Just the Facts…

I guess we no longer need the “big lie.” We Americans–for that matter, people everywhere– are perfectly comfortable simply rejecting facts that make us uncomfortable, or otherwise conflict with our preferred realities.

I’ve previously blogged about the emerging academic literature on confirmation bias.  A reader sent me an article from the Boston Globe summarizing much of that literature.

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.
Needless to say, this is a real problem for democratic theory, which places a high value on an informed populace.
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.

As the author notes, we humans tend to base our opinions on our beliefs–and those beliefs can have what he delicately calls “an uneasy relationship” with facts. Although we like to believe that we base our beliefs on evidence and fact, research suggests that our beliefs all too often dictate the facts we’re willing to accept.
Sometimes we just twist facts to make them fit with our preferred beliefs; at other times our preconceptions lead us to uncritically accept rumor, misinformation and outright propaganda if those reinforce our worldviews or confirm our resentments and/or suspicions.
The phenomenon is certainly not limited to the political right, but the most recent glaring examples do come from the GOP “clown car.”  Donald Trump insists that he saw “thousands of Muslims” cheering when the World Trade Center came down, even though everyone in a positions to know says that never happened. Ben Carson “quotes” America’s founders for statements they never made (and in some cases, expressing sentiments diametrically opposed to what they actually did say.) Carly Fiorina insists that she viewed a video that doesn’t exist. And people who want to believe them, do.
As the Globe article put it, thanks to the internet, “it’s never been easier for people to be wrong, and at the same time feel more certain that they’re right.”
Identifying the problem and solving it are two different issues. To date, there has been progress on identifying the phenomenon, less on what we need to do to counter it. That said, researchers are working on it.
One avenue may involve self-esteem. 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.
No wonder those of us advocating for evidence-based public policies are having such a bad time…..


  1. I think the reason we hold on to our beliefs is the present partisanship which is about disinformation being put out there by the right wingers. If I hear something remotely negative about President Obama or many moderate to liberal political figures, I will not give an inch publicly in acknowledging that they might be true. The reason is that the right wingers try to make hay out of things that should not reflect negatively (as in Benghazi against Hillary Clinton) and they refused to acknowledge their complicity in the failure of 9/11 and Iraq. They have gone into churches to get them all stirred up about issues that have no bearing on their lives and are a smokescreen for getting them to side with a party that does not have their best economic or social issues at heart. I feel if I publicly admit some small failure of the Obama administration (and I think their failures are small) the Right will go to town instead of a fair analysis of the failures. When they, for partisan reasons, ruthlessly lie about non failures, then I will not give them anymore ammo. Fox News and right wingers are bad for this country.\

  2. We can begin by asking the unbelievers to be sure to watch “Racing Extinction” on Discovery Science Channel on December 2 at 9/8 Central. Even if some few actually do watch the documentary, an even smaller number will be convinced that we are racing against extinction (or that it’s picking up speed).

  3. There is a specific group of “facts” you can research on Google; look into the FEMA Death Camps in general and FEMA Death (or concentration) Camps in Beech Grove, IN. One site even misspelled “Beach” Grove; that was the RedneckInovation site. This “fact” is still being reported and believed. One site was posted by a Satanist group spreading the word about the “American Holocaust” and pictures their leader.

    The Jude Helm comedy of errors earlier this year was included; reports were that President Obama and the Pentagon were going to invade Texas, take citizens prisoner and place them in FEMA Death Camps hidden in tunnels under Walmart stores. And this is American, not Stephen King or Dean Kootz novels. We read some of these stories locally and saw them on the news; there are those who still believe them. They seem to be the same people who believe Donald Trump is qualified to be president…and, sadly, they include intelligent but misguided individuals whose reasoning we cannot fathom. This make the possibility of Trump actually succeeding even greater.

