There hasn’t been much good to come out of the Coronavirus Pandemic. But it has led me to catch up on a lot of reading. Two books I read, David Epstein’s RANGE, and Ezra Klein’s WHY WE’RE PARTISAN, hit me like a ton of bricks. Together, they explained to me… and I hope now to you… the connection between how we think, and how we are manipulated by media, into the extreme partisanship faced by modern America. The problem is, I am not sure we can get out of it. As Klein says, “Absent an external unifying force [Covid?] like a war, the divisions – or worse- that we see today will prove to be the norm, while the depolarized politics of mid 20th century America will prove the exception. And if we can’t reverse polarization… then the path forward is clear: we need to reform the political system so it can function amid polarization. I’ll leave it to younger folk to figure that out.

James Flynn, a New Zealand professor of political studies showed successful adaptors drew on outside experiences and analogies to INTERUPT their inclinations to follow the same old patterns, the skill is TO AVOID those patterns. Detailed prior knowledge is less important than a way of thinking. A little training in broad thinking strategies can go a long way in calling BS.


Learning what is both durable and flexible is neither easy, nor fast. Strategies must be more long term and have “desirable difficulty”, not “desirable ease”. For example: To discuss something to come to an agreement or compromise is more difficult and takes longer then to win (or lose) a debate. Yet it trains us to think to come to solutions far better. Frustration is not a sign you are not learning. Ease is.


John Dewey said, “A problem well put is half solved.” The best problem solvers are more able to determine the deep structure of the problem BEFORE they MATCH a strategy to it. Less successful ones are more apt to classify problems superficially using overly stated features. Sound familiar?


Faced with unexpected findings, rather than assuming what they knew, or thought was correct, students should be taught that the unexpected becomes the opportunity to explore alternatives with analogies serving as the guides. We need to foster more “OUTSIDE IN THINKING” where one finds solutions in experiences far outside of the focused training for the problem itself. Imagine applied not just to STEM, but to politics and civic thinking!


What we have in America is a society made up of far too many HEDGEHOGS, those who are deep but narrow expertsand know, or think they know one big thing well. They “toil devotedly and reach for formulaic solutions to ill-defined problems.”  We can apply this to partisans on both sides of the political aisle.


Hedgehogs perform especially poorly on long term predictions in their OWN domain. They get worse as they accumulated credentials and experience in their own field. They rely on more an entrenched single big idea about how the world works, even in the face of contrary facts, as they amass information of their mental representation of the world. Unfortunately, they are often who we see in TV and the Media…and mislead the public who “believe.” But they make great TV!


What we need to have more of in America are FOXES, those who range outside a single discipline or theory and embody breadth. They “know many little things… draw from an eclectic array and accept ambiguity and contradiction.” Thus, they are able to see all sides of a political argument and come up with a more creative solution.


Yale professor Dan Kahan has shown that the better Hedgehogs are in finding evidence of their convictions, the more time they spend looking, and the more hedgehog like they become. He found that curiosity, not knowledge was the key to looking at new evidence, whether or not it agreed with current beliefs.


The curious, like a fox, roam freely, listen carefully, and consume omnivorously. Foxes see complexity, not black and white. They know relationships are problematic, not deterministic. They know luck and unknowns are involved. When an outlook takes them by surprise, they adjust their idea. Hedgehogs barely budge or worse yet, become more convinced of their original beliefs that led them astray.


Foxier people with wide ranging interests and reading habits but no particular relevant background, do far better in these processes. It was found that they beat experienced hedgehog Intelligence analysts with access to classified data by margins that remain unclassified. In the face of uncertainty, individual breadth was critical. Narrow experts “have blinders on them.” Foxes are also particularly better collaborators. The believe their own ideas are hypotheses in need of testing. Their aim is to encourage their teammates to poke holes in their ideas to move forward.




On January 28, 1986, NASA had the right data to delay the launch Challenger and prevent the “O” rings that led to the explosion from getting cold, hardening the rubber, and not expanding correctly. They relied on the Hedgehogs’ quantitative analysis too much and not a few Foxes’ qualitative, more subjective, observations.


To make this brief. The hedgehogs at NASA “sorta” knew that launching below 53 degrees was not a good idea, but couldn’t prove it quantitatively. “Unable to quantify; supportive data was subjective” was their refrain over and over. They were fervent believers of, “In God We Trust, All Others Bring Data”.


There were subjective data. There were several examinations of photographs of launches at 53 degrees that showed jet black soot, evidence of O ring hardening. That quantitative assessment was ignored.  They barely budged.  They regressed under pressure to what they knew best, familiar procedures. With Challenger, they were outside their usual bounds.  When you don’t have the data, you have to use reason. They needed to “improvise” like a fox rather than throw out information that didn’t fit the established rubric. We saw the result on TV.


