Informed Opinion

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.

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Vince Killoran
8 years 8 months ago
There's plenty of evidence around that people dig in and resist, as Stephen Colbert puts it, "truthiness."

People don't  absorb facts very well. We're I've noticed a change is when they accept asking new questions about a subject and then framing them in a different kind of narrative-that is a longer, more circuitous route to change. 
8 years 8 months ago
If this were completely true, then no one would change opinions based on facts on anything that was important and the only way one would change an opinion would probably be based on emotions.  I would think this type of intransigence would be more likely when the topic would affect one's self image or self worth.
An interesting recent turn around was when Anthony Flew gave up his atheism because of the information he found in the scientific world that pointed to some sort of creator.  He did not adhere to any religion before his death but rejected atheism and essentially became a Deist.  I have watched atheist defend their beliefs many times and it is interesting how shallow are the basis for their beliefs.  They pride themselves on being rational and science oriented but they almost to a person have no coherent set of beliefs.  When presented with contrary information, they retreat into a faith based set of beliefs.
As far as myself,  I doubt that there is any evidence that would shake me from by beliefs in the Catholic religion.  So maybe on that particular issue I would be one of those that would ignore any contrary information.
james belna
8 years 8 months ago
I suppose it is possible that the University of Michigan study cited by Mr Kahane is evidence that ideology trumps enlightenment, but I think there is a far more obvious reason why people are not impressed by ''corrected facts'' they read in the papers:  they no longer have any confidence in the ability of the institutional news media to accurately report the facts. Newspapers like the New York Times have been so transparently biased in their coverage of virtually every issue of public concern for so long that the only rational response is to immediately discount anything that they have to say. Just about the only people still clueless enough to uncritically accept the ''facts'' reported in newspapers are University of Michigan researchers and Boston Globe reporters. Ironically, although there are literally hundreds of examples of the mainstream media slanting the news to fit its prevailing ideological biases, there is no chance that confronting Mr Kahane with any number of them would be sufficient to cause him to reexamine the premise of his own essay.
8 years 8 months ago
'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?'

I wonder if this bias describes the Jesuits and the authors on this site.  Liberals believe they are smarter than everyone else such that they continually want to impose a top down solution to everything as opposed to conservatives who want to let freedom be the primary motivator for finding the better solution from a bottom up experimentation.   More than one commentator has said that the Jesuits are very liberal and being liberal means imposing your will on others because you think you have a better solution for everyone.
Gabriel Marcella
8 years 8 months ago
Fr. Keane:
Cognitive bias has been studied extensively by social psychologists and political scientists, especially with respect to small group decisionmaking dynamics. The pioneering work of Graham Allison on the Cuban Missile Crisis indicated that even the most intelligent people are prone to make mistakes as they function in groups. Ideology, personality, uniformity of views, insularity, and sense of group superiority can lead to selective use of information, insufficient weighing of options, and other dysfunctions that lead to decision traps and potentially to disasters. 

There are many examples in history. Recently, the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld decision-making loop brought us problems in Iraq. One wonders how such faulty decisionmaking affected the Catholic Church's handling of the sexual abuse problem. It might be helpful to explore how cognitive bias affected the Pope, the Vatican, and the American Catholic bishops on this issue. To deal with the problem of cognitive bias policy makers and intelligence officials sometimes resort to "red" teams and "blue" teams to simulate the decisionmaking process, and to identify potential traps. It's a very imperfect system, prone to the vicissitudes of human nature.

Stanley Kopacz
8 years 8 months ago
"Liberals believe they are smarter than everyone else such that they continually want to impose a top down solution to everything as opposed to conservatives who want to let freedom be the primary motivator for finding the better solution from a bottom up experimentation."

The usual labelling and slandering of groups of people and their motivations.  I would say the perception spoken of  is that of those who run large corporations, the most unfree organizations on earth.  I would love to see power and the economy more distributed and localized.  And whatever government intervention there is, I would prefer to see applied to reining in the excesses of the economic behemoths.

Now that the Obama administration has shown itself to be in the thrall of the centralised economic  powers, I see little hope of this happening.  It makes necessary bottom up experiments to evolve and replace them from below.  These will have to be communal efforts to muster the necessary power to survive.  Survival of the human species in the past has been a communal effort.  If these qualities can be revivified, maybe there will be a chance for a better society.
8 years 8 months ago
There has been some recent work on mathematically modeling the spread of information and misinformation which suggests that attempts to ''correct'' a circulating piece of information can under some circumstances help the rumor/legend/fact persist.  Since the models do not depend on the political ideology of the spreaders or converts or skeptics, it's unlikely being liberal, conservative or progressive or whatever has anything to do with it.  Being human might.

(Leading reference for those who wish:  Noymer, A. J. Math. Sociol.25, 299–323 (2001).)
Jim McCrea
8 years 8 months ago
" - Liberals believe they are smarter than everyone else - "

But the ARE Blanche; they are!!!
James Lindsay
8 years 8 months ago
This is hardly a liberal only phenomenon, and to think so is proof of the author's point (as is this comment).  Take, for example, the vast majority of Republican rank and file voters who are actually harmed by the economic policies of their own party.  Give them facts to prove this and they won't believe you.  Inform them that the denizens of FoxNews who decry how the Hollywood elite are destroying the culture are funded by Fox's entertainment establishment - probably the raunchiest of those same culture destroyers - and you get no reaction at all.
Sometimes, it is not that intellectuals on the right are unaware of these things.  Sometimes they are in on the lie.

Another example is how the Bishops treat Roe v. Wade.  One can inform them, and the leadership of the movement, of how Roe is not going anywhere and that the nature of abortion legalization is different here than in Europe.  They are the least likely to listen to facts.  Of course, that ignorance obscures the way forward, which is tragic for those who would protect life.


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