Occasional politics

Dumb is dangerous

It's best not to think about this too much

We could have a conversation about this … or is it just too scary?

But doesn’t Fox “News?” Channel come to mind immediately?

How facts backfire

Researchers discover a surprising threat to democracy: our brains

By Joe Keohane  |  July 11, 2010

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.

In the end, truth will out. Won’t it?

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.

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

These findings open a long-running argument about the political ignorance of American citizens to broader questions about the interplay between the nature of human intelligence and our democratic ideals. Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote.

This effect is only heightened by the information glut, which offers — alongside an unprecedented amount of good information — endless rumors, misinformation, and questionable variations on the truth. In other words, it’s never been easier for people to be wrong, and at the same time feel more certain that they’re right.

“Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be,” read a recent Onion headline. Like the best satire, this nasty little gem elicits a laugh, which is then promptly muffled by the queasy feeling of recognition. The last five decades of political science have definitively established that most modern-day Americans lack even a basic understanding of how their country works. In 1996, Princeton University’s Larry M. Bartels argued, “the political ignorance of the American voter is one of the best documented data in political science.”

On its own, this might not be a problem: People ignorant of the facts could simply choose not to vote. But instead, it appears that misinformed people often have some of the strongest political opinions. A striking recent example was a study done in the year 2000, led by James Kuklinski of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He led an influential experiment in which more than 1,000 Illinois residents were asked questions about welfare — the percentage of the federal budget spent on welfare, the number of people enrolled in the program, the percentage of enrollees who are black, and the average payout. More than half indicated that they were confident that their answers were correct — but in fact only 3 percent of the people got more than half of the questions right. Perhaps more disturbingly, the ones who were the most confident they were right were by and large the ones who knew the least about the topic. (Most of these participants expressed views that suggested a strong antiwelfare bias.)

Studies by other researchers have observed similar phenomena when addressing education, health care reform, immigration, affirmative action, gun control, and other issues that tend to attract strong partisan opinion. Kuklinski calls this sort of response the “I know I’m right” syndrome, and considers it a “potentially formidable problem” in a democratic system. “It implies not only that most people will resist correcting their factual beliefs,” he wrote, “but also that the very people who most need to correct them will be least likely to do so.”

What’s going on? How can we have things so wrong, and be so sure that we’re right? Part of the answer lies in the way our brains are wired. Generally, people tend to seek consistency. There is a substantial body of psychological research showing that people tend to interpret information with an eye toward reinforcing their preexisting views. If we believe something about the world, we are more likely to passively accept as truth any information that confirms our beliefs, and actively dismiss information that doesn’t. This is known as “motivated reasoning.” Whether or not the consistent information is accurate, we might accept it as fact, as confirmation of our beliefs. This makes us more confident in said beliefs, and even less likely to entertain facts that contradict them.

New research, published in the journal Political Behavior last month, suggests that once those facts — or “facts” — are internalized, they are very difficult to budge. In 2005, amid the strident calls for better media fact-checking in the wake of the Iraq war, Michigan’s Nyhan and a colleague devised an experiment in which participants were given mock news stories, each of which contained a provably false, though nonetheless widespread, claim made by a political figure: that there were WMDs found in Iraq (there weren’t), that the Bush tax cuts increased government revenues (revenues actually fell), and that the Bush administration imposed a total ban on stem cell research (only certain federal funding was restricted). Nyhan inserted a clear, direct correction after each piece of misinformation, and then measured the study participants to see if the correction took.

For the most part, it didn’t. The participants who self-identified as conservative believed the misinformation on WMD and taxes even more strongly after being given the correction. With those two issues, the more strongly the participant cared about the topic — a factor known as salience — the stronger the backfire. The effect was slightly different on self-identified liberals: When they read corrected stories about stem cells, the corrections didn’t backfire, but the readers did still ignore the inconvenient fact that the Bush administration’s restrictions weren’t total.

It’s unclear what is driving the behavior — it could range from simple defensiveness, to people working harder to defend their initial beliefs — but as Nyhan dryly put it, “It’s hard to be optimistic about the effectiveness of fact-checking.”