In investigating the Columbia NASA accident, it was found that “allegiance to hierarchy and procedure has once again led to disaster.” Like a Medieval guild, NASA created conservatism and stifled innovation.

So, when entire specialties grow up around a devotion to a particular tool, process, or procedure, the result often is a disastrous myopia. This happens often in medicine. For example, repeatedly randomized clinical trials that compared stents with more conservative forms of treatment for stable chest pain prevent 0 heart attacks and extend patient life for 0 years. In addition, 1/50 patients will suffer serious consequences or die as a result. The same is true of meniscus surgeries.


We now see it as millions of us grow up politically on FOX or CNN.


One big problem in education (especially higher) is our propensity to have courses with a huge amount of very detailed, arcane, specialized stuff often forgotten in a few weeks, so we have people walking around with information stuffed in their head or found in research but without the training in thinking , reasoning, and drawing conclusions using a number or incongruent sources, therefore missing systemic issues. Let’s see where this has led us.


All politics is influenced by identity. Our fights over group identity and status express themselves in debates about power and policy. Ove the past 50 years our partisan hedgehog identities have merged with our racial, religious, geographic, ideological, and cultural identities…thus tearing the bonds that hold this country together.


This wasn’t always the case. We were once more fox like in our gathering of political information. For example, in the 1950s voting for a Liberal Democrat like Hubert Humphry or a Jack Kennedy for seats in the US Senate also got you a majority that included segregationist conservatives like Strom Thurmond. Republican Nixon created the EPA and proposed both a basic minimum income and a national healthcare program more ambitious than Obamacare. In 1965 Medicare received 70 Republican votes in the House and 13 in the Senate. No Republican voted for Obamacare.


Did you know that once upon a time (in 1989 and 1991) both the conservative Heritage Foundation and conservative economist Milton Friedman wanted either “assured affordable health care for all Americans” or “a requirement that every US family unit have a major medical insurance policy’? What happened?


Look and decide. In 1980 voters gave their own party a 72 rating on a “feelings” thermometer. However, they also gave the other party a 45. By 2016 that feeling about the opposite party was down to 29 while feelings about their own party also fell to 65. Party affiliation fell, from 80% to 63%, thus increasing the % of those who self-identified as independent. A 2106 Pew poll found that these independents who then tended to vote for one party over another (even though not officially affiliated) did so BECAUSE OF NEGATIVE MOTIVATIONS against the “other party”, whose policies they said were “bad” for the country. This NEGATIVE PARTISANSHIP is the political landscape we now live in.


It doesn’t take much to see that. Go to Facebook. Count the number of anti-other side posts and comments vs pro their side? I see it daily. As the parties have grown more different, we have grown more negatively partisan. We have become more like hedgehogs.


Let’s look at a couple of hot issues. In 1994 39% of Democrats and 26% of Republicans said discrimination was the main reason African Americans could not get ahead. In 2017, 64% of Democrats believed it and only 14% of Republicans. Similarly, in 1994 32% of Democrats and 30% of Republicans said immigrants strengthened the country. In 2017, 84% of Democrats believed it and only 42% of Republicans. In 1994, 63% of Republicans and 44% of Democrats felt poor people had it easy because they could get government help without doing anything in return. By 2017 65% of republicans still felt that way but ONLY 18% of Democrats.


The average partisan gap on all issues grew from 15 percentage points to 36. {note. The 1994 numbers can explain a lot of Democrat Bill Clinton’s turn to more conservative policies regarding welfare reform and criminal punishments.}


A 2015 paper by Patrick Miller and Pamela Johnston Conover entitled “Red and Blue States of Mind” noted that “the behavior of partisans from both parties resembles that of sports team members acting to preserve the status of their [respective] teams rather than thoughtful citizens participating in the political process for the broader good.” Election results accentuate the team mentality pushing them to make further “US v them” comparisons that draw attention to the STATUS lost by losing… thus increasing anger and rivalry. They become “fired up team members on a mission to defeat the other team.” My hedgehog is better than your hedgehog.


Another big indicator worth noting of how very wrong things are is a 2016 Pew survey. Among Republicans “moving from a ‘mostly unfavorable’ to a ‘very unfavorable’ view of the Democrats increased the likelihood of voting 12 points and the number contributing money went up 11 points. By contrast, developing a deeper affection for the Republican party only raised that 6 points. For donations it was only 3 points.


For Democrats is was similar. “moving from a ‘mostly unfavorable’ to a ‘very unfavorable’ view of Republicans increased the likelihood of voting by 11 points, while a more favorable view of their own party did zippo to raise potential voter numbers.


The lesson learned by pols? Anger gets more support than love.


