How Facts Backfire: A Surprising Threat to Democracy — Our Brains

TruthinessThis article reminds me of Stephen Colbert’s character: “I don’t like books, they’re all fact, no heart.” Seems like political scientists are finally paying more attention to “Truthiness“. Joe Keohane writes in the Boston Globe:

It’s one of the great assumptions underlying modern democracy that an informed citizenry is preferable to an uninformed one. “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1789. This notion, carried down through the years, underlies everything from humble political pamphlets to presidential debates to the very notion of a free press. Mankind may be crooked timber, as Kant put it, uniquely susceptible to ignorance and misinformation, but it’s an article of faith that knowledge is the best remedy. If people are furnished with the facts, they will be clearer thinkers and better citizens. If they are ignorant, facts will enlighten them. If they are mistaken, facts will set them straight.

Maybe not. 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.

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.

Read More: Boston Globe

12 Comments on "How Facts Backfire: A Surprising Threat to Democracy — Our Brains"

  1. Attempting to sway the political opinions of your citizens through shame doesn't seem very democratic to me. It seems just as agenda driven as when people on the right try to do through fear, or on the left by playing the race card, concerning Obama. If you wish to actively affect the way your citizens vote, even if it's because they're dumb as rocks, i say you would prefer a system of government other than democracy.

    And I'm right, dammit. You can't convince me otherwise, la-la-la-la.

  2. Tuna Ghost | Jul 13, 2010 at 7:16 pm |

    H.L. Mencken said “Democracy is the pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance”, along with some other clever things. I personally agree with Churchhill when he said “the biggest argument against democracy is a conversation with the average voter”.

    • Often those average voters can be well-informed and insightful where local issues that concern their daily lives are involved. The problem is when you scale up; issues become more distant, abstract, and ideological, and it boils down to which interests are running the strongest media campaign.

    • cerebralcaustic | Jul 14, 2010 at 6:36 pm |

      Do you have a source for the Churchill quote? It's been attributed to him, but I've never seen it attached to a reliable source. Moreover, it seems to go against the spirit of his other comments on democracy: (“Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. Speech in the House of Commons, 1947-11-11, The Official Report, House of Commons (5th Series), 11 November 1947, vol. 444, cc. 206–07.)

      Mencken, on the other hand, thought the overwhelming majority of people were idiots: (“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” A Little Book in C major, 1916)

      • cerebralcaustic | Jul 14, 2010 at 7:01 pm |

        Better quote, IMHO, than the (purported) Churchill saying:

        “I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.” William F. Buckley, quoted in The Quote Verifier : Who Said What, Where, and When (2006) by Ralph Keyes, p. 82

        • Hadrian999 | Jul 15, 2010 at 4:02 pm |

          a conservative mocking education, shocking.

        • I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by Wall Street and the captains of industry.

  3. Aww man…I wanted to post the U of M study link!!! Read that last night and love it. Really hammers home the consequences of people clinging to the infantile fantasy that if they believe something, belief alone is sufficient proof to merit their faith.

    Shines a great new light on the GOP's collective attempt to 'double down' and dig for new levels of stupidity hate and ignorance after 8 years of backing history's worst loser. I'd wondered the same premise in 2008, after 8 years of Bush lovers and in 2000 after 8 years of Clinton lovers. 16 years of apologists for their 'team's star player' making excuses and ignoring information that didn't sit right with their current beliefs. And it continues now with Obama-fans that will excuse crap that no sane person would have tolerated from Bush just two years ago. Chocolate Jesus embraces warmongering and corporate feudalism and now its okay? Not to me it isn't! It was criminal conduct when Bush did it, and when Clinton did it…and it's still a crime now.

    Is it really that people's minds naturally shy away from concluding “Oh, God! I've been a flaming sucker for years and these bastards took me for everything I was worth!” ?

    I think so.

    • cerebralcaustic | Jul 14, 2010 at 6:46 pm |

      >8 years of backing history's worst loser.

      You think Bush was worse than Idi Amin?

      Seriously, though, I like your point about how loyalty to The Party, at all costs, is often most important…

      • That raises an interesting point. I'd still say Bush…since its for loser status…and Bush had a bigger stage to fail on and more resources to play with. But…

        …which is more evil? The guy who might actually be so dumb and self deluded that he thinks he's a heroic crusader defending the world while committing every act of evil and incompetence we can name…or the guy who was evil, knew it, loved it, and just flat out worked hard to be completely evil?

        If its a contest for being evil…instead of just pathetic…I think you'd be right…Idi Amin…and lots of others are more 'evil'. Bush is more like the trainwreck you shake your head at and turn away. Now Dick Cheney…there's some quality evil!

  4. Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Blink” would ironically tend to agree with this (up to a point). Sometimes having more information (or at least extraneous information not critical to the decision-making process) can be a hindrance to good judgment.

    An example would be orchestras who used to audition musicians, and many conductors claimed that women simply couldn't play as well, and so wouldn't hire them. Until, that is, during several auditions where those competing for a spot were family members and nepotism was feared, so they set up a screen behind which people would audition — basically trying to weed out any favoritism.

    Well, it worked, but not in the way they expected. Many more women were offered gigs simply because the conductors stopped interjecting their sexism into the mix (ie. extraneous visual information and illogical value judgments about gender than have nothing to do with how well one plays). As a result, in Gladwell's research he found female musician after female musician who said, “I auditioned literally HUNDREDS of times and never got a gig, but got hired the very first time I auditioned after they put up that silly screen.”

    One wonders how much talent went to waste prior to that.

  5. I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by Wall Street and the captains of industry.

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