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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Kristof pens a classic, Penn classes haters

Nick Kristof, whom I usually like to rail against at the breakfast table, had a recent piece in the NY Times that I loved:
To understand your feelings about Wednesday night’s debate, consider the Dartmouth-Princeton football game in 1951. That bitterly fought contest was the subject of a landmark study about how our biases shape our understanding of reality.

Psychologists showed a film clip of the football game to groups of students at each college and asked them to act as unbiased referees and note every instance of cheating. The results were striking. Each group, watching the same clip, was convinced that the other side had cheated worse — and this was not deliberate bias or just for show.

“Their eyes were taking in the same game, but their brains seemed to be processing the events in two distinct ways,” Farhad Manjoo writes in his terrific new book, “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.”
Mr. Manjoo cites a more recent study by Stanford University psychologists of students who either favored or opposed capital punishment. The students were shown the same two studies: one suggested that executions have a deterrent effect that reduces subsequent murders, and the other doubted that.
A fair reading of the two studies might have led the students to question whether any strong conclusions could be drawn about deterrence, and thus to tone down their views on the death penalty. But the opposite happened. Students on each side accepted the evidence that conformed to their original views while rejecting the contrary evidence — and so afterward students on both sides were more passionate and confident than ever of their views.
This topic--how we form explanations for our beliefs ex post facto, and how we protect our beliefs from contamination by evidence or empathy--was my favorite back when Alice edited my columns at the Columbia Daily Spectator. Cf "Casting Stones but Missing the Point", "My Gift to Nat Hentoff", and "Dissed and Dismissed".

Another recent favorite from the paper: Sean Penn and Marjane Satrapi (author and director of Persepolis) light up indoors at Cannes, in an act of sexy French defiance (well, Penn is honorarily French at least):

Penn, the head of the jury that will pick the best films, pulled out a cigarette and puffed on it at a press conference with fellow jury members, in defiance of laws in place since January that ban smoking in public enclosed spaces.

He only took a couple of drags before putting it aside and getting back to answering reporters' questions.

But jury member Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian director clearly inspired by her colleague's defiance, then asked to much laughter if anyone minded if she smoked "for medical reasons."

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