  4. We are rapidly becoming the society portrayed in the film “Idiocracy”. It appears the brakes on the bus have failed.

  5. When it comes to discussing politics nowadays, the reactions of those who are willing to discuss (and this is seldom face-to-face) rarely results in acceptance of any information they dislike, most especially if it comes from a government, scientific or academic source. Those are all suspect because, you know, those people have to say those things to justify their jobs or the President only lets them say what he wants or they lie or any number of other justifications for their own stance. When all else fails, they resort to straw man diversions or name calling. They may even add foul language to intimidate (or in my case, disgust) to show how strongly they feel.

    While I have strong opinions on a variety of subjects, expressing them is risky, not necessarily physically, but certainly socially. Researching the sources of information (“facts”) before accepting or refuting is not always possible. Commenting on a blog or post allows some time for verification and reflection. In an age where people are so sure of their position because of religious beliefs or anger at some perceived injustice makes for short discussions. It is a waste of time to point out inaccuracies or outright falsehoods when the answer is, “I only know what happened to me (or a friend or family member).” This narrow view can never be refuted when the anecdotal overrides fact supported by verifiable generalized experience or data.
    When the likes of Cruz, Huckabee, Fiorina, Trump, Carson are appealing to the most basic bigotry of their audience, fact does not matter. Rational behavior has been swept aside by self-interest, greed and entitlement. How sad to see that we learned nothing from Jim Crow, Charles Coughlin, McCarthy and the KKK.

  6. Carly Fiorina made the following statement: “This is so typical of the left to immediately begin demonizing a messenger because they don’t agree with the message. The vast majority of Americans agree what Planned Parenthood is doing is wrong.”

    I don’t think even a slim majority of Americans agree that Planned Parenthood is doing anything wrong, but she seized this opportunity to make the statement and I’m sure that many of her conservative supporters will accept it at face value.

  7. We are creatures of culture. From fashion to language idioms to entertainment to our consumption of almost any want we behave in culturally manipulated ways as reliably as sunrise. Madison Avenue, to use what is perhaps a dated metaphor, says jump and we only ask how high. We are puppets, and marketing folks control our strings.

    Does that make us merely suckers or dysfunctional? I would say both.

    When all high school girls wear bright red lipstick (come to think of it, sort of as clowns do) starting on nearly the same day we may react with only a sigh but when Donald Trump or Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina can convince a large percentage of us that they are qualified to run the country the sigh doesn’t cut it anymore; we should see full blown panic.

    Such is the power of propaganda.

    We’ve always known this but we’ve arrogantly assumed not here not now not us.

    Fortunately, but maybe not adequately, the Internet gives each of us at least a small public voice. Those of us who chose not to listen to the pied pipers need to use ours. We will hear from many others that they have an equal right to repeat the lies but we must steadfastly repeat the truth.

    Truth is not opinion.

    Coincidently two of the largest battles in the present day war for minds took place recently in a magical place that we call the “City of Light”.

    We met in a great battlefield of the war over public fear and the war pitting present day business with the sustainability of our civilization.

    Here and now is where we take our stand and demand that those whom we chose do what they were hired to do.

    No more hands hired by propaganda. No more replacing democracy with fear and ignorance.

    From now on we build on the truth and we each will do our part in spreading it at the expense of manufactured false mirages.

  8. “I reject your reality and substitute my own.”

    Sadly, no matter how often I say this, I’m still here in Indiana instead of at Disney World.

  9. I’ve also experienced what Marsha described. I like to read alternative opinions, but the right tends to be so irrationally negative that my instinctive reaction is to dismiss it all.

  10. In my circle of family and friends there is more questioning and doubt than certainty. “Where did you get that? I’d like to read it too”… “Why do you suppose that is so?”… “Is it possible that we are wrong?”… “I’m going to do more research on this”… “Let’s look at it from the opposite perspective”. I’m not saying that we are not sometimes closed minded, but at an older age we all seem to have arrived at the point of knowing and accepting that we do not have all of the answers.

  11. I had a co-worker who seemed especially stricken by Obama being elected back in 2008. I am a white baby-boomer as he was also. He gave me what I call the “Knowing White Man” look. He did not really want to say it bothered him that Obama was bi-racial. He ended up telling me Obama and his wife had an agenda. I suppose every new president has agenda. However, from what I gathered from him Obama had some nefarious Agenda. It seemed all the Birther, Secret Muslim, and Communist attributions had taken hold. There was no vaccine for this man.

