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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  • Custador

    Human nature, particularly for those lacking intellect: When proven wrong, get angry. I wise lady once said to me “When you’ve raised your voice, that’s when you need to realise you’re wrong and you’ve lost”. I should probably pay more attention to that.

    • dutchhobbit

      I wouldn’t quite agree with that. I have had situations where I tell a fact but the person would not listen. There were situations where the answer was black or white and both me and the other party raised their voice. I mean both of us can’t be wrong when it is one or zero.

    • claidheamh mor

      When it gets rough is when you’re up against people who don’t pay any attention to it. I know. Not many people can out-reason me, but anyone can out-asshole me. And many do so by interrupting, flaming, name-calling, shouting, changing the subject, or all of the above.

      • nomad

        Amen. And don’t forget telling you in so many words to STFU. Most people, from my daytoday experience are right all of the time. And it has nothing to do with the facts. They are right because it’s not possible for them to be wrong.

  • DDM

    One of the things that lead me astray from religion was something that, quite frankly, has always been a part of me because I value truth more than anything: I’m not afraid to admit (especially to myself) when I’m wrong about something. I’m sad to hear that other people don’t have such an outlook; it really would make the world a better place if they simply accept they’re wrong and move on, instead of wallowing and rolling and playing forked nachos with their wrongness.

    • Francesco Orsenigo

      This is rather difficult to do, as most of the times we delude ourselves pretty effectively.
      I try to be open to ‘being wrong’ myself, but it’s difficult.
      I am very confident that many of the beliefs I hold even now are delusions, and hopefully most of them are just minor ones.

      A lot of people don’t live comfortable lives as ours, I can’t blame them for not engaging in the kind of mental masturbation and merciless self-analysis required to find out your own errors.

      I would love a society where we can find our own inconsistencies, but how could we teach this?

  • gardengirl

    This also supports the studies that human beings tend to start with a conclusion, and find “facts” to support that conclusion, instead of drawing conclusions based on facts. I am constantly aware of this, and try hard to be open minded. Sadly, not many follow this.

  • nazani14

    If this is a brain chemistry effect, let’s find the antidote and put it in the water.
    There are several things I used to believe quite strongly that I have changed my mind about, notably in the field of economics and psychology. But then, I make an effort to read.

    • nazani14

      Just had a thought- it would be interesting if middle school teachers could make up lists of incorrect things that many people believe, and facts that most people don’t know, perhaps taken from history and natural science, and then direct the students through the process of gathering and evaluating information. We had to “bring in a newspaper clipping of a current event,” but it was always taken at face value.

      • Kodie

        In my college* biology class (some sort for non-majors), my professor had us on assignment to debunk a scientific article and encouraged us to find something in a tabloid so we didn’t strain ourselves. I found an article that claimed if you eat enough wheat bread, you will have ingested enough of the same chemicals that are in LSD to experience hallucinations. In all earnestness, I sat down and ate an entire loaf with no trip, and as additional step, I wrote in that the person who made the claim was not a Dr. but a Dr — I surmised that the lack of period after the abbreviation indicated a purposeful omission rather than a typo.

        *My college has been rated very highly and profiled often in qualified publications (Princeton Review, Kiplinger’s, US News and World Report, New York Times, etc.) as an alternative to Ivy League choices, competitive education to high-ranking private colleges and universities, best college for the money, ranks very high among state schools enough to attract out-of-state enrollment, so it’s not some piece of crap unaccredited diploma mill nobody ever speaks well of. I think my prof was a little senile.

  • Yoav

    Ignoring what doesn’t fit with our preconceived ideas is indeed part of human nature and true the american democracy have survived for 200 years. However during most of said 2 centuries you didn’t have fix noise, the dishonesty institute and their ilk who are dedicated to the generation of alternate reality where facts really don’t matter.

    • Mike

      Oh but facts DO matter – they are the enemy…

  • Kodie

    What exactly is the human nature here? Some people are the curious ones, the fact-seekers. I think most humans find facts hard to process, and information changes hard to keep up with. It is a modern time when information is being passed along rapidly, new discoveries are being made and filtered down to people who consider themselves informed enough.

    I don’t think I’m nearly informed enough. I’m well aware the news on tv and most of the internet is bite-sized, easy to grasp content that may or may not be all you need to know or even have gotten it right. As it passes from the top down, it is misinformation or misleadingly simplified for consumption.

