To many (most?) people, facts do not matter

blanketby starshaped

New surveys show the persistence of misperceptions
[Via Brendan Nyhan]

Three new surveys illustrate just how persistent political misperceptions can be.

My research with Jason Reifler suggests that corrective information frequently fails to reduce beliefs in false or unsupported claims – a response that may be rooted in the threatening nature of unwelcome facts. While there are ways to present information more effectively, the extensive social science research we review in our New America report suggests that misperceptions are very difficult to counter.

These polls illustrate the challenge. First, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released a new survey showing that 16% of Americans think President Obama is a Muslim and additional 36% don’t know his religion. Plotting the history of Pew surveys on this question, which date back to March 2008, shows that the misperception is disturbingly stable:


Of course, it’s possible that some of these respondents are expressing their dislike of Obama rather than a sincere factual belief, but others may refrain from expressing support for the Muslim claim to a survey interviewer – an effect that Reifler and I found may be substantial for white respondents who received corrective information with a non-white administrator present. The relative magnitude of these effects is unclear.

(Pew also found that only 51% of Americans know Mitt Romney is Mormon and 37% don’t know his religion, but there is no clear misperception – no more than 5% selected any of the other faiths provided in the question.)


The paper itself has more about how long-lasting lies and misrepresentations can last, especially if they match someone’s partisan beliefs.

Besides the continuing misperception by a large number of partisans regarding Obama’s religion, there is this:


Here 80% of those voting GOP failed to know that no WMDs were found when Iraq was invaded– even 35% of the democrats failed this also.

Or this one:


Republican voters (80%) do not acknowledge that Obama was born in the US while 80% of Democrats do.

Misrepresentations are not just a conservative problem. 45% of Democrats believe that 9/11 was allowed to happen by the Federal government while only 18% of Republicans do.

The researchers do an interesting experiment in the paper – they look at what happens when partisans are given incorrect information and then given the correct information.

They gave people an incorrect fact – that the Bush tax cuts led to an increase in tax revenues. To a cohort of that group, they also included a correction stating that tax revenues had actually dropped not risen.

Here are the results.


The correction actually had little effect on changing people’s views to reflect the facts. A minority of Democrats already believed the false facts and few of them changed when given the correct information. These are people one would expect to be pre-disposed to not like the Bush Tax cuts. Yet very few of them changed their minds.They believed the false fact and continue to believe the false fact, even when given correct information that should resonate with their own partisan views.

The correction – the presentation of the correct fact – does not matter to them.

This effect is even more pronounced with Republicans. The correction actually resulted in MORE Republicans believing the false fact than no correction at all. This backfire effect is seen in many other cases and is one reason simply presenting facts not only does not change anyone’s mind but actually makes them even more attached to their convictions.

Even if those convictions are wrong. Nether side of a partisan divide will convince the other using facts alone. 

Looks like we all have to learn to debate like lawyers in order to change people’s views. Even then I am not sure it would be possible.

Some people cling to their ignorance as a security blanket against a harsh world.

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