Nate Silver has made quite a career for himself by applying rigorous statistical and mathematical analysis, first of sports (especially baseball, which is obsessed with stats to begin with) and then to political polling. During a Reddit AMA, he was asked which he found more frustrating:
Q. Which do you find more frustrating to analyze, politics or sports?
A. Politics. I don’t think its close. Between the pundits and the partisans, you’re dealing with a lot of very delusional people. And sports provides for much more frequent reality checks. If you were touting how awesome Notre Dame was, for example*, you got very much slapped back into reality last night. In politics, you can go on being delusional for years at a time.
But I think this overstates the case. While it’s true that in sports you can always shut down such delusions, at least to some degree, by pointing to the scoreboard, there are still many types of illogical thinking at work in both fields and they work in much the same way. I often use the term “sports fan politics” to describe the inconsistency and tribalism that goes on in both fields.
Visit any sports message board and you will see these cognitive shortcuts in action. If a player or coach from one team is accused of doing something wrong, the fans of that team will demand nothing less than absolute proof before they’ll believe it; if a player or coach from their rival is accused of the same thing, the accusation itself is all the proof necessary to show their total corruption. If a referee’s call goes against their team, it is almost always seen as a terrible injustice; switch the uniforms and the outcome and you’ll change their reaction to it as well.
The same exact thing goes on in politics, of course. Our ability to think clearly, objectively and consistently is undermined by our partisan commitments. When a criticism is made of the party we support, we are all capable of demanding absolute logical rigor; when a criticism is made of those we oppose, no matter how weak the argument or tenuous the conclusion, it will only reinforce our pre-existing perceptions that our opponents are inherently evil.
The fact is that thinking critically, being consistent in applying the same standard of reasoning to all arguments whether we agree with the conclusions or not, takes real effort. It requires questioning ourselves on our motives and refusing to take easy shortcuts out of convenience. Our brains aren’t really built for rationality, they are built for rationalization, and that is not at all the same thing.