Ed piece on partisanship and its role as fundamental element of polarization by David Brooks left me saddened as he spoke to the collapse, even the retaining of pretence, of a "perfectly rational world [in which] citizens would figure out which parties best represent their interests and their values, and they would provisionally attach themselves to those parties [such that if] their situations changed or their interests changed, then their party affiliations would change."

Instead, he cites "Partisan Hearts and Minds" which argues "that party attachment is more like attachment to a religious denomination or a social club [and that once that affiliation has been formed] people bend their philosophies and their perceptions of reality so they become more and more aligned with members of their political tribe."

I thought what a disastrous dialog of the deaf this is between factions of any kind, political or otherwise, and what a failure it would be in terms of 'analysis' were these factions actually trying to sway one another. I was reminded of the interview comments made by Ambassador Robert Blackwill when he spoke of the tribes of policymakers and intel analysts and what a great difficulty it was to get them to talk bidirectionally and usefully to one another for any sustained period of time. Blackwill noted that "mutual ignorance" was the cost of "tribal tensions between analysts and policymakers."

This loss to an intelligent American discourse is all the more painful when one thinks of Heuer's Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, a volume that I still find fascinating not for its hard science but its focus of the so-called soft skills that include analysis of competing hypotheses, cognitive biases, and the effect of those biases in evaluation of evidence, perception of cause and effect, and estimating probabilities.

The world of Heuer and Brooks could not be more different and the effects more damaging to those who "win" or "lose" the presidential election as we must not throw away the other half of the electorate. I would ask that if you read Brooks and feel that there is a need for something better, give Heuer a look and take the time to apply it in conversation. A shibboleth or two might fall in the process.

Speaking of falling shibboleths, some readers have already received a cross-post of an analysis of the center and range of the NPR guest list, How Public is Public Radio?, which caught my eye as NPR is often our choice of 'office music' as we work. FAIR carried out two surveys, in 1993 and 2003, and found, I think with some indignation, that "NPR’s guestlist shows the radio service relies on the same elite and influential sources that dominate mainstream commercial news, and falls short of reflecting the diversity of the American public." Nor does NPR harbor "a liberal bias [that] is an article of faith among many conservatives."

I thought that squared nicely with Brooks' comment that "party affiliation even shapes people's perceptions of reality" and that a "partisan filters out facts that are inconsistent with the party's approved worldview and exaggerates facts that confirm it."

No one can do good analysis for any purpose in such an environment.

Circling the Wagons
New York Times
June 5, 2004

Psychology of Intelligence Analysis
Richards J. Heuer, Jr.
Center for the Study of Intelligence
Central Intelligence Agency

How Public is Public Radio?
A study of NPR’s guest list
By Steve Rendall & Daniel Butterworth
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting
Extra!, June 2004

Gordon Housworth

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