It would be reassuring to think that political scientists and psychologists have come up with a way to counter this problem, but that would be getting ahead of ourselves. The persistence of political misperceptions remains a young field of inquiry. “It’s very much up in the air,” says Nyhan.

But researchers are working on it. One avenue may involve self-esteem. Nyhan worked on one study in which he showed that people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. 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.

There are also some cases where directness works. Kuklinski’s welfare study suggested that people will actually update their beliefs if you hit them “between the eyes” with bluntly presented, objective facts that contradict their preconceived ideas. He asked one group of participants what percentage of its budget they believed the federal government spent on welfare, and what percentage they believed the government should spend. Another group was given the same questions, but the second group was immediately told the correct percentage the government spends on welfare (1 percent). They were then asked, with that in mind, what the government should spend. Regardless of how wrong they had been before receiving the information, the second group indeed adjusted their answer to reflect the correct fact.

Kuklinski’s study, however, involved people getting information directly from researchers in a highly interactive way. When Nyhan attempted to deliver the correction in a more real-world fashion, via a news article, it backfired. Even if people do accept the new information, it might not stick over the long term, or it may just have no effect on their opinions. In 2007 John Sides of George Washington University and Jack Citrin of the University of California at Berkeley studied whether providing misled people with correct information about the proportion of immigrants in the US population would affect their views on immigration. It did not.

And if you harbor the notion — popular on both sides of the aisle — that the solution is more education and a higher level of political sophistication in voters overall, well, that’s a start, but not the solution. A 2006 study by Charles Taber and Milton Lodge at Stony Brook University showed that politically sophisticated thinkers were even less open to new information than less sophisticated types. These people may be factually right about 90 percent of things, but their confidence makes it nearly impossible to correct the 10 percent on which they’re totally wrong. Taber and Lodge found this alarming, because engaged, sophisticated thinkers are “the very folks on whom democratic theory relies most heavily.”

In an ideal world, citizens would be able to maintain constant vigilance, monitoring both the information they receive and the way their brains are processing it. But keeping atop the news takes time and effort. And relentless self-questioning, as centuries of philosophers have shown, can be exhausting. Our brains are designed to create cognitive shortcuts — inference, intuition, and so forth — to avoid precisely that sort of discomfort while coping with the rush of information we receive on a daily basis. Without those shortcuts, few things would ever get done. Unfortunately, with them, we’re easily suckered by political falsehoods.

Nyhan ultimately recommends a supply-side approach. Instead of focusing on citizens and consumers of misinformation, he suggests looking at the sources. If you increase the “reputational costs” of peddling bad info, he suggests, you might discourage people from doing it so often. “So if you go on ‘Meet the Press’ and you get hammered for saying something misleading,” he says, “you’d think twice before you go and do it again.”

Unfortunately, this shame-based solution may be as implausible as it is sensible. Fast-talking political pundits have ascended to the realm of highly lucrative popular entertainment, while professional fact-checking operations languish in the dungeons of wonkery. Getting a politician or pundit to argue straight-faced that George W. Bush ordered 9/11, or that Barack Obama is the culmination of a five-decade plot by the government of Kenya to destroy the United States — that’s easy. Getting him to register shame? That isn’t.

Joe Keohane is a writer in New York.


15 replies »

  1. Biggest proof that this article is spot-on: global warming. A majority of Americans, I think, do not believe in it, whatever scientific evidence is presented to them. In fact, as this article points out, they don’t believe in it almost because of the scientific evidence. A substantial minority of Americans, after all, don’t believe in evolution. Further 55% of Americans think Obama is a socialist.

    I could go on. There’s little point. Education makes little difference when the agitprop from all sides is so powerful, so powerfully appealing to our lizard brains. Like fatty foods and corn sugar to our bellies. We just can’t resist it. No one is thinking clearly, howsoever clearly you think you are thinking. At least, that’s what I often think.

    The deeper problem is, none of us are speaking the same language. This is why our political debates are so intractable. Antiabortion and prochoice aren’t even talking about the same thing when they talk about abortion, to take one classic chestnut. Debate is pointless. It’s like 2 people debating the merits of Australian rules football, one in French Creole, one in Urdu.

    This is not my thesis; it’s my bastardized version of what the philosopher McIntyre said in his book After Virtue. I’ve paid a lot less attention to the noise of the endless “news” cycle since reading it.

