The key to changing minds and converting hearts is better access to information, right? Wouldn't everyone think just like me/us if they weren't just so ignorant of the relevant data?
This interesting essay by Joe Keohane in the Boston Globe from July 11 suggests that the reverse is often the case--that not only are "the facts" sometimes irrelevant to our ideological perspectives and biases, they can sometimes make us more stubborn in our convictions:
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.
Keohane focuses on the negative effects this phenomenon has on democracy and political discourse, and notes similar phenomena in debates over education, health care reform, immigration, affirmative action, and gun control. However, it is no difficult task to detect the same processes operative in any field of intellectual endeavor, including the normal subject matter of this magazine. For example, when we read a book review, article, letter to the editor, blogpost, or online comment in America that offers apparently factual information running counter to our convictions on matters relevant to American Catholicism, do we say "that's information I hadn't considered before"? Or do we just go elsewhere to find information that will confirm our suspicion that yes, we felt uncomfortable, but only because what we were reading was a heresy of one sort or another, and after all, heresy has no rights?
And here's another alarming bit of anecdotal evidence: according to the research Keohane cites, the worst offenders are those who imagine themselves sophisticated thinkers and intellectuals. Why? Because if you're right 90 percent of the time, why would you think you were wrong the other 10?
Jim Keane, S.J.