Done In by the Facts

I’ve long suspected that the path to goodness can only be paved by fact. If  you don’t have a strong sense of what’s real, what’s accurate and what isn’t, how the heck can you do what’s right? For example, a whole lot of inaccurate “fact” once/still props up racism, sexism, homophobia and a host of other human ills.

All of this makes recent findings by political scientists and psychologists unsettling. Researchers like the University of Michigan’s Brendan Nyhan found that not only do people cling to inaccurate facts, but they won’t change their minds even when presented with accurate information. Fighting lies with fact can even backfire, causing folks to cling more fiercely to their mistaken beliefs.

All of this lousy scientific news leads me to wonder how the human race has ever made progress. How have we ever changed our minds? And yet we have. Often. Slavery is no longer accepted and neither are Jim Crow laws. Our attitudes about the propriety of putting young children to work in factories have changed, along with our view of the facts about a host of other situations.

Our brains and hearts appear to be both completely inflexible, yet changeable. Scientists don’t seem to have a lot of answers yet about how we learn to see the world for what it is, but they do have a couple of interesting theories. One involves self-esteem.

Nyhan worked on one study in which he showed that people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.

Maybe there is hope for us fool human beings yet — that is if we can keep away from  demogogues, a task that seems increasingly difficult these days.

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9 Responses to Done In by the Facts

  1. There is no actual reason why individual humans must change in order to reach progress: A change from one generation to another works too.

    More generally, I am of the opinion that humans are monkeys who happen to think (too) highly of themselves. Indeed, if we look at the history of invention, evolution of thought, and similar, the typical case have been a continual refinement and extension over long periods of time, involving generations of humans—few of who have made more than a trivial contribution. Even those normally considered revolutionizers of this-and-that (e.g. Einstein) have built on significant progress by others.

  2. dianesilver says:

    Good point! Sometimes the only way real change occurs is when the older generation carrying outmoded ideas finally dies out.

    And yet, change within the whole couldn’t occur unless something was happening within individuals. You argue that these individual changes are so small as to be trivial, which may well be true, but I still wonder. I know of individuals who have made huge leaps, transforming their entire modes of thought. The studies cited in this post imply that such changes are darn near impossible, yet they happen. Are these individuals simply unique in some way? Is something else happening? Or doesn’t this even matter? Is it, as you say, that the contributions of most people are so small as to be insignificant?

    • Well, we have to differ between two things:

      o The original issue of changes in “attitude”: Here I merely say that large individual changes are not necessary for the societal overall attitude to change. That individuals do go through large changes is not uncommon, however. (But doing so can involve many stumbling blocks, including having sufficent intelligence and being able to overcome stubbornness and pride.)

      o Scientific development: Here major, original groundbreaking is exceedingly rare; and, while there are individuals who have made major contributions, the main progress is by steady accumulation and refinement of ideas in combination with, mostly, minor strokes of genius. (“Insignificant” would be a misleading description of individual contributions, however. The Swedish saying “Många bäckar små gör en stor, stor å.”/“Many little creeks, make a big, big river.” catches the idea better.)

  3. dianesilver says:

    Actually, we don’t differ at all. I agree with both your points. By the way, I love the Swedish saying. Thanks so much for your perspective.

  4. Pingback: Just the facts, ma’am. |

  5. skadhu says:

    Since reading your post and the article that it points out, I’ve been thinking about all this (and finally wrote a very long post about it myself. I won’t reproduce the whole thing here, but basically I think that with changing beliefs (as with “being good”), what we don’t take into account is the need for patience (because change is slow and incremental) and more importantly, the need to learn how to change, because it is NOT natural and easy for us to do. It also requires an awful lot of hard work, the kind that popular culture today actively discourages us from.

  6. dianesilver says:

    skadhu, I love your post! Friends, you should all go read skadhu’s “very long post” at the delightful blog microfishing. I heartily second your points about patience and the need to learn how to change. I never thought about the need for patience before, and your comment is extremely useful.

    As a lesbian, I think I’ve had some advantage in learning change because I was literally forced to either change or die. To come out, I had to accept a radically different view of sexuality than the one I was taught. The alternative was to crawl in a hole and live a lie, which would have been a form of living death, or literally blow my brains out.

  7. skadhu says:

    Thanks, Diane.
    You mention that being a lesbian forced you to learn change—I think that this is likely true of any group that is disadvantaged or oppressed. You learn different “stuff” because the world you inhabit is significantly different from the culturally dominant world, and the cognitive dissonance that produces requires reconciliation.
    Alternatively, of course, the difference between one’s reality and the proposed reality of the culturally dominant forms can drive a person into an extreme support of cultural norms, or drive them slowly mad, as you say.
    I wonder how this plays into the idea that women and men think differently? Hm, there’s another post to think about….

  8. dianesilver says:

    I agree on the sometimes advantage of being disadvantaged. I also agree that this kind of “advantage” can drive one to extremes in supporting the dominant culture. In my own community, we see that in closeted gays who loudly push for anti-gay laws.

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