Thursday, October 09, 2008

Depressing news about misinformation

I imagine you've heard the cynical comment, "Don't bother me with the facts."

It sounds as if that attitude is rather widespread.

Jonathan Gitlin asks. in Ars Technica, Does ideology trump facts? Studies say it often does.
For example, a study by John Bullock of Yale showed volunteers a political ad created by NARAL that linked Justice John Roberts to a violent anti-abortion group, followed by news that the ad had been withdrawn. Interestingly, Democratic participants had a worse opinion of Roberts after being shown the ad, even after they were told it was false.

Over half (56 percent) of Democratic subjects disapproved of Roberts before the misinformation. That rose to 80 percent afterward, but even after correcting the misinformation, 72 percent of Democratic subjects still had a negative opinion. Republican volunteers, on the other hand, only showed a small increase in disapproval after watching the misinformation (11 percent vs 14 percent).

Along those lines, a pair of political scientists, Brendan Nyhan of Duke and Jason Reifler of Georgia State, have shown a similar effect, this time concerning misinformation surrounding the presence of WMDs in Iraq, tax cuts, or stem cell research. Participants were shown news reports that contained inaccuracies, followed by a correction. The news reports were not real, but were presented to the volunteers as coming from either the New York Times or Fox News. Again, the findings suggest that facts that contradicted political ideology were simply not taken in; if anything, challenging misbelief with fact checking has the counterintuitive effect of reinforcing that misbelief.
"These findings, if true, have worrying implications," Gitlin says.
Cognitive dissonance won't help people make rational decisions, but it also suggests that there's little point in arguing with someone who holds an opposing belief. Could this response be why, despite being repeatedly refuted in the media, the percentage of Americans who believe Sen. Obama to be a Muslim continues to grow? The research might also apply beyond the political to other attitudes—I'm thinking of the constant flame wars between fans of the PS3 and Xbox 360, or Mac and PC users. Is all that time spent in [online forums dedicated to "debate"] wasted?
My sense? Maybe not all the time, but, certainly, most of it!

I am so sick of going to websites where I read a thought-provoking article that presents new information, only to find "responses" or "commentary" that involves little more than grotesque name-calling.
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