    • My reply to this disappeared when I clicked on submit comment. There are days when the whimsical character of computers fries my fanny. Leaving me too pissed off to try to recreate it.

  2. I have a wireless mouse. Sometimes, on its own initiative, it decides that what I really wanted to do was page back instead of forward, or something like that. When I moved the mouse to click on submit comment, it decided it would be more interesting, in terms of my character development, to instead page back, and thus nullify all the work I’d just done. We need such lessons in life, reminding us that we are as impotent as a pile of dead leaves in any confrontation with electronic devices.

    But I assure you, it was a whizbang, damn fine, reply.

    Fucking machines.

    Stick with pen and paper is my byword.

    • And in an particularly frustrating and oblique way, that sort of proves the point of the article, too.

  3. The clear and present danger (a phrase war lovers love) to this propensity for valuing opinion and belief ahead of fact and knowledge, to be specific, can already seen in the increasing speed and intensity of eroding civil and political discourse in American public life.

    When we divide into (some already arming) camps of antagonists and scream our faux differences into one another’s faces, slice the nation into chunks of us and them and them and them based almost entirely on differing beliefs and opinions, few of which have much acquaintanceship with facts or reality, we diminish (and can destroy) civil society.

    The effect of bitter societal and political divisions based on pseudo differences that rely on weak opinion and slipshod reasoning is to so weaken the public trust in its public institutions as to render them worse than impotent; to make government the “enemy of the people.”

    An obvious example of this is the rise of “tea”parties and the explosive, disheartening rise in popularity of the tea parties’ principal propaganda organ, the laughably named Fox “News” channel. (There are occasional snippets of news broadcast on this Fox channel, but its raison d’être is to be the video version of radical right wing talk radio.)

    The agenda of Tea Parties and their mouthpieces is to hack away at the public’s faith and trust in their government and public laws and institutions, replacing it with … ? Some sort of nebulous, every man for himself, return to wild west frontierism, where men tote shootin’ irons, where boots have straps to tug up, where the strong overcome the weak, where the powerful have not only the ability but the right to use the weak in the service of acquiring individual wealth, where any notion of fair play, protecting the weaker and the innocent is seen as itself weakness.

    The most important element in the Tea Parties’ program is using common, just folks, beliefs and opinions in the war against fact and knowledge as the primary tool in eroding the public trust in its government and laws, to hasten their dreamed of return to that old time religion of rugged individualism, where a man is a man and a woman is pregnant.

    I have visited and lived in countries where this is already the case, where the goal for Tea Parties and those under their sway, have already succeeded. There are many around the world. But they probably don’t look much like the Tea Parties’ dreamland.

    I’ll end this waste of time by pasting in a section from a response to the same article in this post, made by one of my wife’s colleagues, Bill M. —

    “But there’s unhealthy skepticism, too; skepticism that’s taken too far. There are lots of examples, but the rising number of polio cases around the world resulting from a skepticism about the vaccine will serve.

    “The threat-to-democracy part comes, I think, when rising skepticism starts to erode civic trust. I never gave trust much thought until I lived in countries where there wasn’t any, countries where the people didn’t trust their currency, their banks, their police, their courts, their government. Their news. Trust did not extend much past the family unit. Without trust, the things we take for granted—writing a check, for example; not being thrown in jail at random—were impossible.

    “These countries were not successful democracies.”

  4. when i first read this post i just went, ‘eh…’ and figured i didn’t have much of an intelligent argument in this case – here in hk, we’ve never had, and will never have, democracy.

    our struggle for democracy has indeed taken a bad turn lately as the democratic party struck a deal with the central chinese government about political reform in HK. apparently the deal must have been there for a long while and all that ‘struggle’ was just for show. to think that the HK public believed in it, fought for it for so long because we believed we understood those democratic ideals! when we’d never ever had it, not even any room or promise for it, when we’re so poorly educated about it all!

    or Hong Kong is just backward in this sense, oh well.

    Re my visit to tango-land. it looks like i may be getting a job that i’m willing to take up. if that works out i’ll definitely plan a trip to where you are within next year before you’re gone! you can come watch me dance and enjoy that glass of wine for me – i don’t drink.

