Rejecting Those Pesky Facts

My favorite thing to do on Sundays is to sit at the kitchen counter drinking multiple cups of coffee while I read the Sunday papers. The Indianapolis Star takes less and less time, as it contains less and less news, but I can count on spending considerable time browsing the various sections of the New York Times. (As a result, I probably know more about New York’s government than I do about the operation of government in Indianapolis, but our lack of local journalism is a subject for another day.)

Yesterday’s Times carried two reinforcing items about the intersection of ideology and fact.  Brendon Nyhan, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth, noted what has become a growing body of (distressing) research: when faced with facts  that conflict with their deeply-held beliefs, people simply reject the facts. It isn’t that they don’t know, it’s that they refuse to know. 

“Factual and scientific evidence is often ineffective at reducing misperceptions, and can even backfire on issues like weapons of mass destruction, health care reform and vaccines. With science, as with politics, identity often trumps the facts.”

Nyhan notes that this state of affairs provides an incentive for opinion leaders to spread misinformation, because once people’s cultural and political views get tangled up with their understanding of the facts, it’s really hard to undo the damage.

As if to reinforce the disconnect between what science and research confirm and what partisans choose to believe, Elizabeth Rosenthal reported on a recent study by the Commonwealth Fund comparing average “wait times”–the time it takes to get in to see a doctor–in ten countries.

It is an article of faith among opponents of “socialized medicine” (by which is meant any government health-insurance program) that national systems always produce longer wait times.

The study found that current wait times in the U.S. were slightly better than in Canada and Norway, but much worse than in other countries with national health systems, like the Netherlands and Great Britain. Interestingly, the study also found that wait times for patients in the U.S. and the other countries surveyed were different for different kinds of medical care–we Americans tend to wait for the kinds of appointments that “are not good sources of revenue for hospitals and doctors.” In other countries, people wait longer for expensive elective procedures; in America, we “get lucrative procedures rapidly, even when there is no urgent medical need.”

We wait longer, however, for basic care–checking out those chest pains, or adjusting that diabetes medication. Partly as a result, Americans use  (expensive) emergency rooms more frequently than people in other countries.

The article suggests that the ACA may well lengthen wait times, unless we can adjust our perverse incentives–after all, we are bringing millions of new patients into a system that is already not working very efficiently. If wait times do increase, however, you can safely bet that the villain will be “socialized medicine,” full stop and facts be damned.

Facts tend to be complicated, and we Americans are impatient with complexity. Besides, we already know what we believe. Don’t confuse us with those pesky facts.


  1. I immediately coupled Prof. Nyhlan’s reference to “ideology vs facts and the fact that people refuse to know” to Bush and Cheney deliberately refusing to know there were no signs of nuclear weaponry in Iraq. Look where their ideology vs fact and refusal to know has led us and continues to plague us today. It encompasses much more than waiting time for doctor appointments, although this is a major problem in VA Hospitals nationwide and is one result of the war on Iraq, it leads to death and destruction and insurmountable, ongoing financial cost. Bush later admitted to receiving the information but chose not to believe it, a deadly example of ideology vs facts. Ideology is also racism and bigotry which is ingrained in young minds by parents, teachers, neighbors, political leaders, etc. of the older generation who refuse to let go of their ideology which was ingrained in them by their older generation of leaders. Facts; they don’t need no stinkin’ facts – they have their ideology to sustain them. “Those who forget the past (facts) are doomed to repeat it.”

  2. Willful ignorance is perhaps the greatest threat to our political system. Coupled with voter apathy, it may lead us into a future where there is no turning back. We, the people, are less and less a factor in decisions that profoundly affect our lives. Corporations and their minions have bought us out of the market. They feed us lies over and over, repeating lies as fact, until we turn off completely or get too tired of fighting to discover the truth. Even when we know the truth, it is only the beginning of the fight. When there are no consequences for lies other than the continued accumulation of power (read: money) without penalty, the losers are those who have neither money or power, in other words, the 99%.