    I am not a strong fan of Obama, I am more to the Left. My issues with President Obama are political. I will never convince one of the Trumpters to Vote for my Candidate Bernie Sanders. I recently was carrying a large Bernie Sanders for President sign. A person stared at me, and said, “You know he is a Socialist”. I responded he is Democratic-Socialist. He said it was the same as a Communist. Then he added it was the Soviet Socialist Republic, with the emphasis on Socialist and he added Bernie had once went there. So did Nixon, but I guess that was OK.

    There was no point in arguing with him about Bernie’s Platform no matter how much he might benefit from it. His mind was made up.

  12. Louie, your point that it was not worth arguing with your friend as his mind was made up could have contributed to our national journey to here. We were too polite in the Tea Party days. While it is true that seldom does truth win arguments with the propagandized every discussion is also an opportunity to present truth and support it. Over time culture shifts as long as truth is well represented.

  13. While confirmation bias has always been with us, I’ve no doubt the country is far more polarized since Rush Limbaugh and his imitators came on the scene. Ratings and their financial rewards are boosted with the ‘entertainment’ value of coarse, bombastic, outrageous rhetoric. Courtesy, let alone being reasonable, is considered a weakness. I hadn’t thought of it before, but Trump and Limbaugh have a lot in common. Few rooms would be large enough for both their egos.

  14. Great post, Sheila. So true. Congress does this, too, in its “findings of fact” that supposedly support legislation.

  15. Mankind has carried the burden of ignorance for ever. It’s nice that we are finally studying it scientifically.

    The motivation? The burden now has become global and near eternal instead of local and temporary – both the burdens of climate change and asymmetric warfare that we regard as terrorism.

  16. My friend Peter Schauer, a national consultant and teacher on rural transportation starts one of his workshops holding up a banana and asking, “How many of you wash your bananas before peeling them?” There was almost never a hand that went up.

    Then, “How many will start washing their bananas after I tell you that the peels carry number of dangerous germs and chemicals (which is in fact true)?” – Maybe one hand or two.
    —-A couple more sources like TV or newspaper with similar weak responses —–

    “How many will start washing their bananas if you hear this from your neighbor?” – a couple more hands.

    “How many will start washing their bananas if you hear it from someone in your immediate family?” Quite a few hands go up.

    Thus illustrating Shiela’s point as well as showing that the source of facts is often more important than the facts themselves.

  17. I just posted an open letter on Facebook to Mayor-Elect Joe Hogsett containing some facts about conditions throughout all of Indianapolis and Marion County regarding abandoned properties. The situation has escalated over time because it has been given lip-service and basically been ignored – those are the facts. The three-part series in the Star (Sunday through today) Abandoned Indy, is loaded with many facts, not on the positive side of this issue. I have a clipping from the Star dated July 15, 2009, headed, “City plan: Fix it up or we tear it down”…NO FACTS in that statement or the promised solutions in the article from Ballard.

    Sheila’s blog today contains many facts along with the fact that facts are generally ignored by those who most need to know and use them. I want to start here at home; Indianapolis, Indiana, with conditions today, December 1, 2015, and the murder rate in this city which now equals the entire count for last year – and we have one month left in 2015. These neighborhoods are breeding criminals and criminal activities and we have only been given lip-service; a few facts but mostly fantasy and empty promises. We cannot fix the ignorant who ignore facts; we need to be concerned with being among those who use facts to make progress where it is most needed…right here at home and we need to start NOW.

  18. There are very good available explanations as to why people will believe unfounded rhetoric over facts – sociological social psychology, including symbolic interactionism, grounded in a good appreciation for the context of structural conditions, provides numerous insights into why people do what they do

    The short, people will resist any information that causes an unmanageable degree of cognitive dissonance (contradictions in world view, or assumptions of what is true). To understand this, we need to consider ideology, identity and social conditions (structures – the way the social world is organized in both local and greater sense), and how people manage cognitive dissonance in their everyday lives.

