How facts backfire Researchers discover a surprising threat to democracy: our brains

By Joe Keohane July 11, 2010 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.The entire article:


Zenzoe 9 years 21 weeks ago

As Thom likes to quote, "You know that you’re wrong, but you fear you’re right, you suspect you’re out of sync, you think that you’re out of your mind, everything you know is wrong". (Firesign Theater)

dhavid 9 years 21 weeks ago

If it is true that political bias is something that, once adopted, is adhered to, even is spite of clear facts that contradict it - would not the same principle hold true for religious bias?

Jason Bowen's picture
Jason Bowen 9 years 21 weeks ago

dhavid- Heck yeah.

How many people can actually be changed from their accepted and defended views? It appears that this study says- very few. So we all argue, don't listen, don't learn, defend our turf and get nowhere.

I listen to Thom, Randi, Karel and Mike. I agree, I learn, I get angry. But, my gun toting right wing lunatic friends shut their minds. Any discussion is an argument and a waste of time because no one accepts the others views. They just want to convert me to their side. They don't accept what I consider facts and counter with their own "facts".

I wish I knew how the human mind changes its fundamental beliefs. What does it take to get a person to change? Is it even possible through rational fact based reasoning?

So are we really only blowing smoke? Is there no real change?

Well, I have to say we have changed a lot since I was a little kid in the 60's.

Equal Rights, Civil rights, Environmentalism, the whole Democratic platform really. So something has been happening. But, I can't put my finger on what it is that has been doing it.

Maybe it is just change occuring as people die and are replaced by more enlightened young people. Young people make the changes that we older people only argue about.

Maybe that's why America can be so great. We churn the people in and out of power. The pendulum swings back and forth, always seeking a better middle ground. ???

dhavid 9 years 21 weeks ago

Jason wrote, "Maybe that's why America can be so great. We churn the people in and out of power. The pendulum swings back and forth, always seeking a better middle ground. ???"

Clearly from history civilizations tend to have their pendulum swings, I especially liked it as a college student when I was able to experience the romantic sixties. Today we find ourselves in a very conservative era. As it swings it seems we are moving closer and closer to facism. Facism sucks. I hope I live long enough to see it swing back the other way!

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