A reputable poll out of Tennessee this morning shows how mere evidence and facts aren't enough to deter the perseverance of false beliefs. The quarterly Middle Tennessee State University Survey finds that 34% of adults believe that President Obama was born in another country. 47% of Republicans hold that belief. About a third -- 30% -- say Obama is a Muslim. 46% -- and this includes many Democrats and independents -- say he's a socialist. Put aside the socialist finding for a second. The first two claims -- that Obama is a Muslim and/or was born outside the U.S. -- have been definitely, repeatedly and loudly debunked by the press, by watchdog groups, and by Republicans. A reasonable person, looking at the facts and putting him or herself at a distance from whatever emotions entangle one's appraisal of Barack Obama, cannot help but come to that conclusion. Obama was born in the US; he's not Muslim. These facts are as fact-y as facts can get. And yet -- among adults in a major American state, false beliefs prevail and flourish. What are we to make of this?
In a new book, Cass Sunstein, now the government's chief regulation officer, bemoans the failure of our political culture to distinguish fact from rumor. He recognizes that, in a highly polarized age, three dynamics are simultaneously in play. One is that group polarization, long a feature of partisan politics, produces extreme beliefs. Then, social cascades -- here Sunstein means the way in which beliefs are communicated among the like-minded -- ensure that people hear rumors from people they trust not to tell them about a mere rumor. Finally, the way one assimilates a piece of information is biased. It's not enough to say that Sarah Palin never actually called Africa a country; so many people were willing to believe that she would make that mistake, simply because of their of preconceptions.
Sunstein has become a victim of his own observations. Search for information about the book on Google and you'll be returned a slew of references to how Sunstein wants to censor the Internet, how he wants to fine people who print false things on the Net, how he wants to chill the speech of conservatives. All of these statements are false. Sunstein proposes one modification to existing law -- he wants to make websites more responsible for the information that others add to the website -- now, website proprietors aren't responsible for comments and pass-through content. This is a mildly controversial proposal, but it's one that many others have made, and it's not something his colleagues in the Obama administration have any interest in signing into law.
What Sunstein actually wants is even more radical, because it would involve a big change in the way we teach people -- kids -- to think, although his opponents, blinded by their preconceptions, don't really get around to mentioning it.
Sunstein wants to increase the social penalties that accrue to a source of information that is regularly or repeatedly inaccurate. Since there are no longer neutral arbiters of information -- at least, that's the perception among people who adhere to Birther beliefs -- this approach wouldn't advance the cause much. One of the reasons why bad information spreads so quickly is that even very popular websites and radio shows and TV programs treat all sources of information with equal credibility. Counseling extreme skepticism to any truth claim would make truth itself a casualty.
So what Sunstein wants to do -- and he only spends a paragraph on this, but it's really important -- is to teach people how to think critically. He is pessimistic that this problem of false rumors can be solved unless people accept their own conclusions with humility, unless they understand how group polarization works, unless they can explain why beliefs with potent emotional content often persevere, unless they realize that human beings are socialized to be gullible about these sorts of things.