    People are then satisfied that they have the basics, it’s good enough. Someone who sounds a lot smarter than they are presents facts in bullet points and a lot of passion to conclude an opinion, so they are satisfied with the reliable source that their opinion has reason and wasn’t just arrived at by flipping a coin. Whichever side you choose on an issue or a platform, the other side of course points out where you’re wrong. If I believe one side, I laugh along how they mock the other, and increase my suspicion of the others’ reliability because they are often mocking the reliability of the side I’ve chosen and the characters I’ve put my trust in. They’re not presenting me with any reason to change my mind from the filtered news-ish opinions I have settled on. I don’t have to weigh both sides because my side appealed to me and they make sense — not necessarily are they right, they just seem smart and the arguments seem to add up to something, and we’re not skilled at finding flaws here.

    I really think the human nature is not simply to agree with themselves, it’s more to avoid complication, to be herded willingly, to feel as though they are participating in the discussion. Raw facts from the source can be overwhelming as they are mined by the few self-selected intelligent and rational people who absorb new information, change their minds accordingly, and progress the species’ body of knowledge. It takes longer for that to catch up in school or in the home, because most people are drones; they want to form an opinion but the pile of facts is so overwhelming, they take it predigested in some format.

    I don’t generally form opinions about things that don’t matter, that I haven’t looked into for myself but also just for the sake of talking about something or arguing with someone on a personal level, I don’t have opinions, take stupid polls that everyone is so crazy about, or get outraged by whatever the news serves up as today’s daily dead-horse beating. I don’t like talking to people about stupid stuff like whether or not some guy I don’t know murdered his wife in some other state, when stuff like this happens all over that we never hear about it. What does my opinion about this one murderer affect if I’m not on the jury? I don’t understand why people want to be herded into caring about stuff they can’t affect enough to heatedly debate co-workers…. eh, it’s just something to talk about. That’s at the heart of this “human nature” excuse — seems nobody doesn’t want to get caught without a firm opinion on everything.

  • nomad

    “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.”

    Not quite buying this explanation. The defense-mechanism-argument would account for some of the lying that people do. But you only have to look at politicians to see that people also lie to advance a particular agenda, the facts be damned. It’s “willful mendacity” (to borrow a phrase from Dawkins). The Neocons lying us into the war in Iraq is a textbook example.

    • JohnMWhite

      Yeah I don’t fully buy it either. I may be misunderstanding the phrasing, but it seems to be basically saying our minds use cognitive dissonance to protect us from cognitive dissonance.

      • Francesc

        yeah, that’s the point where you have to apply cognitive dissonance.

  • Olaf

    It actually backfires to those already delusional. All others might think about it.

    • Olaf

      The thinking process for themselves is what erodes religion. Not the fact that you told.

  • claidheamh mor

    Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds.

    But reading the cluster-fundies ranting on this site already showed us that!

  • Agentsmith

    This is so true and sad. In my many debates with my fundie cow-orker, I’ve found that the more scientific facts I through at him it only made him more zealous in his “faith”. The more I tried to engage him on the facts, the more he hardens his canned defenses on how all the facts are really Satan’s handiwork to drive people away from God, etc. When confronted with logic, the standard response is that we can’t possibly understand the infinitely wiser God.

    I’ve come to realization that no one can change a fundie’s mind except himself. It’s like a little switch in their heads, they have to keep flipping it off when confronted with overwhelming facts that contradict their “faith”. Any slip up will result in a ray of light piercing into the darkness of their cocoon of delusion and show them the silliness of their fairytale and planting a seed of doute.

    Thinking is a very dangerous thing when total obedience is deemed a virtue.

    • Sunny Day

      “the standard response is that we can’t possibly understand the infinitely wiser God. ”

      The real question is how can he do it.

    • Yoav

      In my many debates with my fundie cow-orker
      Since you mentioned it’s a he shouldn’t it be a bull-orker.

      • nomad

        His name wouldn’t happen to be Neo would it?

  • LRA

    The facts aren’t enough?

    D’oh! Dunning-Kruger strikes again! Someone’s GOT to stand up to the experts!!!!

  • Shane

    “In under a year, a fascist, socialist regime-”

    I dunno if I should take that article from the onion with a grain of salt or not, but this is proof of just HOW STUPID your average right wing voter is.


    They’re on completely OPPOSITE ends of the political spectrum, something many Teabaggers CLEARLY don’t comprehend.


    And MSNBC, honestly, cause they’re just as bad.



    Read the words for what they are, and ignore the charisma of pretty faces and trained actors.

  • 3D

    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.

    It’s always been this way in principle — there have always been ignorant and misinformed people — but in practice it’s gotten way worse. Mass communication gives people the opportunity to be wrong about more things in a shorter span of time than ever before. And marketing techniques have been honed to such razor sharpness that they are better at making people misinformed for their own purposes.