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06 August 2010

How facts backfire

So I saw this article in the Boston Globe about how people don't actually change their minds when confronted by facts (would explain a lot of republicans and theitards...):

It’s one of the great assumptions underlying modern democracy that an informed citizenry is preferable to an uninformed one. “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1789. This notion, carried down through the years, underlies everything from humble political pamphlets to presidential debates to the very notion of a free press. 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(Read full article here.)

And of course, the first thing I did was make sure to evaluate things that I hold particularly dear, as well as examine any ideas or opinions I may have had or changed over time. I am glad to report that:
1.)  I am a human, and I DO fall victim to this from time to time.
2.)  I am also aware of this phenomenon, and I actively fight it.
3.)  I have embraced the truly active and honest skeptical approach in evaluating data, and I really think that I am as a person better for it.

One thing that seems to happen too often to people is that they run off to find articles that support their view for affirmation of their point of view so they can brush off these inconvenient facts.  Like rushing off to Fox News, Conservapedia, or some apologist's site.  Very, very few have ever intentionally exposed themselves to the other side and critically examined the information they are able to gather.  When I go to some sites, and there are only two root references (the Old Testament and the New Testament) I become suspicious of the actual support of the site.  Sure, they may have lots of papers by Ken Hamm or Kent Hovnid, but you look at the very basis of their work, and it goes back to...  well, I'm sure you know.  If I go to other sites, you see that things start from many different sources and ideas.  Some even fight against other ideas until the data ends up supporting the idea that makes it through the process into science.

I am proud to say that I have even changed my mind on several things over time, and that I will admit to these changes.  It's not a failing or flaw to see that you were wrong about something.  Denying that you were ever wrong is arrogant, and just plain stupid!  And I think that's another weakness of humans.  Sometimes a person will change their mind about something when they mental dissonance just becomes unbearable.  Of course, after they do so, they will obviously state that they have always held that opinion!  (I'm sure you have encountered that mentality before.)

So, what ideas and opinions have you changed your mind on in your time that you would care to admit to?


Samuel said...

I think the most frightening thing is that people, especially as they get older, have such a resistance to admitting they were wrong. It really does not make sense to me other than to chalk it up to intellectual hubris.

If I've learned anything in higher education (and I think I have) - it's that I really don't know much. It's not a terrible thing to admit one is wrong about something and change your mind. For some reason, we put a horrible taboo on changing one's mind.

As Keynes said, "when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

:-) Nicely written post.

Larian LeQuella said...

Thanks Samuel. It is amazing what lengths people will go to in order to even admit that they don't know an answer. Just watch people sometime when they are being questioned about things.