What We Know That Just Ain’t So

I forget the source of this old quote, but I’ve always liked it: “The problem ain’t what we don’t know, it’s what we know that just ain’t so.”

Recently, a regular reader sent me an article from “NeuroLogica Blog” (there’s obviously a blog for everything) that documented that hoary saying.

When asked what percentage of the population is Muslim the average answer was 15% when the reality is 1%. How many people are Christian: average answer 56%, reality 78%. How many people of working age are out of work and seeking a job: average answer 32%, reality 6% (at the time of the survey). That one seems strange. Did people really think the unemployment rate was 32% (that was average, which means some people thought it was higher)? During the great depression the unemployment rate peaked at 25%. What percentage of girls between 15 and 19 years old will give birth: average guess 24%, reality 3%.

As the author noted, the interesting (indeed, the pertinent) question is – why are so many people so misinformed about the facts? After all, these are verifiable and concrete data points, not “facts” that are really value judgments like “socialism is bad” or “religion is good.” And as the author also noted, the internet makes it incredibly easy to locate and verify these facts.

The article listed “the usual subjects”–education that doesn’t sufficiently teach critical thinking skills, a fragmented and frequently lazy media, politicians whose spin (and outright lies) are rewarded. All of these are implicated, but perhaps the best explanation is confirmation bias.

…the tendency to notice, accept, and remember information which confirms your existing narrative. The fact that we have narratives also is a huge factor. There is a tendency to latch onto themes and narratives, and then use facts to support those narratives, rather than to alter our narratives based on the facts. It is therefore no surprise that facts which have political implications have been so distorted to fit political narratives.

In other words, confirmation bias convinces us of things that we want to believe, but that “just ain’t so.”

And we wonder why Americans can’t find common ground.


  1. Growing up, we were taught that socialism and communism were bad and to fight them. I don’t remember ever being taught what either stood for or what was bad enough that we should fight them. I could find little information at that time to explain much about either system. We now have a multitude of “information sources” but their information is too often questionable. Back in the 1970’s, my husband subscribed to the magazine Soviet Life, for the photography which was beautiful, the articles we knew were strictly propaganda. I, out of curiosity, ordered Mein Kampf from the Book-of-the-Month club. That was a waste of printed matter and my money. We also had a Russian friend and friends active in the anti-Viet Nam war efforts. I worked for the City of Indianapolis, my husband was a retired vet working for the U.S. Postal Service; our names were listed on an FBI possible subversive list. And, yes, we did see a copy of the list thanks to a friend of a friend of a friend, et al. What this government “knows” ain’t always so

    We are at the mercy of those with enough money to post the most “facts” and pay elected officials to yell the loudest and most often; truth is buried deep and we must dig to find it – in bits and pieces – like a jigsaw puzzle. Sheila does a lot of digging for us; and I appreciate it. She also provides sources for us to delve deeper to find facts to aid in our decision making. Truth is a rare commodity these days and hard to come by in today’s multitude of media outlets. But it is still vital to our survival to do the digging for truth, follow the money to the paid-for candidates so we can go to the polls as informed as possible and vote.

  2. I so value and seldom see or hear news stories that put the focus of the story into the larger context. So we hear ‘facts’ without the ability to put that piece into a puzzle to complete the larger picture. Electronic news in particular is time-constrained and ratings pull stations toward the sensational. So context suffers and greatly.

    It has occurred to me that if all I knew about Indianapolis was what I’d seen on TV news, I’d be convinced that it was crime free-for-all with buildings burning-exploding-or collapsing, vehicles crashing, people bleeding and dying, and politicians corrupted that has a couple of sports teams and a race track. It’s little wonder people tune out and miss the occasional piece that informs self-government, good health, how to become better parents and neighbors, and more.

    Having said that, you are correct that the internet makes it very easy for us to check facts – assuming one can find and discern which sources are reliable.

    That’s why I’m so thankful for you Sheila. You are an informational treasure.

  3. That 1% Muslim number is of the U.S. Check out the new Pell Forum survey. The Wiki numbers are for the world.

  4. Funny, already grown up, I can’t remember ever being taught socialism, communism and trade unions were “bad” and religion was “good”, but became aware that these were ideas some people embraced not without reason. I decided for myself that religions that promoted the handling of venomous snakes were “bad” and that fundamentalist religion in all its permutations was “bad” because it required adherents to agree mutually without question.
    Reaching old age, I have learned for myself that bias and ignorance are “bad”, that blinding religion is “bad”, that poverty, disease and war are “bad”.
    Lately I’m observing that Republicanism in American politics can be really destructive to social order. History teaches that when things get really bad, we’ll rise up and do something about it.

  5. I opined the other day that “culture” is behavior that we each have observed in other people that we assume to be like us. In other words those that we assign credibility to. And that in today’s world many of those observations are first of all production fantasies and second of all from a screen not with all of the clues that accompany each of us in real life.

    Our real world is a construct of memories that we built to fit into but we’ve been led into also a virtual world supplement. (Books the same but much less vivid.)

    Small example. Several years ago my wife opened a Facebook account to get a window into our grandchildren’s lives but she put it in my name because of fear of the unknown. We both log into that single account daily and do what we do. Behind that screen is an algorithm that learns everyday more about who we are and constructs a virtual world just as the culture in our brains constructs our world that we fit into.

    If you were to enter that world, a screen name and password away, you would swear that the world is a very liberal place and that the dreaded scourge of conservatism is on the run everywhere and order based on real knowledge is rising like the Pheonix.

    However, I know the origin of that world and put it into the context of others that I also know and accept it for what it is not what I wish it was.

    Many are less intellectually critical of that world than I am.

    I have friends who choose to move close to other virtual worlds like Fox News and Cal Thomas and Rush Limbaugh. They believe them to be real.

    That’s bad enough but behind each of these worlds is a business selling their products. The motivation for the “algorithms” is to spread and enable the power of influence to some small if not singular economic force.

    Our BS immune system has been compromised. Our intellectual T cells have been allowed to evolve in ways that have created susceptibility not immunity.

    Not at all good.

    The vaccine IMO is known by both those suffering and prospering from this infection and is potentially widely available.


  6. @ Pete: Thanks for your views. Alas! I think that the one thing which people in those alternate universes fear is, indeed, education. Their minds are made up…don’t confuse them with facts. How do we lead them, kicking and screaming, toward education and the real world? How do we do that?

  7. Charles,

    You said: “History teaches that when things get really bad, we’ ll rise up and do something about it.”

    I thought you might be interested in this short paragraph which was written by Sebastian Haffner in 1938 and taken from his book: Germany Jekyll & Hyde: A contemporary Account of Nazi Germany:

    “Meanwhile, slowly, very slowly, the intellectual elements of the new front are being formed, of the opposition that really has an opportunity of overthrowing the Nazis. It shapes itself with tantalizing slowness, and the nightmare continues that it may not be ready in time, that it might not be there at the decisive moment.” And it wasn’t.

    Very unfortunately, this is what did happen as I emphasized in the last sentence of Democracide: The Far Right’s Path to Power back in 1993:

    “Freedom can be preserved in the face of a continuing process only up to a certain point. Beyond that point one inevitably becomes the slave of events. The logic of the process takes charge, upsetting all independent plans and calculations.” Hermann Von Rauchning, 1939.

  8. The right wing laughtrack has been spouting the “95 million Americans are not in the workforce” mantra for quite a while. While of course this includes retirees, students, and stay at home parents, and only about 6 million actually looking for work, I guess if they take their shoes off, they’re cipherin’ about a third of the country is out of work.

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