09 October 2012

Words are not facts: ideological resistance to truth

The cover story of this week's Time reports on the 2012 presidential "Fact Wars," and reporter Michael Scherer informs us -- certainly to universal surprise -- that the Obama and Romney campaigns have persistently misrepresented the achievements and agendas of each other's candidates. To be more blunt about it, both Democrats and Republicans are lying like mad, with no one but magazine journalists really seeming to care. Scherer sees something more than the usual cynicism about politicians at work here. He worries that partisan or ideologically minded people simply don't care about the truth, or don't believe it when it's told to them. He refers readers to the research conducted by Brendan Nyhar and Jason Reifler on "the persistence of political misperceptions" in the face of corrective facts. Their tests of politically-committed subjects revealed what Scherer describes as "resistance to factual information" among both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. They had test subjects read claims made during the 2004 presidential campaign by George W. Bush and John Kerry, followed by statements refuting each man's claims. Bush was shown to be wrong in his assertion that his tax cuts had actually increased government revenue, while Kerry was shown to have wrongly accused Bush of banning stem cell research. In each case significant numbers of sympathizers resisted the information contradicting their party or candidate's position. In the worst cases, the researchers perceived a "backfire effect" as the contradictory information provoked the most committed subjects into doubling down on their original beliefs.

It seems obvious that the worst test subjects simply refused to acknowledge contradictory information as true. Addressing resistance among Republicans, Nyhar and Reifler acknowledge widespread Republican suspicion of the news media but found that they didn't significantly alter the results by attributing the contradictory information to Fox News rather than the New York Times (another survey cited by Scherer suggests that changing the brand name can generate a different response). However, they got less resistance to contradiction among Republicans when they presented Bush's original disputed claims (about WMD in Iraq as well as the revenue-enhancing effect of tax cuts) as anonymous assertions rather than crediting them to Bush himself. That suggests that resistance to contradiction is to some extent a matter of loyalty (or faith) as well as a matter of suspicion of the media. Nyhar and Reifler think fear is also a factor; another of their surveys showed subjects to be more receptive to contradiction after performing a "self-affirming exercise." Nevertheless, polls cited by Scherer show distrust of the media at 21st century highs. It seems likely that distrust in general is at historic highs in this country. Distrust is the postmodern condition, the consequence not only of ideological accusations of bias but also of academic skepticism toward all claims of objectivity and (I'm sad to suggest) the popular repudiation of any concept of faith by the best-selling "New Atheists"). Why drag them in? Because they say you can't trust what's in writing (in one case, at least) without checking the facts. But where do we usually encounter "facts?" In writing. But as skepticism toward the factuality of writing grows more widespread, we have an epistemological crisis on our hands in which some people won't credit information that challenges their beliefs unless they can verify it by (sometimes unlikely) direct observation. Unless they can go to Iraq (perhaps in a time machine) and inspect every acre, or dig it up, they won't be satisfied that the WMDs aren't there, that someone isn't lying to them about their absence solely for partisan advantage. I use a Republican example but Democratic counterparts should come to mind easily enough. An actual Republican describes the situation quite nicely. Quoted by Scherer, the partisan pollster Frank Luntz says, "It used to be that we disagreed on the solution but agreed on the problem. Now we don't even agree on the problem." We seem to be abandoning the conceptual common ground necessary for anyone to respect the objectivity or integrity of anyone else's claims.  Is that because each side wants the world to be different from what it actually is, or can be? There seems to be plenty of blame to go around. The postmodernists are considered people of the left because they seemed to oppose "power" and the way "power" crafted appeals to objectivity in order to impose its will on others. Now nearly everyone, it seems, sees some unwelcome "power" trying to impose its will in the guise of truth. If truth and objectivity exist, perhaps it's time for them to actually fulfill people's fears and impose themselves on everyone else. I suspect that'll probably happen anyway, whether truth and objectivity take a human form or not.

No comments: