Wednesday, July 14, 2010

How facts backfire

How facts backfire:
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. ...

[I]f you harbor the notion — popular on both sides of the aisle — that the solution is more education and a higher level of political sophistication in voters overall, well, that’s a start, but not the solution. A 2006 study by Charles Taber and Milton Lodge at Stony Brook University showed that politically sophisticated thinkers were even less open to new information than less sophisticated types. These people may be factually right about 90 percent of things, but their confidence makes it nearly impossible to correct the 10 percent on which they’re totally wrong. Taber and Lodge found this alarming, because engaged, sophisticated thinkers are “the very folks on whom democratic theory relies most heavily.”

Fundamentally, skepticism is a moral and ethical position, not a specifically intellectual position. If you don't actively cultivate the idea that it's good to be wrong, that it's good to be corrected, that it's good to change your mind, then you'll fall into mental habits that make changing your mind almost impossibly difficult. In much the same sense, we have to actively cultivate — at the individual, social and institutional levels — all the ideas that make civilization possible: cooperation, respect and concern for others' well-being and mutual benefit; without this ethical and cognitive discipline, we risk falling back into low-level conflict to everyone's detriment.

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