Get the facts first. You can distort them later. – Mark Twain
Mark Twain was a prescient humorist, especially when it came to politics. But even Twain might have been surprised to learn that the more misinformed we are, the more likely we will use facts proving us wrong to convince ourselves we are even more right.
Unfortunately it’s true: Facts don’t cure misinformation. Instead they act like an underpowered antibiotic, making misinformation even stronger. Sadly those least well-informed are most likely to succumb — and to act on those misperceptions. So we learn from Joe Keohane’s Boston Globe coverage of studies on the interplay between facts and conviction, particularly when democracy is involved.
As University of Michigan researcher Brendan Nyhan related, we often decide facts are true based more on our pre-existing political biases than the evidence for their accuracy. His team’s recently published study in the journal Political Behavior describes research subjects’ strengthening convictions, termed “backfire”, as they read correcting facts conflicting with their prejudces. Whether in James Kuklinski’s influential 2000 study about welfare “facts” or Nyhan and Reifler’s 2005-2006 research showing predispositions about WMDs in Iraq, the effect of tax cuts on actual revenue and the nature of restrictions on stem cell research funding, one real fact remains. Our beliefs dictate the facts we choose to accept.
Kuklinski calls it the “I know I’m right” syndrome. Have you seen it before?
What’s to be done about it though? If you form an opinion before you’re fully educated, are you doomed? I don’t think so. As they say, the first step is recognizing you have a problem.
Any time you are making an important decision – whether for profits, politics or personal concerns – be wary when you start to envision war-like analogies of us versus them or feel a disproportionate desire to defend your opinion. Like the child caught lying about who started it, the more fragile and exposed your opinion becomes, the more fanatically you’ll defend it. This state makes you least able to employ the very skills you need most: to make rational decisions and influence others.
So the next time you have an urge to passionately defend your position, stop for a moment. Why are you so convinced? And what would it look like if you were wrong?