How Facts Are Killing Politics

And what to do about it

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It would stand to reason that, in a democracy, a more educated populace will vote more responsibly, elect better leaders, and thus live in a better-run society. But it turns out that educating voters is hard and that, in many cases, showing them facts actually makes them less responsible in their political preferences and voting behavior. With misinformation and partisanship widespread in the U.S., facts can sometimes backfire. Here's what we'vee learned.

  • Study Shows How Facts Backfire The Boston Globe's Joe Keohane reports, "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. ... Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper."
  • Why It's Getting Worse Liberal blogger Digby posits, "It turns out that our brains are designed to create 'cognitive shortcuts' to cope with the rush of information which I'm guessing is more important than ever in this new age. I'm also guessing one of these cognitive shortcuts is trusting in certain tribal identification and shared 'worldview' to make things easier to sort out, which is why things are getting hyperpartisan and polarized in this time of information overload. ... We've seen the beginnings of a sophisticated manipulation of this effect during the Bush administration's experimentation with epistemic relativism."
  • Is This Really a Problem? Liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias shrugs. "The good news and bad news is that democracy has never involved a well-informed citizenry reflecting on the issues of the day. I think the misinformation literature needs to be read in tandem with the research indicating that overall levels of political information are extremely low. Two thirds of Americans can't name any Supreme Court justices and only one perent can name all nine. The reason the system functions is that democratic accountability doesn't depend on voters knowing what they're talking about. Most people have strong partisan identities, and just vote for the same team. And swing voters' views are driven overwhelmingly by economic performance."
  • Blame Human Neurology Joe Keohane explains, "Part of the answer lies in the way our brains are wired. Generally, people tend to seek consistency. There is a substantial body of psychological research showing that people tend to interpret information with an eye toward reinforcing their preexisting views."
  • Kill Misinformation With Kindness Joe Keohane suggests one possible fix. "One avenue may involve self-esteem. [Lead researcher Brendan] 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."
  • Can We Fix The Media? Joe Keohane doesn't think so. "If you increase the 'reputational costs' of peddling bad info, [Nyhan] suggests, you might discourage people from doing it so often. 'So if you go on 'Meet the Press' and you get hammered for saying something misleading, you'd think twice before you go and do it again.' Unfortunately, this shame-based solution may be as implausible as it is sensible. Fast-talking political pundits have ascended to the realm of highly lucrative popular entertainment, while professional fact-checking operations languish in the dungeons of wonkery."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.