“Perhaps something more complicated than sketching out voting districts is at play. The polarized political map is now accompanied by a media ecosystem that is equally gerrymandered into districts of self-reinforcing discourse.”


From the better-late-than-never files:

I want to direct your attention to an article from David Carr, titled It’s Not Just Political Districts. Our News Is Gerrymandered, Too. That’s where the above quote came from.

The bad news is that we learn that the media reporter for one of the more important American newspapers is only now discovering both confirmation bias and the Balkanization of the press. The good news? Well, let’s consider this a form of progress.

As we have written oh so many times, confirmation bias is an expensive habit of investors. We tend to read that which agrees with our investments and posture. We disagree and downplay that which advises the other side of the trade. We even selectively forget things that challenge our views and holdings.

In politics, it can divide the electorate into two warring camps, with Party first and Country second. But it also works to drive people away from the political parties — which may turn out to be a good thing in the modern era. Party affiliation has fallen over the years, and is now near its lowest levels, pretty much, ever. Independents are the largest voting group (even if they don’t vote as a bloc).

Investors that read only that which agrees with their views do poorly in markets.

Political strategists who read only that which agrees with their views do poorly in elections.

Its not only important to be “reality based,” you must also seek out dissenting views and opinions. Find intelligent people of differing perspectives and worthwhile process, and see what they have to say. Not despite their disagreeing with you, but because of it.

I don’t always agree with what colleagues like David Rosenberg or Doug Kass or Bill Fleckenstien argue — but I respect their process, and know their is an intelligence and method to their writings. Reading what they say, especially when I disagree with it, makes me a better investor.


One last issue with Carr’s column: He makes the horrific comparison of confirmation bias in news consumption with gerrymandering. For the record, the former is a hard wired cognitive error inherent to all humans; the latter is a corrupt process that serves to defeat the ideals of Democracy and “One Man, One Vote.” They are not remotely similar, and the NYT should be embarrassed by the comparison.

It’s Not Just Political Districts. Our News Is Gerrymandered, Too.
David Carr
NYT October 11, 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/12/business/media/when-our-news-is-gerrymandered-too.html

Category: Cognitive Foibles, Financial Press, Really, really bad calls

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

8 Responses to “NYT Discovers Confirmation Bias”

  1. rd says:

    An interesting article here on health care coverage rates vs. Republican/Democratic House districts. Of course, these needs to be kept in persepctive as it is from that left-leaning news outlet Bloomberg.com founded a well-known Communist sympathizer.


    It is going to be interesting to watch the impact of demographics on the political process over the next couplefo decades. I suspect we are seeing the last hurrah of much of the GOP leadership as they play the role of King Canute trying to stem the tide.

    I got a telephone poll last night. It was clearly the Republican party trying to ascertain voters views on the shutdown and debt ceiling. I was disappointed that they didn’t ask if I thought the party had gone certifieably insane. But they called on my landline number. If this is how they are doing their polling, they will get people like me but will not be getting hold of people like my kids, none of whom have a landline as they rely on their cell phones exclusively.

  2. ByteMe says:

    So is the alternative to Balkanized news the “fake equivalence” news articles that go to tortuous lengths to draw equivalences where none really exists just to look “fair” or “unbiased”? Ugh!

    Too much of the media is like those business link-bait articles generated by a computer program in order to draw people to a web site… sensational headlines, lazy thinking, unattributed quotes, looking for conflict where none really existed, CREATING conflict when none really existed (e.g., taking one of their on-air-talent’s idiotic rants and turning that into news during the next hour by claiming that “some people say that…”). All driven by trying to be “first” to get some story that’s likely not that important… and then those same mistakes bleed into real news stories.

    Bias will always exist in reporting. It’s our job as media consumers to read enough different biases to form our own opinion, but we’re overwhelmed by the sheer volume of content and look for our own lazy way out.

