What's Fact Got To Do With It?

Not much, evidently, which is probably why idiots like Sarah Palin get traction in the first place. As much as I want to disbelieve this study, it e

death_panel1_85737.jpg
Not much, evidently, which is probably why idiots like Sarah Palin get traction in the first place. As much as I want to disbelieve this study, it explains a lot of our political discourse and thought these days:

If people are furnished with the facts, they will be clearer thinkers and better citizens. If they are ignorant, facts will enlighten them. If they are mistaken, facts will set them straight.

In the end, truth will out. Won’t it?

Maybe not. Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

In light of this finding, consider the following statements:

  • The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.
  • "I'm not saying [Obama] doesn't like white people, I'm saying he has a problem," Beck said. "This guy is, I believe, a racist."
  • "You LIE!"

Each and every one of those statements is false, yet they gained traction. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, 55% of the likely voters in this country thinks Barack Obama is a socialist!

All of this leads to the next conclusion, which is even more chilling:

On its own, this might not be a problem: People ignorant of the facts could simply choose not to vote. But instead, it appears that misinformed people often have some of the strongest political opinions. A striking recent example was a study done in the year 2000, led by James Kuklinski of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He led an influential experiment in which more than 1,000 Illinois residents were asked questions about welfare — the percentage of the federal budget spent on welfare, the number of people enrolled in the program, the percentage of enrollees who are black, and the average payout. More than half indicated that they were confident that their answers were correct — but in fact only 3 percent of the people got more than half of the questions right. Perhaps more disturbingly, the ones who were the most confident they were right were by and large the ones who knew the least about the topic. (Most of these participants expressed views that suggested a strong antiwelfare bias.)

One year ago on Wednesday, the House reported out its version of the health insurance reform bill. I read it, live-tweeted the top points, and within one day a list of distortions appeared on an email list. Concurrently, Betsy McCaughey went on the radio with Fred Thompson and claimed seniors would have their health care rationed, laying the foundation for the "death panel" theme that dogged town halls around the nation. It turns out that the original list came from Liberty University and was distributed to key right wing players on Twitter, Facebook, and the blogs in an orchestrated effort to distort the debate.

For the rest of 2009, I debunked as fast as I could. In the end, the lies prevailed, particularly with regard to rationing (which is still dragged out weekly and flogged hard), and in the process, supporters of health insurance reform fundamentals such as ending exclusions for pre-existing conditions, rescissions, and other core pieces of the legislation were hoodwinked into believing some of this nonsense.

As it turns out, there's an explanation for all of this:

What’s going on? How can we have things so wrong, and be so sure that we’re right? Part of the answer lies in the way our brains are wired. Generally, people tend to seek consistency. There is a substantial body of psychological research showing that people tend to interpret information with an eye toward reinforcing their preexisting views. If we believe something about the world, we are more likely to passively accept as truth any information that confirms our beliefs, and actively dismiss information that doesn’t. This is known as “motivated reasoning.” Whether or not the consistent information is accurate, we might accept it as fact, as confirmation of our beliefs. This makes us more confident in said beliefs, and even less likely to entertain facts that contradict them.

This would be a highly, highly depressing study if it didn't have some ideas for how to counter this phenomena.

But researchers are working on it. One avenue may involve self-esteem. Nyhan worked on one study in which he showed that people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.

This is what Frank Luntz, Karl Rove, and the Fox News machine understand so well. By framing everything they oppose as scary and threatening, they're able to reinforce their own lies. The challenge for our side is to frame facts inside of an affirming message.

But ultimately, these researchers think the solution is in the initial delivery:

Nyhan ultimately recommends a supply-side approach. Instead of focusing on citizens and consumers of misinformation, he suggests looking at the sources. If you increase the “reputational costs” of peddling bad info, he suggests, you might discourage people from doing it so often. “So if you go on ‘Meet the Press’ and you get hammered for saying something misleading,” he says, “you’d think twice before you go and do it again.”

Unfortunately, this shame-based solution may be as implausible as it is sensible. Fast-talking political pundits have ascended to the realm of highly lucrative popular entertainment, while professional fact-checking operations languish in the dungeons of wonkery. Getting a politician or pundit to argue straight-faced that George W. Bush ordered 9/11, or that Barack Obama is the culmination of a five-decade plot by the government of Kenya to destroy the United States — that’s easy. Getting him to register shame? That isn’t.

Writers on this site along with a few others elsewhere, do exactly that. We try to put the light on the lie and put the liar to shame. But it's going to take more than just a few of us. It's time to make media liars pay a price for the lie, either with sponsor boycotts or other penalties.

But of course, that would require that some of us bother with the facts.

(image credit: Tommy Christopher)

About karoli

karoli's picture
Card-carrying member of we, the people.

Comments

We welcome relevant, respectful comments. Please refer to our Terms of Service for information on our posting policy.