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Fact Free Discourse is Dangerous but Inevitable July 14, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.

On this blog I have been persistently lamenting our political discourse in which facts play almost no role.  On issues from health care, to the causes of recession, to Obama’s citizenship,  outright lies seem to percolate to the top of our political discourse and endlessly circulate immune to challenge or refutation.

Recent political science research shows why, and it is discouraging for anyone who believes in democracy.

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.

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

[…] This effect is only heightened by the information glut, which offers — alongside an unprecedented amount of good information — endless rumors, misinformation, and questionable variations on the truth. In other words, it’s never been easier for people to be wrong, and at the same time feel more certain that they’re right. […]

New research, published in the journal Political Behavior last month, suggests that once those facts — or “facts” — are internalized, they are very difficult to budge. In 2005, amid the strident calls for better media fact-checking in the wake of the Iraq war, Michigan’s Nyhan and a colleague devised an experiment in which participants were given mock news stories, each of which contained a provably false, though nonetheless widespread, claim made by a political figure: that there were WMDs found in Iraq (there weren’t), that the Bush tax cuts increased government revenues (revenues actually fell), and that the Bush administration imposed a total ban on stem cell research (only certain federal funding was restricted). Nyhan inserted a clear, direct correction after each piece of misinformation, and then measured the study participants to see if the correction took.

For the most part, it didn’t. The participants who self-identified as conservative believed the misinformation on WMD and taxes even more strongly after being given the correction. With those two issues, the more strongly the participant cared about the topic — a factor known as salience — the stronger the backfire. The effect was slightly different on self-identified liberals: When they read corrected stories about stem cells, the corrections didn’t backfire, but the readers did still ignore the inconvenient fact that the Bush administration’s restrictions weren’t total.

I don’t know what the solution to this is. But if we don’t find it quickly we will continue to suffer as a nation. The more we are dependent on technology and global connectedness, the more facts will matter in adjudicating disputes. We simply cannot afford to allow know-nothings to govern our discourse.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com



1. Paul J. Moloney - July 17, 2010

Apparently, facts themselves do not cause cognitive dissonance. Some people agree with others for the sake of a supposed peace. To disagree would not be socially acceptable, unless one is disagreeing with a common enemy. It would be rude for Christians to disagree with each other but not rude to disagree with an atheist. People will hold on to an irrational belief in order to be sociable. For some people, being sociable is more important than being reasonable. If these people base their social interactions on unreasonableness, I would hate to even imagine what kind of social interactions they have. It sure would be a mistake to be jealous of these people and their society.

People being politically obstinate can be a replacement for religious faith, and here I am talking about the Christian Right. False political expectations take the place of hope. Everything is not as it seems, though. If I were to say that I were a Christian, I would be a liar and a hypocrite. If I am not a Christian, I must be an atheist, if there is no other alternative. Also, since I am Catholic, I am not considered Christian by the Christians. The unspoken understanding among Christians is that the Catholic is to be categorized with the atheist, as if the two were one and the same, which does not bother me because atheists are generally more intelligent than Christians. This is why I have never had any interest in ecumenism. If people were actually Christian there would be no need for ecumenism. Ecumenism is a polite way of agreeing not to be Christian together.

Learning how not to be Catholic has taught me how to be democratic. If one is Catholic, they have to be Catholic on their own, no matter how many other people happen to be Catholic. One has to think for themselves because there is no God who is going to do your thinking for you. Being a democratic person necessitates thinking for oneself. Being Catholic has trained me to be a democratic person. Being Catholic has taught me to recognize the false political influence of the some if not all the American Catholic bishops. For instance, in this diocese it has been a tradition for many years that the bishop is, apparently, too afraid to lead the people of the diocese from the cathedral downtown. The bishop must be afraid of the neighborhood around the cathedral, even though little old ladies will brave it day after day to go to Mass. If the bishop has not the courage to lead his own Catholics, what makes him such an expert in political leadership? One of the false beliefs Catholics have is that it is wrong to think for oneself. The bishops apparently think that. If this bishop could think for himself he would be down at the cathedral. Since he is not down at the cathedral there is no Catholic leadership in San Diego of which to speak. If being Catholic depended on a bishop there would be no Catholics. If a Catholic bishop has erroneous ideas concerning his own church, much more will he have erroneous political ideas.

If downtown is not good enough for the bishop, it sure is good enough for the homeless, who seem to love it. I pass the homeless five days a week on my way to the cathedral for the 7am Mass. I have had to use the same public restroom that the homeless line up to use in the morning at the Civic Center, which must mean that I am either a democratic person or at least have the same human nature as the homeless, which means I have a certain equality with the homeless. I am definitely not more human than the homeless.

I would think, then, if the bishop cannot think for himself he must be a know-nothing. The only people a know-nothing can lead are those who cannot think for themselves. I do not know if the Catholic Church is as bad off as the United States or the United States is as bad off as the Catholic Church.

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