One of the abiding frustrations of contemporary life is the widespread resistance to facts–people’s rejection of probative evidence that X is true and Y (no matter how desirable) is not.
Perhaps I’ve just been paying closer attention as I’ve aged, but it certainly seems to me that the prevalence of disinformation and outright lies characterizing American political life has become a bigger problem ever since the appearance of Fox News and MAGA Republicanism.
We’re about to enter a two-year period where GOP whack jobs like Jim Jordan conduct fact-free (or at least, fact-distorted) Congressional “investigations” into everything from Hunter Biden’s laptop to Anthony Fauci. Reports from this year’s Climate Summit remind us that we have yet to make many of the changes necessary to combat climate change–a delay attributable in part to the climate deniers who for years refused to accept what science (and the evidence of their eyes) was telling them. Anti-vaccine lunacy has been responsible for thousands of deaths.
Other examples are too numerous to list.
The problem is, our form of government owes its philosophical basis to the Enlightenment–and if the Enlightenment prioritized anything, it was empiricism–the search for and analysis of falsifiable evidence–as a critical method to understand the world we inhabit.
When public officials occupy different realities, governance becomes impossible.For that matter, if people resist believing what their senses and investigations are telling them, the entire edifice of civilization crumbles.
In 2017, a New Yorker article titled “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds” explored both the importance of separating fact from fiction, and the reasons contemporary humans seem to be incapable of doing so. The article began by describing studies conducted at Stanford that attempted to understand the stubborn staying power of people’s initial impressions. In the experiments, even total refutation of the subjects’ initial beliefs was insufficient to make them change their minds.
The Stanford studies became famous. Coming from a group of academics in the nineteen-seventies, the contention that people can’t think straight was shocking. It isn’t any longer. Thousands of subsequent experiments have confirmed (and elaborated on) this finding. As everyone who’s followed the research—or even occasionally picked up a copy of Psychology Today—knows, any graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now. Still, an essential puzzle remains: How did we come to be this way?
In a book titled “The Enigma of Reason, ” a couple of cognitive scientists tried to answer that question. They pointed out that “reason is an evolved trait, like bipedalism or three-color vision. It emerged on the savannas of Africa, and has to be understood in that context.”
The basic argument is that human beings’ biggest advantage is our ability to coöperate. Reason, they posit, “developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.”
Think about it. If the capacity for reason developed to allow humans to generate sound judgments, it would be hard to conceive of a more serious design flaw than confirmation bias. After all, an inaccurate view of reality is a significant threat to survival. But here we are, and here–still–is confirmation bias. The authors concluded that it must have some adaptive function related to our “hypersociability,” and that it may actually have evolved to prevent us from getting screwed by other members of our group.
Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments…
Among the many, many issues our forebears didn’t worry about were the deterrent effects of capital punishment and the ideal attributes of a firefighter. Nor did they have to contend with fabricated studies, or fake news, or Twitter. It’s no wonder, then, that today reason often seems to fail us… the environment changed too quickly for natural selection to catch up.”
The article goes on to describe two other books dealing with the ways we contemporary humans encounter–and dismiss– facts. (For one thing, we all believe we understand far more than we actually do–a deficit that becomes clear when we are asked for detailed information.) It’s a fascinating, albeit somewhat depressing, read.
Bottom line: For those of us who want public policies to be based on sound evidence and facts, the literature is not reassuring.