    It’s like someone who has a hearing problem for a long time before getting hearing aids: you got used to not spending much effort filtering signal from noise and suddenly you have to learn how to do it. Many people give up and just toss their hearing aids… some people will stick with it and learn how to listen in a room full of people.

  3. cbatchelor says:

    I had not seen Carr’s column. That was a good read, very thoughtful.

    I didn’t see the direct “comparison” of gerrymandering and selectively picking sources of information, but instead a reasonable linking. After all, without the gerrymandering, the issue of selectively picking news sources would not be as a compelling an issue. I think Carr’s point is solid.

    Having worked in politics a bit, I can confirm there is now, in many races, less effort now to win over the “independents” than there once was. Instead, we’ll see mostly GOTV–Get Out The Vote. The goal is to get your supporters to the polls and also try to discourage your opponents’ supporters. What does that look like in action? Start with appealing to voters’ bias…

    To state the obvious: The broadcast “news” channels are looks for a large number of viewers. That’s how they make money. Telling people what they want to hear is a long-standing, proven way to be popular.

    BTW: It’s a myth that people once read all of the editorial columns in the newspaper. Most people read the writers that they typically agreed with or made them laugh. Art Buchwald was such a powerhouse in his day because he was funny. Today it’s Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.

  4. wally says:

    “Its not only important to be “reality based,” you must also seek out dissenting views and opinions. ”

    Without the internet today, I don’t know where you could even find news stories that were not based on somebody’s “editorial policy”.
    That’s probably the biggest thing I learned from the 2007-2008 collapse: there were internet sites (Calculated Risk and Big Picture come to mind) that gave me enough fact-based information to defend myself from a disaster that main-stream media did not see coming. Since then I’ve pretty much given up on the print and mass-media formats… I see nothing useful in them. In fact, they can blind you to reality and thereby get you in bad situations.

  5. dwkunkel says:

    I’ve long held that it’s important to seek out those that disagree with you because there’s always the possibility that they could be on to something.

  6. DeDude says:

    The article is touching on something very important and true about our current predicament and the alternative universes that each side live in. The narratives are so different that it’s not just talking to each other, but also understanding where the other side is coming from, that has become almost impossible.

    However, the headline is not well connected to the main content of the article and the comparison to the phenomenon of Gerrymandering is a huge stretch, if not just plain wrong. With Gerrymandering you are forcing 40% of your opponent to be in district with you so that their votes can be vasted, and also forcing 90% of your opponents to be together in “lost” districts so that very few of your sides voters waste their vote. People live in their respective alternative universes completely at free will. As mentioned in the article you just have to push the wrong number on the remote to visit the other universe.

  7. James Shannon says:

    As Justice Antonin Scalia might say, “Boom!” His interview with Jennifer Senior in New York magazine suggests that the tendency to limit one’s sources of information to avoid dissonance is not the province of a bunch of narrow-minded, politically obsessed characters who send mass e-mails from their mother’s basement.
    Scalia is proof of what happens when a highly educated supposedly intelligent individual limits his source of information and becomes a narrow-minded, obsessed member of the United States Supreme Court. Specifically selected because of his irrational view which he can then shove down the throat of his fellow Americans and do it with impunity!
    Confirmation Bias is everywhere and our government has taken it to the next level!

  8. bonzo says:

    “Confirmation bias” is a misleading term, because it suggests a search for objective truth. Most people read the “news” to know what the majority thinks, and especially the majority of the rich and powerful people, so that when asked for an opinion they can regurgitate these accepted views and not look stupid or crazy. What they are looking to confirm is that their views are, in fact, still in repute among the majority. I don’t think many people really care about objective truth. Most people just want to fit in (conformism).

    The financial sphere might seem to be an exception, a place where objective truth matters and falsity is soon punished, but that is true only for value investors and only in the long-run. For momentum investors or agents whose only concern is the short-run, and this means the majority of investors, what’s important is what the other investors are thinking, no matter how crazy those views may be in objective terms. Tuning into alternative viewpoints is just going to distract you if you’re a momentum investor or primarily interested in the short-run.