Facts don’t matter?

13 Jul

Ideally in a debate there are two sides, one makes a claim, the other tries to refute that claim. Both sides try to avoid logical fallacies and use objective, nonpartisan facts to determine in a claim is valid or not. If the evidence does not support the claim, then the side that made the claim admits they were wrong and everybody moves on. It would be wonderful if the world followed that model, but one look around the modern political/religious landscape will show you that this is not the case. No, today facts are growing increasingly more irrelevant to a debate. As much as we all like to think of ourselves as rational, intelligent adults, open to changing our views in light of evidence, research suggests that we are actually likely to become more strident about our beliefs when presented with contradicting facts.

Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, two of the political scientists conducting the research, call this the “backfire effect”, when a person strengthens their belief in a false claim when presented with facts that challenge their beliefs. It’s unfortunate, but it makes sense. Nyhan points out that this is a defense mechanism people employ to avoid cognitive dissonance. There was a great conversation that aired today on NPR’s Talk of the Nation which had Brendan Nyhan as a guest. Check it out.

My question is this: If presenting a misinformed person with facts only strengthens their misinformed beliefs, then how can there be any discussion? How can you change their minds? Is there just no talking to them? If a person is going to believe what they want to believe, no matter how strongly the evidence might contradict them, then does it just boil down to who can get the most people to the polls on election day? How can we have a stable society if reality is no longer an issue in our decision making? I am reminded of the story of King Canute. He placed his throne on the beach and commanded the tide not to come in. Despite his royal edict it did, just as it always does. Moral of the story: reality doesn’t give a damn what people say.

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