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.