    • Don’t fret, Nicole. I drink enough for both of us. We will be in BAires for almost two more years, so there’ time. I will finish this reply, because I am in a cafe, trying to type on a BBerry keypad. Until then. Don

  5. I visited often and then lived for a time in a Central European country with a totalitarian, Soviet-dominated, government.

    Oddly, what I most liked about it in those days was a direct result of the total breakdown of trust in government and the institutions of civil society: the intensely strong utter and sole dependance on friends and family, the only place one found any measure of trust in the entire country.

    And oddly, which is the point of this article and following comments, this condition, the life that existed in countries dominated by totalitarian governments — the total lack of trust in government and civic society — is the stated goal of the tea party movement, in spite of … no, because of, the fact that they really can’t explain what the society they seek will be like, or what happens in a society where there is a breakdown of faith and trust in one’s government and by extension the elements of civil society.

    I suggest that if these misguided, rather dumb, folks really want to put their money where their mouths and placards are, they will withdraw from the services of the institutions they do not trust, the ones they want to abolish, and truly become responsible for taking care of themselves, without that pesky old government’s help.

    Don’t call the taxpayer supported police when you have a criminal problem; don’t call the taxpayer supported fire department when you have a fire, don’t drive your car on taxpayer supported highways; don’t buy groceries from government subsided farms; don’t participate in social security, medicare, or medicaid, or buy subsidized prescriptions; stop depending on the taxpayer supported military (fight you own damn wars by yourself, or with a few friends); take your children out of taxpayer supported schools; avoid all taxpayer supported colleges and universities … I could keep this up all day. The point is made for anyone with a functioning brain any size larger than a parakeet’s.

    I am a Liberal because I rather like all the services government provides for me in return for a rather small percentage of my income in taxes. Fair trade. They do all the crap I don’t want to do for myself, or cannot do for myself, and I pay them for those services.

    The tea party notion represents essentially stupid selfishness and an inability to reason rationally.

    • I’m not going to defend the Teabaggers, because everything you’ve said is true, and I’ve made similar points repeatedly on my own blog. Rather, I’d just suggest that the roots of the “movement” lie deeper than selfishness or an ability to reason.

      It’s hard to explain but I’m going to try anyway. Essentially, if you live in rural Red State America, you often feel put upon by the urban elites constantly niggling at your social arrangments with their hifalutin plans for the betterment of everyone, including you. You object to the social engineering you see coming out of the Left Coast and DC and wish, mainly, to be left alone. As an instinctive social conservative, you also fear and resent the loss of “your” traditional country, the one you knew growing up. New languages, new ethnicities, new ways of doing stuff – especially by your own kids. You are constantly told, through the media and elsewise, that your experience and knowledge counts for little, compared to the elitist views emananting from the elite institutions, particularly on the coast – and, most galling of all, often from the elitist institutions in your own state, which you support with your hard-earned tax dollars.

      This is why, I believe, Faux News and the Teabagger movement resonate so powerfully with Red State folks. Its not the message so much as it is THE MESSAGE. Fuck off, elitists. We don’t need your theorizing around here. Leave us alone.

      Additional irony: a good chunk, if not an outright majority, of people living on the coasts are in the same economic and cultural boat. They just happen to live in a Blue State.

      Finally, I would argue that this viewpoint and the bile that spews forth because of it is neither indigenous nor unique to America. I personally encountered similar viewpoints in rural Japan (where they loathed the Tokyo bureaucrats constantly coming up with bright new “ideas” while still taking their money), rural Thailand (where the locals viewed the higher-ups – correctly – as irredeemably corrupt); and from my readings, such an attitude also exists in Afghanistan, Indian, Russia, Central Asia and good chunks of eastern Europe.

      I am not making an argument that these people are right; just that as a phenomenological position, the views they hold are not so much a matter of rationality as psychology and culture.

      I sympathize with these folks because I grew up with them; and have since chosen to live among them (a decision I know looks monumentally ridiculous from an elite perspective); and, culturally speaking, I am, in large measure, one of them.

      • I forgot to add, this was sort of the point of the article you posted to start this discussion. Education means little before ingrained culture, most of the time. It takes a monumental effort (to steal a Southernism) to rise above your upbringin’.