Now add to all that the connection between identity and politics. “Partisanship can now be thought of as a Mega identity with all the psychological and behavioral magnifications that implies. Living as segregated as we are by zip code and social media accounts also has blown our rage up exponentially.  We live breath and chat mostly with those who agree with us. Our tribal instincts protect us from the foe. Americas political geography (demographically and culturally), have determined voting results.  Our “hedgehogian fact finding” has only made that worse.




Who are rallying the tribes? Media. The media have become “tribal leaders”. They tell each tribe how to identify and behave and the tribes follow (and retweet.) Most of us act as part of groups and are also hedgehogs. Once group loyalties and therefore group think have been established, Jonathan Haidt says, you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments.


“Thinking is mostly just rationalization, mostly just search for supporting evidence.” Psychologists call that “motivated reasoning.” Some look to CNN, some to FOX. When Laura Ingraham or Tucker Carlson, for example say, “it does seem like the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore”, it motivates that tribe. The simplest way to activate them is to tell them their identity is threatened. It is radicalizing. When Rachel Maddow says, “the biggest divide in this country is… between people who care and people who don’t care, it is radicalizing.


Most people follow media news as a hobby the way they follow their local sports teams. They can usually only tell you everything about “their” players but nada about others. They follow CNN like YES, or FOX like WGN. News media is primarily for those interested in it, and especially in the “stars” of the shows and their strengths as “players” in the field of news.  Those “players” seek higher ratings and more fame as their corporate owners want more spectators in their seats and therefore higher profits.


{Historical note: We have actually reverted back to the 18th and 19th century media circuses when most media (print obviously) was explicitly partisan. For example, “in 1870, 54% of metropolitan dailies were affiliated with the Republican Party, 33% were Democratic, and ONLY 13% claimed independence!}


So, to gain fame and profit, media teams have changed the old adage, “If it bleeds, it leads” to “if it outrages, it leads.”


Again, just like sports fans, media fans are invested in their side winning and the other losing. It has become a matter or group pride and status. The interesting thing here is that those following the two “teams” are more alike than different. The animosity far outweighs the differences. They ae similarly predominantly white, middle class, heterosexual, middle aged, and nonevangelical Christian.


The issue is that they perceive each other as radically different. “Democrats believed:

44% of Republicans earned over $250,000. It is 2%.

40% of Republicans were seniors. It is 20%.


Republicans believed:

38% of Democrats were gay, lesbian, or bisexual. It is 6%.

46% of Democrats were black. It is 24%.

44% of Democrats belonged to unions. It is 11%.


And the more they consumed their “teams” media, the more their “understanding of the other side was WRONG! If you saw Will Farrell in “Anchorman” you saw a satirical look at what has become reality. He says. “What if, instead of telling people the things they need to know, we tell them what they want to know?”


This has not only been true in Cable News, it skyrocketed in the Social Media arenas. You Tube, Twitter, Facebook all disseminate and recommend videos or tweets or posts in a manner that ups the stakes through “enragement engagement”.


Once again, the hedgehogs win. If you thought by introducing the other sides thoughts changes minds… you’d be wrong. In 2017 this was put to a test using 1,220 Twitter users. After a month’s long exposure to popular authoritative voices from the other side the result was INCREASED polarization.


So, what is neutrally newsworthy? An election one would think. The news media, instead of reporting political news has become the biggest actor in creating it.  In practice, newsworthiness became some combination of new, important, outrageous, conflict oriented, secret, or interesting…. mostly outrageous or conflict oriented.


Here are some examples that many say led to a Triumphant Trump in November of 2016.


May1, 2015-April 30, 2016: Trump’s median share of ALL cable news mentions was 52%…with 17 Republican candidates and even with the Clinton – Sanders thing going on.

August 24- Sept 4, 2015 he received 78% of all coverage on … wait for it… CNN!

By November of 2015 he had received more “evening news” coverage on the major networks than anyone – 234 minutes. Ted Cruz? 7 minutes.


A shortcut for the determination of newsworthiness became social media virality. If people were talking about something already through social media, it was “already newsworthy” whether it was true or false. Add to that the narrowing point of view by the algorithms created by those platforms and you have even more entrenched polarization.


As a result, we have flipped from a democracy that put forth candidates for office who were broadly appealing to those who adored by base voters…exacerbating group identity conflict and Twitter wars, Facebook fights, and a political scene that is reminiscent of World War One trench warfare


The hedgehogs cannot get out of their own trenches, even if they wanted to.


What we need far more of is creative thinkers. Our society suffers from too many patterns that inhibit creative thinking. Unfortunately, the traits that earn higher grades in American schools do NOT include critical ability of any broad significance. Schools and universities simply do NOT maximize potential for applying conceptual thinking across disciplines. We must be able to get students to think outside of the box…and that will include how they see politics. They need to be able to…