Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Facts are not enough...

Thanks to a helpful comment and the following article, I have managed to get a glimpse into the genesis of a rather pessimistic outlook I have been entertaining.

As I have written, it seems to be increasingly clear facts no longer persuade - if indeed, they ever did. In fact, according to some research, they simply harden our existing biases.
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. [More of a very insightful piece well worth reading]
This observation acts as a confirming data point of the futility of putting scholarly information out to buttress my opinions. I am not persuading many, if any.

But that isn't why I've been on a downer.  This idea forced me to ask whether any facts would alter my own views.  For example, is there any evidence that would make me change my mind about evolution? Or subsidies? Or...(gasp, choke)... Sarah Palin?

It's hard for me to imagine any of the above. So it is hardly surprising that few of you who read will find my information bundles very persuasive.  Maybe I am only reinforcing my own biases. My own epistemic closure, as it were.

Nonetheless, by abiding by a few rules such as peer review criteria, full source linkage, and at least attempting to read opposing viewpoints, I can test my prejudices, and perhaps occasionally master them.

More importantly, letting go of the conceit of being able to persuade allows me to make more effective plans for our farm's future, I hope.


JohnR said...

Certainly a difficult post to contemplate. I thought I browsed Incoming as an articulate, thoughtful, and rational commentary on the larger and smaller facets of farming and 21st century living. Now, I am left to wonder if this blog is merely my personal Fox news...

John Phipps said...


I think there is some hope if we are aware of our biases and actively seek to balance them. Otherwise the futility of reason would be pretty darn depressing.

Thanks for reading and commenting, BTW.

KurtL said...

I have often thought others were ignoring facts, because it may change their opinion. However after reading this post and doing a little refection....I too am guilty