    A surprisingly large proportion of America’s laboring classes (people who work for pay) continue to embrace, hand have organized their life around some version of the American Ideology, and it’s central tenets: the American Dream, Meritocracy, Just World hypothesis (people get what they deserve) and the belief that if people work hard enough, they will succeed. After a lifetime of committing themselves to this ideology, and immersing themselves in cultural, political and spiritual life that supports that ideology, they are not going to be easily convinced to reject all that, even in the face of “facts” that indicate these ideals are not how things really work

    As noted by many commentators here, our society is full of messaging that provides rather simplistic yet effective means to explain away factual information that contradicts their world view, including claims of political bias, anti-Christian or -American bias, and a distrust of any science they don’t like. These explanations work because people are focused on the problem of protecting their ideology, as opposed to the specific social issue that is being contested. This is also why the various scale coating efforts of the right do work – simple explanations as to why things might not be going as well as the American Ideology says they should. For instance, the right will tell its followers that it’s all the undocumented workers fault – if it weren’t for those people messing up things, everything would be fine. Simple, easy and doesn’t not require any changes in the rights world view.

    Many scholars of social change have long argued that we can only change the way people see the world by providing them a new, alternative ideology that does a better job of helping them make sense of the world. So far, people to the left of center have not shown any inclination to do this. In fact, most of what inside and hear coming from the political left of center is derogatory towards anyone who doesn’t agree them. How can anyone expect to change minds when they start by calling anyone who doesn’t already agree with them ignorant. I don’t know about you, but that kind of behavior tends to make me defensive and not open to further engagement.

    For a number of years now, I have been encouraging my friends to the left that they need to start by first understanding why people believe what they believe. You can not understand if you have already passed judgement. People tend to be pragmatic – from their perspective. In other words, people act in such a way that makes sense in the context of the reality they I’ve in. Unless we take the time to understand that reality and how it leads to certain types of behavior, we can not begin to effectively communicate with people who disagree with us. This is true no matter what the issue is. So much social policy fails because policy makers are working from their world view instead of the perceptions of those they hope to affect with their policy. Rather than fixing social problems, this approach to policy making and social change do nothing more than reaffirm the policy makers ideology and assumptions of how the world should work; it does not actually do much in fixing or changing things in a meaningful way.

    So first, let’s stop calling people names, and assuming they are stupid or backwards or evil, and begin looking at the world from their standpoint so we can better understand their reality. Then, we must find a way to present an alternative ideology that not only looks like it will work for them, but actually will work for them. This ideology requires a ready set of responses to the cultural apparatus of those on the right, to eliminate that messaging from derailing the change we are attempting to create. Ideally, our alternative ideology will include a deconstruction of stratification systems that devalue the very people we are attempting to help through our alternative ideology more to the point, our efforts must be motivating by a genuine desire to make life better and equal for all; any other motivations will be quickly apparent. Because the laboring classes who currently embrace a more conservative, right wing ideology are not stupid. . .

  19. Rhonda,

    “……….our efforts must be motivating by a genuine desire to make life better and equal for all, any other motivations will be quickly apparent. Because the laboring classes who currently embrace a more conservative, right wing ideology are not stupid.”

    I’m all for what you have said. However, the laboring class you’re talking about feel that life will be better for them if others have less. It’s the “lifeboat theory” and how do you argue against that with our limited financial and material resources?

  20. “There is the story of our personal lives: our family, our friends, our jobs, our hobbies. There is the story of our communities: our civic, religious, business, artistic and recreational lives. There is the story of our nations: their internal political struggles and their struggles with each other.”

    “But now, there is one grand narrative which ties us all together, whether we want to be connected or not, whether we are preoccupied with our personal, community or national narratives or not. That is the narrative of our changing climate and the resulting threat to the continuity of our world civilization. The upcoming climate talks in Paris this week are but one expression of this new reality.”


