The Facts aren't Enough

by VorJack

The Boston Globe has an interesting and disheartening article about the relationship between facts and belief:

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.


“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.”

The article focuses on what this means for democracy and the idea that an educated population will govern itself wisely. It points out that frequently it is those misinformed people who are most passionate about what they fail to understand. The author actually makes reference to an article in the Onion to explain the problem, Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be.

But it’s hard for me to get too worked up about this; after all, humans have always been this way, and American democracy has survived for over 200 years. But it doesn’t bode well for our attempts to promote science and reason. The more we push, the more pushback we can expect.

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