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New Study: Personal Bias Prevents You from Doing Math

by Shawn M. Griffiths, published

Have you ever heard two arguments on an issue such as gun violence, health care, climate change, or the national debt in which two opposing sides use similar data and yet come up with opposite conclusions? The answer is most likely yes since it happens all the time.

Lawmakers, political analysts, and pundits will often throw numbers out there and accuse their opponent of not understanding basic math. After all, how can two people come up with a different conclusion with all the scientific evidence that is widely accessible?

The people at Numberphile recently examined a psychology paper titled, “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government,” which says it may not have to do with the ability to comprehend math or science at all.

While it may be true that people ignore the math and the science altogether or fail to comprehend the data before them, the study shows that the judgement of even the most intelligent people who comprehend math and science very well can be swayed by personal bias.

"If the wrong answer is contrary to their ideological positions, we hypothesize that that is going to create the incentive to scrutinize that information and figure out another way to understand it," said Dr. Dan M. Kahan, one of the lead authors of the study.

Many people recognize that a person’s pre-conceived notion of an issue can cloud personal judgement. People cherry-pick specific data all the time just to fit their narrative on any given topic. Yet, this study may be the most eye-opening examination of this because it reveals the dangerous effects political scrutiny can have on the people who are supposed to educate the general public on the empirical science behind an issue.

Next time you hear someone quote numbers or statistics to back up their argument, remember that there are likely other variables to the equation. Chances are they may just be trying to sell you the ointment cream that doesn’t actually cure the rash.

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