Dimensionality Reduction and Political Polarization

Nate Pickens  ◦  2018 November 2

Jeremie Harris describes the fundamental process happening in people’s brains that has led to the political polarization we’re seeing today. We don’t store and process information all that accurately. We are prone to forming an opinion from very little data, and then in the age of nearly unlimited information and communication, we effortlessly find and use the same opinion from others to reinforce and confirm our own over and over, forgetting the original basis for the opinion and failing to ever go back and review it.

Although we’d like to think that our opinions are formed by coherently adding together the raw data that we’ve observed, in practice we end up doing something much less rigorous. First, we encounter a fact, then we distill that fact into a memory or lesson, form an opinion, and then, in general, we forget the fact. We’re then unlikely to change this opinion even if the fact upon which it is based is subsequently disproven or updated, because the connection from fact to opinion was lost when dimensionality reduction occurred.

We’re then left with only our nascent opinion, which we’re all too keen to reinforce thanks to confirmation bias. As we seek out sources of information that support our initial hunch, our opinion becomes more and more entrenched. This is part of the reason why political discussions can be so contentious: rather than argue about how to best add up the facts (which we generally don’t remember), it’s easier to lob opinions at one another in the hope of overpowering our peers by sheer force of will.

And before you sit back in self-righteousness, smile smugly, and say to yourself, “ah yes that is definitely what is wrong with the other side”, remember that you are almost certainly guilty of this yourself—especially if there exists for you “the other side”. Your brain is not holding the complete set of information either, so at the very least, be careful regarding the degree of confidence with which you hold your opinions.

Read the full article here.