But one year later, in May 2011, Buturovic and I published a new scholarly article reporting on a new survey. It turned out that I needed to retract the conclusions I’d trumpeted in The Wall Street Journal. The new results invalidated our original result: under the right circumstances, conservatives and libertarians were as likely as anyone on the left to give wrong answers to economic questions. The proper inference from our work is not that one group is more enlightened, or less. It’s that “myside bias”—the tendency to judge a statement according to how conveniently it fits with one’s settled position—is pervasive among all of America’s political groups. The bias is seen in the data, and in my actions.
Let me back up for a moment. In 2009, a friend forwarded me an e‑mail message he had received from Buturovic about her studies of ideology. Buturovic, I now know, is a gifted researcher. She earned a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University in 2009 and took a research position at a leading public-opinion-polling company, which conducted the surveys used in our articles.
Buturovic was exploring the possibility that ideological differences stem more from differences in people’s beliefs about how the world works than from differences in their basic values. It was in pursuit of that thesis that she undertook the survey, and designed the questions for it. But when I got my hands on it, I saw its potential for assessing economic enlightenment.
Buturovic had asked people to respond to a series of statements, in the following format:
Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable.
1. Strongly agree
2. Somewhat agree
3. Somewhat disagree
4. Strongly disagree
5. Not sure
7. (Refuse to answer)
Like many surveys, this one throws a single sentence at the respondent, who has to conjure a likely context. Restrictions on housing developments may have certain redeeming features. But by and large, they do make housing less affordable. After all, restrictions restrict. The odd case might turn out otherwise, but the range of responses allows the respondent to register reservations without contradicting the general claim (by answering “somewhat agree,” for instance).
And so, anointing ourselves economically enlightened, Buturovic and I sat in judgment of the respondents, applying a fairly lenient standard. We divided answers into two groups: Incorrect and Not Incorrect. For the housing-restriction question, for example, we counted only the two “disagree” statements under Incorrect. We then reported the percentage responding incorrectly—focusing, in other words, on identifying the people who “know what ain’t so.”
In constructing our paper from the already completed survey, we selected eight statements, including the one on housing, with response options that we believed to clearly constitute “knowing what ain’t so.” The other statements, with the incorrect response in parentheses, were: mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services (disagree); overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago (disagree); rent control leads to housing shortages (disagree); a company with the largest market share is a monopoly (agree); Third World workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited (agree); free trade leads to unemployment (agree); minimum-wage laws raise unemployment (disagree).