Tuesday, January 11, 2011

If the facts don't fit the theory...

One of my favorite Simpsons lines comes from Kent Brockman, blow-dried anchor of Springfield's local news, who famously rants, " I've said it before and I'll say it again - Democracy simply doesn't work!" I'll hold off on the deeper political philosophy behind that statement and simply share an article that has been waiting on my to-read pile since last year: Joe Keochane's Boston Globe piece, "How Facts Backfire."

Summarizing research from the University of Michigan, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and other institutions, the article tackles the notion that a well informed citizenry produces good decisions. Current research, it seems, indicates an alternative vision, suggesting that facts can sometimes bolster falsehoods rather than challenge them. A pertinent quote:

"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."

Keochane explains that this response - initially a redoubt against cognitive dissonance - is called "backfire," a mode in which a person measures the validity of a fact against a belief and either amends or ignores the fact in case of conflict [recalling a phrase often - likely incorrectly - attributed to Einstein: "If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts."]. Backfire increases, Keochane says, in cases of information overload and with persons whose ideologies are especially connected to their senses of self. The result: "misinformed people often have some of the strongest political opinions."

One final sobering quotation: "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."

Read more How Facts Backfire

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