The Boston Globe has an article which describes a phenomenon which has been clear for a long time as a new discovery. They reported on studies which found that people, especially ideologues, often ignore facts which contradict their views:
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.”
This is hardly surprising. We’ve seen this during the Iraq war as many conservatives held onto beliefs that there was WMD in Iraq or that Saddam was involved in the 9/11 attack. In addition, we see conservatives expressing numerous beliefs which are counter to fact. In economics we see conservatives hold onto the same erroneous economic views regardless of how often they lead to disaster. In science this includes belief in creationism and denial of the human role in climate change. In history we see a growing number of conservatives deny the fact that the Founding Fathers supported separation of church and state despite all the historical documentation that this is what they intended.
The conservative movement, with its disconnect from reality, is also prone to spreading unfounded conspiracy theories. In recent elections we’ve seen them hold onto disputed claims such as those from the Swift Boat Liars and the Birthers. Many conservatives continue to claim that neither John Kerry’s military record or Barack Obama’s birth certificate have been released. In reality, not only have both documents been made public but they have also been posted on line. Then we have the Tea Party movement which is totally disconnected from reality.
Of course there are also some nutty views held on the far left too. The difference is that the left in this country is dominated by people who are generally pragmatic and even moderate by international standards. Those with views which are contrary to fact on the left tend to have little influence, while the conservative movement has become dominated by ideologues who deny the facts whenever they contradict their extremist views.
The researchers looked at a few specific issues:
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.
Incorrect views on the right, such as on WMD and the effect of tax cuts, are fairly widespread. I imagine that there are some on the left who believe that Bush supported total restrictions on stem cell research, but most liberal writings have been more specific in criticizing Bush for the federal restrictions on funding of stem cell research. Articles frequently noted that, while the ban was not total, Bush’s limitations on the stem cell lines on which research was allowed wound up crippling stem cell research.
This phenomenon described is hardly surprising or anything new, but there might be some value in publicizing such academic research. This might help a bit in countering the misinformation which commonly comes from Fox and the Tea Party rallies. Of course the research also demonstrates what we already knew–those who believe these claims are unlikely to change their minds based upon the facts.