8/17/2010

How Facts Backfire

Posted by MJ

Interesting read in the Boston Globe about how once people's minds are made up, almost nothing, even the facts, can change their minds.

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.
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....
Most of us have seen this in action around us and if we are truthful: even within ourselves at least some of the time.

In a recent comment I mentioned that in the engineering field one needs to have thick skin to deal with the critical thinking others will apply to our ideas. If minds are truely open and not self serving (protecting) some wonderful results can be obtained. One must not look at the process as being right or wrong but they should see it as adding to the process of creating the best end result as a team.

A favorite song quote of mine is "...even the blind change their views..." As we discuss and impliment the pieces of our common future we must try our best to include other ideas, to vet them and to participate in making them even better.

One last thought:
...But researchers are working on it. One avenue may involve self-esteem. 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...

This is similar to the CAGE education model taught to snowboard instructors:
Compliment-Analyze-Goal Set-Execute. It's amazing how well that first step works in all aspects of life.

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