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“Backfire” explains a lot.

Joe Keohane writes a powerful piece on how our entrenched political opinion resists fact that contradicts it. Here’s a snip of an article that’s just so good that it’s going straight into the Village Square library, but we’d strongly recommend you head straight to Boston.com and read the whole piece.

Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: 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.

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters – the people making decisions about how the country runs – aren’t blank slates. 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.

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.”

Read the rest of the article HERE.



Jack Jacobs gets Village Square quote of the day (could be year)

“I’m not a fan of single fact analysis.”
— Col. Jack Jacobs on MSNBC’s Morning Joe



America’s new fairydust: “Motivated reasoning”

VW powered by fairy dust

In a study titled “There Must Be a Reason: Osama, Saddam and Inferred Justification” published in the journal Sociological Inquiry, sociologists from four major research institutions looked into the high level of persistent belief in America that Saddam Hussein and Iraq were responsible for the attacks of 9/11, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The study results:

“Our data shows substantial support for a cognitive theory known as ‘motivated reasoning,’ which suggests that rather than search rationally for information that either confirms or disconfirms a particular belief, people actually seek out information that confirms what they already believe…The study demonstrates voters’ ability to develop elaborate rationalizations based on faulty information. The argument here is that people get deeply attached to their beliefs.”

The researchers describe the observed pattern of motivated reasoning is a “serious challenge to democratic theory and practice that results when citizens with incorrect information cannot form appropriate preferences or evaluate the preferences of others.”

Ya think?

So, to recap… We’ve broken ourselves into feuding teams which are no longer making governing decisions based on reality but on what we want to pretend is true?

Great.

(Postscript: If you’re liberal and feeling smug right about now, then think again. You do it too.)

(Photo credit.)



A Bastille Day Special: Let them eat (purple) cake

LET-THEM-EAT-PURPLE-CAKESeldom have four words ever brought such disastrous consequence to the person who uttered them, or so goes the legend of Marie Antoinette, “Let them eat cake,” and that nasty business of her public beheading.

While a visit to modern day France finds Versailles proper positively dripping with the wretched excess history has assigned it, Domaine de Marie-Antoinette, the private residence of the French queen, tells a somewhat different story. Rather than the gilded surroundings the king’s riches would surely have afforded her, she built a likeness of a quaint Austrian village, complete with working vineyards and livestock.

Could Marie-Antoinette – symbol the world over of condescending wealth – be misunderstood? My trip to France last summer had me scratching my head and returning home to learn more about the queen we love to hate.

Turns out the words we’ve put in poor Marie-Antoinette’s mouth may have been spoken – if spoken at all – by the wife of a different King Louis decades earlier. And even if the doomed queen had said it, a familiarity with French law regulating the price of bread suggests she would have probably meant “let them eat expensive bread with less flour in it for the same price,” a rather generous and common sense suggestion during a flour shortage.

We do know that Marie-Antoinette said “it is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness.”

Oops.

Apparently when vein-poppingly angry people pick up their pitchforks and roll out the guillotine, they’ve been known to get it wrong from time to time.

The Marie Antoniette Action Figure with Ejectable Head, will be given away as a door prize at a coming Village Square dinner!

The Marie Antoniette Action Figure with Ejectable Head, actual Village Square door prize!

As uber-partisanship and the culture war have opened a gulf between us, we have been toting our own pitchforks lately. We’ve created opposing custom-ordered villains a la Marie-Antoinette, complete with oft-repeated misquotes, half quotes, and an occasional story spun of whole cloth.

In Revolutionary France, misinformation about the queen was fueled by the libelles – venomous slander-filled booklets produced by political opponents. Besting the distribution of French libelles, America’s present day incarnation sends distortions by email clear across the universe tout de suite.

Even as Americans are called to other countries to handle the fallout of ideological hatred gone to seed, we have a homegrown and thankfully only verbal – version of what journalist John Marks calls “wars of absolute dichotomy” brewing, fueled in part by a lot that we’re getting plain wrong about each other.

John, assigned to cover Bosnia for U.S. News & World Report, has seen the danger of absolute dichotomy. He’s since teamed with college roommate filmmaker Craig Detweiler to make the film “Purple State of Mind,”a conversation between friends with different religious worldviews. John and Craig were our Village Square guests in Tallahassee in 2009 – see their program here.

John explains that shaking up partisan red and blue to make “purple” isn’t really about seeking homogenized agreement but “about taking ourselves and our concerns seriously enough to demand the utmost of ourselves and our political and cultural opponents, the utmost in moral and intellectual rigor, the utmost in compassion and decency.”

On the queen’s behalf, I’d add “the utmost in factual accuracy.”

If we’re going to bring the best of America to bear on the big problems ahead, we can ill afford the cartoon version of a civic dialog that neglects the real consequences of creating fictions rather than grasping facts. At another perilous time in our history, the Founding Fathers set a high bar for the debate because they couldn’t afford the luxury of getting it wrong.

Marie-Antoinette met her end at Place de la Concorde, Revolutionary France’s version of our televised public square, where her beheading earned the eighteenth century’s equivalent of high Nielsen ratings. Whether or not she had it coming, most of us would like to think our decision-making has grown to reflect a higher standard in the couple of centuries since, regardless of potential for market share.

As we begin writing the history of what happens next in America, perhaps we can start by at least getting the quotes right. To do that, we might occasionally put down our pitchforks long enough to break bread with someone who doesn’t see it our way. Or, maybe, in a hat tip to learning the lessons of history, we should eat cake instead.

Only this time, make it purple.

______________

Liz Joyner is Executive Director of the Village Square