How Facts Backfire (Why facts don’t change people’s opinions)

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by Neil Godfrey

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How Facts Backfire is an article by Joe Keohane in the Boston Globe discussing a major threat to democracy. I select only those portions of this article that have more general relevance, and that can just as well apply to scholarly debates, and the mythicist-historicist arguments in particular.

Here’s the first startling passage (with my emphasis etc):

Mankind may be crooked timber, as Kant put it, uniquely susceptible to ignorance and misinformation, but it’s an article of faith that knowledge is the best remedy. If people are furnished with the facts, they will be clearer thinkers and better citizens. If they are ignorant, facts will enlighten them. If they are mistaken, facts will set them straight.

In the end, truth will out. Won’t it?

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.

And then there is this:

[People] 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.”

And this:

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 this

A striking recent example was a study done in the year 2000, led by James Kuklinski of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. . . . . . . the ones who were the most confident they were right were by and large the ones who knew the least about the topic. . . . . 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.

Is Self-Esteem a factor?

Nyhan worked on one study in which he showed that people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.

What of the most highly educated?

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.


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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “How Facts Backfire (Why facts don’t change people’s opinions)”

  1. One often hears that old adage in connection with people who have difficulty with changing their minds: You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”. While undoubtedly true – the mind cannot be forced – this adage also fails to tell the whole story. If the horse is in need of a drink of water – then, indeed, it will drink when it is led to water! So, it’s really a question of need – or in a sporting analogy – which team or which sportsman wants it more, who wants that win more desperately. It’s that kind of need that can propel a team to victory – or for individuals to change their mind. If the old ways, the old ideas, are working for them – there really is no necessity to adopt the new. It’s a bit like that old pair of shoes, nicely worn in, as comfortable as slippers – who wants to go through all that wearing in again. Necessity is the answer, the push to new things.

    New knowledge is usually viewed as heresy. Those who follow this road are not initially welcomed. Trail-blazers, whistle blowers, rock the collective boat. Just as well I suppose – for what a society it would be if everyone was rocking that boat! Chaos. So, for a settled community existence, ideas do have to have considerable staying power. The problem arises when ideas get old and seek to hang on to the glory days of their youth.

    In this light, the Jesus historicists verse the Jesus mythicists ideas can be viewed. At this stage there really is no need for the Jesus historicists to jump ship. Argument re the coming storm are falling on deaf ears. The power of the historical Jesus idea is ‘supernatural’ – it’s defence system a shield of faith. But faith is no defence against the coming storm of reality. The reality is that the historical Jesus idea is just that – an idea. And, like all ideas, is subject to being replaced by a better idea. Faith cannot stop intellectual evolution.

    Ideas can be addictive. Going cold turkey and just ditching an old idea is not something that most people would willingly do. An intellectual vacuum is a dangerous place to be. Jumping off a sinking ship requires a life-jacket before one has any chance of reaching shore. Thus, before a new idea is going to become a general accepted idea, it is going to have to have a ‘life-jacket’. In other words, the new ideas has to be like a sugar-coated pill.

    And that is where the historical Jesus camp have their best argument. The mythicist argument is not coming to them sugar-coated. The mythicists are being viewed as going after the historical Jesus camp with a sledgehammer – instead of offering a life-jacket. In other words – a more broader mythicist position that takes notice of the needs of those seating in the sinking historical Jesus ship. Need no.1 is: the need to retain a historical figure at the root of Christian origins. Mythicists can accommodate that need. No new theory is ever completely lacking any link to the past. In the mythicist case, that link to the past is not the assumed historical crucified Jesus of Nazareth. But a link to the past there must be. And mythicist need to find that link to the past if they ever hope to offer a life-jacked to those in the historical Jesus camp. Those who knock down old ideas, as the mythicists are trying to do, should remember that destruction is a creator’s prerogative. The burden is on the mythicists, to find a way to sugar-coat the intellectual sour tasting pill they are offering. No guarantee of course that even a sugar-coated pill is going to be acceptable to those who will resort to ear plugs – but at least the mythicists are then able to claim the moral high ground. They would have done all they could do.

  2. The Jesuit motto “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” which is based [apparently] on a quotation by Francis Xavier seems sppropriate to recall here.
    We can see the value placed on religious education [that’s quite an oxymoron isn’t it] by the organized religions.
    Once indoctrinated highly resistant to enlightenment.

  3. Another aspect to this that can be a worry is that it applies to people of both sides. In the original article it was demonstrated that the same proclivity could be found among both liberal Democrats and Right Wingers when faced with certain corrective facts. We have this snobbish term “village atheist” (subtype of “village idiot”?) bandied about, but some people in the mythicist camp are impervious to legitimate arguments from historicists, too. But my experience is that these are rarely engaged with serious research.

    The best defence against this proclivity is surely to maintain a constant sense of questioning and doubt about one’s own position, to always maintain seriously the thought that one just might be missing something, not understanding something, that constantly returning to the basics and testing (not reaffirming, really honestly testing) one’s foundations. It’s easy to say this, but we know the power of self-deception, too.

    I guess the ability to genuinely maintain the possibility that one might be wrong and could be corrected even 180 degrees by new discoveries and understanding also comes with a certain measure of self-esteem and self-identity that is not contingent upon what one believes about matters that do not directly relate to humanity and ethics.

    One so often senses among the most adamant defenders or advocates of some intellectual point a real sense they feel threatened in some way and are fighting for their egos more than genuine open enquiry.

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