  3. Commenting on Nyhan’s argument, Paul Krugman extends the idea to “conservative delusions about inflation”: “[I]t turns out that money is indeed a kind of theological issue. Many on the right are hostile to any kind of government activism, seeing it as the thin edge of the wedge — if you concede that the Fed can sometimes help the economy by creating “fiat money,” the next thing you know liberals will confiscate your wealth and give it to the 47 percent.”

  4. You can see the process at work every hour of every day on television. There are so many products that are advertised (weight loss for example) using misleading or false information, but they apparently sell. Acceptance of ignorance has created industries that do nothing but promote ignorance. Then there is the realm of political advertising……….

  5. As if all of this weren’t enough, even that guy on Wheel of Fortune (you know him as Pat Sajak–we knew him back in the day as the weatherman on WSM-TV, Nashville, TN) has come forward to announce that climate change is a bunch of baloney. Great, Pat, just great! All those island vacations you give away nightly on the show will likely have to be changed to mountain vacations in the not-so-distant future. The lovely islands will be under water because of the continued glacial melt around the world.

    And there go even more of the climate change deniers, who hang onto Pat’s every word and would follow him anywhere, even if ‘anywhere’ is now under water.

  6. My admittedly amateur understanding of cultural anthropology bases much on culture as employing the same fundamental mechanism as evolution and natural selection. Culture and DNA resist change until some aberration empowers an experiment with something different. Often the experiment fails due to lack of benefit, but sometimes the new is better adapted to the environment than the old, and new catches on and spreads and becomes the next standard resisting change.

    I believe that the aberration of conservative politics was born not of new thinking but, merely, of business. It made media promoters wealthy by becoming influential cultural icons whose thoughts could be bought and easily tailored to selling specific products. Like guns and fossil fuels and politicians and religion.

    As with all experiments, the results are not known until the experiment produces them.

    The experiment in conservative thoughtware has been under way for a quarter of a century now and the data is in. It has shown to be almost universally destructive, not constructive. It has produced nothing of value and cost society plenty.

    One hundred plus million years ago the climate changed and dinosaurs became unaffordable and, despite their objections, were replaced by mammals. Mammals stuck because they evolved in ways that were better suited to the new environment.

    My sense is that the data from the commercially inspired experiment with conservatism is becoming more evident in our society. People who became conservatism’s DNA are becoming less relevant to the majority. They can display no benefits to the average American.

    Like their reptilian predecessors their fierceness could have carried the day, but didn’t. Other attributes worked better in the unfolding environment and their numbers will continue to decline into historical oblivion.

    Survival is not a moral judgment but based on utility. It is seldom useful to joust with totality.

  7. My – computer guessing what word I really meant to type – has missed the boat again. “Totality”? Really?

    The correct word is “reality” and I think that how I typed was probably close enough.

  8. There is a saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” I marvel at people who go into a Casino and actually think they can beat the house. I will confess to spending $2 a week on Power Ball or Mega-Millions ticket when the jack pot hits a $100M.

    The issue of denial even the face of facts of a deeply held belief is most disturbing. At the extreme you can justify killing or allowing others to die because of your beliefs. All Mammals are “Socialized.” We have learned behaviors from family and society in general. Are there some people who during the Socialization Process are fixed for life with certain beliefs. Constant Social reinforcement of beliefs would explain some of it.

    People have always had beliefs. The beauty of humanity was our ability to explore and learn more. As a Baby Boomer my own observation is that some segments of our Society have become more reliant on entrenched beliefs even when demonstrably false, such as the Young Earth Creation Science.

  9. The health care wait issue reminds me of something I’ve always wanted to try. If you’ve ever tried to get in to see a dermatologist for something (like, say, a suspicious mole or spot on your skin) you may wait weeks or even months. But if you want Botox, I’ll bet you’ll get right in. I’m tempted to do a survey of dermatological practices and see whether my suspicion is founded in fact. I wonder if I can get a few people willing to pretend to be potential patients to help me out.

  10. Bill, if you find 20 people who want to do the experiment, separate them into ten matched pairs (same sex, age, but essentially same script) and have them call 10 dematologists, with one asking for a botox evaluation and the other reporting some suspicious moles. Then compare the waiting times until appointment with a t-test. Worth the publication.

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