      • I’m out having lunch and will answer this more completely when I’m with a computer again. But I will say that I see nothing in your psychological explanation to deny the resulting selfishness and blockage to seeing where rational analysis takes them. More to come.

  6. I don’t know how far to go with this deep roots argument. I don’t know how to deal with rationalizations that depend on cultural precedents and sociological excuses. It’s not that I don’t understand where this is coming from, because it has obvious sources; I am saying that people who have these tea party type beliefs do not show evidence of being capable of themselves understanding their real motivations, and apparently incapable of thinking through the logical sequence that could inevitably take them to a clear understanding of what they are asking for.

    Our cultural heritage includes slavery and misogyny, but some of us are happy to have thought our way through the fallacies of these things.

    These Fox-produced and sustained phrases are keeping baggers in blinders. Elite. What is that? It appears to be anyone who has more of something than you do — more money, more education, more intellect, more toys, more excitement in their lives. The contrary, according to the Beck-O-Reilly team is the “just folks.” In a thinking or reasoning contest between the just folks and the elites … .

    If you pin down a bagger and get him to name names — just who is elite, just which institutions are elite? — most of the time what he comes up with are the most socially responsible and progressive people and institutions in the country, those people and places that by and large have kept American moving into the future and not locked-stepped into the past (as, for example, many Islamic nations have done). I hope I am an elite. I try to be. To say fuck off elitist is blowing off one’s foot to cure a hangnail. The tea bagger philosophy is about as self-destructive a movement as I’ve seen.

    I understand nostalgia, I am a big fan of it; it flavors much of this blog. On the other hand, my ability to reason, to think critically and sensibly about subjects that matter, is not distorted by my fondness for nostalgia. I know what nostalgia is, and one of those things is that it’s not real. It is fantasizing reverie. I would not make important decisions by depending on fantasy and reverie. I have never been mistaken in recognizing when nostalgic fantasies are influencing decisions I make, so at least I have the choice of taking the decision in spite of its dubious source, or growing up.

    The worst part of all this is finding so many people making so much noise who have really not one clue what they are really asking for. If they did, they would shut up. But they don’t. They just don’t know how to follow a line of thinking that leads from what’s coming out of their mouths to what in reality they would get. I would more easily sympathize with this kind of static thought process if it had no power, if it was just disgruntled folks venting. The folks just being the folks.

    Serial killers have psychological explanations. Rapists have psychological and cultural excuses. Rationalizing our actions should not excuse them.

    We need a lot less making excuses for people who are letting “culture” and “psychology” blockade their minds from reasoning, and a lot more people who know how to think.

    So I have no sympathy, and I thank whatever good fortune I’ve had in my life to have survived the possibility of being one of these people, because like you, I grew up entirely surrounded by them.

    Thank you Jesus for showing me the path.

    • Hilarious.

      I’m headed to lunch so I’ll comment more later but in the meantime, you might enjoy the library video I posted over on the blog, and I bet your librarian wife would dig it, too.

  7. As you say, you can’t possibly condone what the baggers are saying, or what they purport to believe. I didn’t posit my “pyschological” explanation to justify any of that. Though I don’t think your average bagger would view their culture and psychology (if they would even use those hifalutin terms) as excuses. I think they would view them as reasons, such as they are.

    I should note that it’s hardly uniform bagger territory out here in the Red States. My father, for instance, is a highly-educated, practical man who also happens to be a trueblood conservative – and he has no time for the buffoonery of Teabagger antics.

    Another thing to note is that the baggers make very selective use of the blessing of a modern, rational society. For instance, your average teabagger farmer out here is an extremely sophisticated practitioner of the very latest in agriscience technology; he just doesn’t want a buncha liberals telling him God didn’t create the earth in 7 days, or whatever. The disconnect there will not be apparent to him, I don’t think.

    The baggers remind me of gay rights parades from not too many years ago, chanting “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!”. Only in this case it’s, “We’re here, we’re crazy, get used to it.” I think we’re just going to have to.

  8. Oh, and I should say also, as raw literary material, teabaggers are fantastic. Faulkner didn’t make a career out of novels about sociology professors!