“Just the facts, ma’am” “You sure about that?”

There’s a two for one special here today: two articles for the great low price of one: How Facts Backfire; and an interview discussing why facts often don’t matter in the political arena.

The Globe story first. Basically, researchers have twigged to the fact (haha) that people tend to use facts to prop up their pre-conceived beliefs, not knock them down – even if new facts come to light that would suggest the latter is the better action.

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.

Bizarre to consider but the research is sound, apparently. People are very good at being stupid when it comes to their brains. This is because what we think we think is really based on what we believe we believe. Make sense?

we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote.

That’s such a big deal. It really is. So much of what we store in our heads is derived from the very same flaw. We’re gullible and what’s worse, we mistake this gullibility for savvy critical thinking skills when it’s nothing of the sort. We fool ourselves on a daily basis into believing things that are untrue, because for us those things are true enough and it winds up not mattering enough to get facts straight. We’re still going to believe what we believe, regardless, be it that Coke tastes better than Pepsi, or that some conspiracy is going on, whatever it might be.

Here’s something really interesting, from a related study:

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 plays in any arena, not just political ones. Some atheists do daily battle against a fundamentalist mindset that won’t budge, no matter how many well organized facts are pushed their way. Fundies then lob faith bombs over from their side like those are facts of equal or greater weight that will make us reconsider our position. So far no salami. Skeptics can vary on beliefs about some topics too, and it won’t matter how much sparring they’ll do with each other, there’s still an unwillingness for one of them to concede defeat and change their mind. Who wants to be the one who realizes they’ve been wrong all along? Talk about uncomfortable.

Now, onto the interview. Talk of the Nation host, Neal Conan, is chatting with Dana Milbank, a political columnist, regarding this study. Milbank has been faced with the challenge of fact checking over his time in the field. Here’s a tidbit:

CONAN: And the facts, as you suggest, are not elusive here. The issue about crime rates and the border counties has been, you suggest, exhaustively reported in the major newspaper in that state.

Mr. MILBANK: They have been, and the FBI keeps statistics on this, and the fact is that violence is flat to slightly lower than it was a decade or even two decades ago. But when this is pointed out, the President said as much in his speech, people get indignant, and they respond with anecdotes like such-and-such rancher was killed in March, or this trooper was shot in April.

Now, these things are true, but of course, the anecdotes don’t by themselves don’t prove that there’s actually more crime than there was previously. And then the response to this story has been very much the same, just sort of, like, angry. They suggest that I’m making up the facts. But I just, you know, pulled them from the FBI website. Now, I guess the FBI could be making up the facts, but I don’t know how far we can take this.

People are no doubt willing to believe anything, if it’ll make their view of the world feel more right and true. They want to believe violence is a bigger deal than it is, they’re going to. Is this going to be a problem? In terms of them wanting to lock their doors at night, no. In terms of shooting anyone who lingers on the sidewalk in front of their house too long, probably.

Brendan Nyhan, one of the researchers, was also interviewed.

what’s interesting is in some of these cases, it’s the people who are most sophisticated who are best able to defend their beliefs and keep coming up with more elaborate reasons why 9/11 was really a conspiracy or how the weapons of mass destruction were actually smuggled to Syria or whatever the case may be.

So this isn’t a question of education, necessarily, or sophistication. It’s really about, it’s really about preserving that belief that we initially held.

People may hate to be wrong, but people hate to be told they’re wrong a lot more. There’s this defensive mechanism that pops up like it has since we were kids. “Am not! You are!” And the argument never gets much further than that accusation, sometimes for years. And the longer you’re wrong, the more unwilling you will be to fix it. Too much time was wasted on the wrong idea, yet no one wants to make sure what time is left is time on the right side, as it were.

We selectively cherry-pick our fact finding missions and it appears everyone is guilty of this to one extent or another. While we may hope we’re fair and willing to adjust our positions on some things, it’s a real struggle to put that into practice. Maybe not for every kind of thought and belief we carry around, but maybe for the big ones that matter.

I get a kick out of the fact that their very first caller on the line winds up being a religious dope who prattles on about the real poetic truth of Genesis compared to how other religionists think of it. They’re quick to drop him for someone else. Thanks for calling, you perfect example of the problem, you. “We’re talking about, well facts here…” Awesome.

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Canadian Atheist Basically ordinary Library employee Avid book lover Ditto for movies Wanna-be writer Procrastinator
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