Tagerrors

Why Facts Backfire

Stubborn

I’ve covered this problem before, but it’s good to see it getting more traction – whether it will do any good remains to be seen.

We often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote.

This effect is only heightened by the information glut, which offers — alongside an unprecedented amount of good information — endless rumors, misinformation, and questionable variations on the truth. In other words, it’s never been easier for people to be wrong, and at the same time feel more certain that they’re right.

Jay Rosen draws attention to the slight difference in behavior between self-identified liberal and conservatives:

The participants who self-identified as conservative believed the misinformation on WMD and taxes even more strongly after being given the correction. With those two issues, the more strongly the participant cared about the topic — a factor known as salience — the stronger the backfire. The effect was slightly different on self-identified liberals: When they read corrected stories about stem cells, the corrections didn’t backfire, but the readers did still ignore the inconvenient fact that the Bush administration’s restrictions weren’t total.

I also thought this was particularly interesting:

A 2006 study by Charles Taber and Milton Lodge at Stony Brook University showed that politically sophisticated thinkers were even less open to new information than less sophisticated types. These people may be factually right about 90 percent of things, but their confidence makes it nearly impossible to correct the 10 percent on which they’re totally wrong.

Boston Globe: How facts backfire

(via Jay Rosen)

It’s not all doom and gloom, but I’ll let you read the article for the few rays of optimism. One thing not mentioned in the article: fact checking articles are becoming more popular (but I suppose they might not actually change people’s minds).

NPR covered this today as well, but I was disappointed in the portion of it I heard.

See also: Birthers and the Democratization of Media.

Further problem: getting people to act on information once they have it and accept it.

Photo: James Jordan / CC

Making Mistakes is What Makes us Smart

Being Wrong

A long article by Kathryn Schulz, the author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (strangely, Schulz doesn’t mention Karl Popper in her book):

Sometimes we hate being wrong because of the consequences. Mistakes can cost us time and money, expose us to danger or inflict harm on others, and erode the trust extended to us by our community. Yet even when we are wrong about completely trivial matters — when we mispronounce a word, mistake our neighbor Emily for our co-worker Anne, make the dinner reservation for Tuesday instead of Thursday — we often respond with embarrassment, irritation, defensiveness, denial, and blame. Deep down, it is wrongness itself that we hate. […]

As ashamed as we may feel of our mistakes, they are not a byproduct of all that’s worst about being human. On the contrary: They’re a byproduct of all that’s best about us. We don’t get things wrong because we are uninformed and lazy and stupid and evil. We get things wrong because we get things right. The more scientists understand about cognitive functioning, the more it becomes clear that our capacity to err is utterly inextricable from what makes the human brain so swift, adaptable, and intelligent.

Boston Globe: The bright side of wrong

(via Social Physicist)

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