A Misleading Story on 'Facts'

-By Warner Todd Huston

On July 11, the Boston Globe featured a story on "facts" and how people just don't seem to want to hear them when they intersect with closely held political opinions. The story has some interesting points to make, points that seem quite sensible, but there is no escaping the fact that the whole story is not only written from a left-wing perspective but is misleading in a central reality that is wholly ignored by the piece.

For the Globe, writer Joe Keohane laments that people with preconceived political opinions rarely have their minds changed when presented with facts contrary to what they imagine is true. "Facts don't necessarily have the power to change our minds," says Koehane. He concludes that "this bodes ill for a democracy" because voters are making decisions based on willful misconceptions.

They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

Koehane goes on to quote researchers that have found that people don't like to be confronted with how wrong they are and when facts contrary to their beliefs come up they often dismiss them out of hand whether true or not. In this way people don't have to face up to truth when they are wrong.

"The general idea is that it's absolutely threatening to admit you're wrong," says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon -- known as "backfire" -- is "a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance."

Koehane reports that "belief" sometimes trumps truth but this all seems to be obvious in human nature. Some may recall one of the running jokes in the old TV sitcom "Happy Days" was when "The Fonz" couldn't admit he was wrong about something. "I'm wrrrroo... I'm wrrooon...," he'd stammer. While funny, this is a pretty normal example of human nature. We've all come across a friend, co-worker, or family member that will simply never admit they are wrong no matter how much truth and reality they are confronted with.

Koehane points to this obvious little bit of human nature as something that opens a "long-running argument about the political ignorance of American citizens to broader questions about the interplay between the nature of human intelligence and our democratic ideals." It demolishes a conceit that our political opinions are formed over time by "careful, rational consideration of facts," Kohane says.

Naturally the only examples that Koehane can find of this ignorance of the facts are ones that make folks on the right side of the aisle look the political boobs. He cites a study by the University of Illinois about the misunderstood number of blacks on welfare, and he cites another study that disproved some of the "misinformation" surrounding the Iraq war believed by conservatives.

Koehane has a major disconnect in his piece, however. While it is true that many partisans on both sides are misinformed about some particular facts, and sometimes willfully so, there is a reason above and beyond mere individual facts that they are partisans and that goes to core philosophy.

The core philosophy of a conservative, for instance, is to have less government, little welfare, and strong national defense while the core liberal philosophy is precisely the opposite. The fact is that in general, Republicans exhibit conservative leanings while Democrats exhibit liberal ones. Certainly there are individual Republicans that are just as liberal as Democrats and certain Democrats that are quite conservative, but the establishments of the two parties are not nearly as mushy.

So, when people are confronted with "a" Republican that wants big government as an individual he is dismissed as an aberration and the same happens to liberals that are confronted with a conservative Democrat. This is because the "fact" that there are "some" Democrats that are conservative and some Republicans that are liberal doesn't matter in the greater scheme. The ultimate party goal is the real political reality, not the individual actions of individual recalcitrant politicians or single odd-man-out laws or policy decisions.

Writer Koehane, however, seems to think that a mere fact should completely upend a person's core philosophy. Let's use his misleading "no WMDs in Iraq" fact, for instance. Because no WMDs were found in Iraq, Koehane seems to infer that the Iraq war was obviously illicit.

But Koehane's mere fact is misleading. In the first place, looking for WMDs was just one entry on a list of reasons the Bush administration presented to justify the invasion. Secondly, the mere fact that no WMDs were found spread across Iraq is meaningless when juxtaposed with the fact that the intelligence services of every other nation on earth independently believed that Saddam DID have such stockpiles. It wasn't just a Bush claim, but a belief held by every nation that we consulted with prior to the war. The fact is that Bush's belief in Saddam's WMDs coincided with the same belief held by every other nation.

The truth of the matter is that Saddam fooled the world because his nation was a police state within which no freedom of information was extent. He was able to put up a false front making the world think he was stronger than he was. So that he ended up not having great stockpiles of WMDs (though there were a few small stockpiles) is not a meaningful fact when assessing if the reasons we went to war were justifiable at the time we went to war. Bush may have been wrong about WMDs but his belief they existed before the invasion doesn't make of him a liar -- it just makes him wrong.

Writer Koehane has some interesting points to make in his piece, granted. But his partisan examples and his refusal to take core political philosophy into consideration itself causes readers to be misled by his article. Sadly, Koehane does not help solve the "facts" problem in America with his piece. He only makes matters worse.

(Originally posted at BigJournalism.com)

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