There’s a transcript of a speech that Bill Moyers gave in January to History Makers, an organization of broadcasters and producers who make factual programs, posted at Alternet. It’s a very interesting talk, but ultimately depressing. He cites an July 2010 article from the Boston Globe that sets the tone for his remarks and I’d imagine that most of the people listening to what the saintly Texan had to say that day had the same thought “Wow, that sucks.” It’s certainly what went through my mind as I read it. Quoting Moyers:
As Joe Keohane reported last year in The Boston Globe, political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency “deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information.” He was reporting on research at the University of Michigan, which found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in new stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts were not curing misinformation. “Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.”
I won’t spoil it for you by a lengthy summary here. Suffice it to say that, while “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,” the research found that actually “we often base our opinions on our beliefs ... 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.”
These studies help to explain why America seems more and more unable to deal with reality. So many people inhabit a closed belief system on whose door they have hung the “Do Not Disturb” sign, that they pick and choose only those facts that will serve as building blocks for walling them off from uncomfortable truths. Any journalist whose reporting threatens that belief system gets sliced and diced by its apologists and polemicists (say, the fabulists at Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the yahoos of talk radio.) Remember when Limbaugh, for one, took journalists on for their reporting about torture at Abu Ghraib? He attempted to dismiss the cruelty inflicted on their captives by American soldiers as a little necessary “sport” for soldiers under stress, saying on air: “This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation ... you [ever] heard of need to blow some steam off?” As so often happens, the Limbaugh line became a drumbeat in the nether reaches of the right-wing echo chamber. So, it was not surprising that in a nationwide survey conducted by The Chicago Tribune on First Amendment issues, half of the respondents said there should be some kind of press restraint on reporting about the prison abuse. According to Charles Madigan, the editor of the Tribune’s Perspective section, 50 or 60 percent of the respondents said they “would embrace government controls of some kind on free speech, particularly when it has sexual content or is heard as unpatriotic.”
No wonder many people still believe Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, as his birth certificate shows; or that he is a Muslim, when in fact he is a Christian; or that he is a socialist when day by day he shows an eager solicitude for corporate capitalism. Partisans in particular - and the audiences for Murdoch’s Fox News and talk radio - are particularly susceptible to such scurrilous disinformation. In a Harris survey last spring, 67 percent of Republicans said Obama is a socialist; 57 percent believed him to be a Muslim; 45 percent refused to believe he was born in America; and 24 percent said he “may be the antichrist.”
What’s even worse is that the most misinformed people (the most gullible, the most fanatical, perhaps) are the ones who vote the most reliably. The Creationists. The people making $40,000 a year who support tax cuts for billionaires to the detriment of their own lives and their kids’ schools. People with no healthcare who protest against it at Tea-party rallies. An entire voting bloc of people who do not believe in what others would deem objective reality. THAT, dear readers, is at base, what we are dealing with in America today and it’s a problem that’s here to stay. You might say it’s the red, white and blue brontosaurus in the room that no one wants to talk about: The willful ignorance of America’s right.
The Boston Globe article that Bill Moyers cites, Joe Keohane’s “How facts backfire: Researchers discover a surprising threat to democracy: our brains” is an absolute must-read. I’m surprised that there wasn’t a bigger fuss made of this information by the liberal media when it was published last year. Here’s a link to the entire article, and some highlights:
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.
Yup. And then we vote. Yikes!
Here’s another passage from the article that will wipe that smirk off your Blue State face:
“Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be,” read a recent Onion headline. Like the best satire, this nasty little gem elicits a laugh, which is then promptly muffled by the queasy feeling of recognition. The last five decades of political science have definitively established that most modern-day Americans lack even a basic understanding of how their country works. In 1996, Princeton University’s Larry M. Bartels argued, “the political ignorance of the American voter is one of the best documented data in political science.”
On its own, this might not be a problem: People ignorant of the facts could simply choose not to vote. But instead, it appears that misinformed people often have some of the strongest political opinions. A striking recent example was a study done in the year 2000, led by James Kuklinski of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He led an influential experiment in which more than 1,000 Illinois residents were asked questions about welfare — the percentage of the federal budget spent on welfare, the number of people enrolled in the program, the percentage of enrollees who are black, and the average payout. More than half indicated that they were confident that their answers were correct — but in fact only 3 percent of the people got more than half of the questions right. Perhaps more disturbingly, the ones who were the most confident they were right were by and large the ones who knew the least about the topic. (Most of these participants expressed views that suggested a strong antiwelfare bias.)
Studies by other researchers have observed similar phenomena when addressing education, health care reform, immigration, affirmative action, gun control, and other issues that tend to attract strong partisan opinion. Kuklinski calls this sort of response the “I know I’m right” syndrome, and considers it a “potentially formidable problem” in a democratic system. “It implies not only that most people will resist correcting their factual beliefs,” he wrote, “but also that the very people who most need to correct them will be least likely to do so.”
The persistence of these political misperceptions is perplexing, but can be summed up as “Americans, but lets get real for a second, especially those who have a tendency towards “conservative” opinions, will only listen to you if you are saying something that sounds like something they already believe.” (No, I don’t think that all progressives are open-minded, but xenophobia, homophobia, Islamaphobia, racism, being anti-science and a general “fear of the other,” are not exactly hallmarks of the “liberal” personality the way they tend to be on the right. You’d have to be Andrew Brietbart to “believe” otherwise).
What’s worse is that when someone is feeling threatened or is economically insecure, the mind closes down even more. That’s how demagoguery works. It might explain why some dumb old white people think Glenn Beck is so wonderful. It might also explain his success as a pitchman for gold coins during his program. The more threatened someone feels, the easier they fall in line, and the less likely they are to dissent from the party line when it comes to “taking back the country” from a socialist Kenyan. Fear and gullibility go hand in hand, as we see daily.
But these are the dummies, we’re talking about, right? The ignorant people. Not so fast, smartass, because researchers at Stony Brook University found that the people who were the most politically sophisticated thinkers were even less open to “new” (which is to say a fact) information that challenged their belief systems, than the statistically ignorant! Quoting again from Joe Keohane’s article: “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.”
How facts backfire: Researchers discover a surprising threat to democracy: our brains (Boston Globe)
Thank you Steven Otero!