  21. Pete,

    “…………The upcoming climate talks in Paris this week are but one expression of this new reality.”

    You have my Unitarian prayer on that one.

  22. I think Rhonda has hit the nail on the head. We are not speaking to each other in ways that each can understand. The “facts’ that we accept and rejects have more to do with our way of looking at the world than their “factiness.” Cognitive linguists, social psychologists, cognitive psychologists are all trying to figure out why and how this happens. A program of Bill Moyers back in 2012 was very educational on the topic and the message has stuck with me: http://billmoyers.com/episode/how-do-conservatives-and-liberals-see-the-world/ Different things are important to each end of the spectrum and until we can stop talking in terms of wrong and right, we will not be able to communicate.

  23. Marv,

    I have a problem by starting any conversation of this type with ” they think.” Im not sure that you or anyone who isn’t among the conservative working class really know what “they” think if for no other reason that “they” are no more a monolithic group than “we” are. The belief that it is acceptable for some to get more at the expense of others is simply one of the possible components of the American Ideology which does explain why this is so – because the winners supposedly are more deserving. It is but one of the many cultural stories in place that helps remove any cognitive dissonance that seeing people suffer, or feeling “guilt” might create (although guilt itself is pretty self serving).

    I grew up in a pretty much conservative,small town, blue collar, laboring class community. My parents were more open minded about things,nwhe has probably gave me the ability to ask questions that many of my peers might not have asked. Just the same, I am as comfortable (maybe more so) in the company of working class, American Dream flag waving Americans than I am around intellectuals on the ao-called left. Part of the reason for that is the sense of superiority and privilege in judging those seen as inferior that is constantly being communicated among my educated progressive friends. One thing one finds oh quickly when in the conservative laboring class community is that the loud hateful rhetoric that we so easily associate with them is not that common I’m everyday interactions. Rather, that rhetoric is more likely found during raucous debates at the bar (occasionally) or when members of then immunity feel threatened, attacked or judged by “outsiders.” Most of folks I known re good people busting their ass to get by and trying their best to be the best people they know how to be.
    That’s why I get really angry when I attend what is described as a humanist, critical thinking group discussion on the subject of conservative working class people aligned with Republicans and of all the “enlightened” attendees can say is that “those people are ignorant” fools. First, when the most any attendee can say about the conservative working class attitudes and behavior is that they are just ignorant is hardly what I would call critical thinking. Second, as I sit in these kinds of discussions and listen to this type self-righteous judging of others, I feel compelled to ask “compared to whom?” And ” what have you accomplished, or learned, in this event, beyond the self satisfaction that you are not ignorant and that they are inferior to you?” If that is what we are up to, then should I point out that given my PhD and high IQ, most of the people I meet are relatively ignorant? Doesn’t seem helpful does it?

    I want us to understand why some members of the conservative laboring class are okay with depriving others for their own benefit. and we should try to remember that this notion that the most rational thing every individual should do is be selfish, and work as hard as possible to get as much as possible, (which presumably enables the most productivity, the highest motivation to do ones best, and the best means of keeping a balance within the economic system) is a core part of the American ideal of capitalism. I still remember learning that this was the good and right way for things to work in and economy when I was in high school a million years ago. So I’m not prepared to right off as ignorant folks today who still embrace some version of this American capitalist ideal.

    Besides, whether or not we say we agree with the highly competitive “every person for themself” world view, I haven’t met many people who have managed to eliminate all consumption of goods that they purchased for a low price, subsidized by the government and made possible by the cheap, tedious,Mack-breaking and, often, dangerous labor of stigmatized immigrant workers in fields and factories or poor women working 12 hour days for below subsistence wages in free trade zones. The truth most of us are improving our cash flow by purchasing products made by people who do not earn enough to have our quality of life. We all seem to enjoy our space in the lifeboat because we are dependent on the labors of those who are denied seats next to us. So I’m not sure any of us are I the position to look down on those who at least admit what they are doing. Maybe Instead of judging, we need an alternative ideology and way of life that frees all of us from this selfish economic system we participate in.

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