Robert F. Jakubowicz: Bad for nation when beliefs trump facts


PITTSFIELD >> My neighbor, Dr. Gene Heyman, recently told me about his frustration of trying to convince a person of certain facts relating to a national economic issue. This damn-the-facts attitude is one of the human psychological conundrums in America's political and national issue debates and discussions. Why do certain people who are confronted with facts that conflict with their beliefs, not only cling to their erroneous beliefs but feel stronger about them?

Dartmouth Professor Brendon Nyhan and a colleague, Professor Jason Reifer, studied this mind-set and coined the term "backfire effect" to describe it. They theorize that this is not necessarily a matter of ignorance versus fact, but one of belief versus fact. People, according to them, develop strong beliefs and preconceived perceptions, and become very uncomfortable when confronted with unwelcome information, or that they are wrong.

Nyhan noted that one of the most disturbing examples of such misconceptions is that childhood vaccines cause autism because of the potential devastating effect on children without these vaccines. This erroneous notion began with a now fully discredited article that claimed measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines were linked to autism. Nyhan pointed out that this has been debunked by many studies and experts and the person behind this article had his medical license lifted. Yet some parents cling to this notion. Why?

According to Nyhan. this is consistent with what learned from his study. These parents do not want to be told that their preconceived notions about these vaccines are wrong, and refuse to have their children vaccinated.

Autism-vaccine myth

This curious mind-set is one of the key reasons, Donald Trump remains at the top of the polls for the nomination as the Republican Party presidential nominee. The base of that political party has attracted many of these people who stick to their beliefs despite facts to the contrary. And they support politicians who tell them what they want to hear.

Near the end of the GOP presidential debate, there was a question about the president being in charge of the national center for disease control, Trump cynically played to the misconception of vaccines and autism crowd by telling the story of a 2-year-old child who was vaccinated and got autism.

The GOP base of political supporters has also attracted many people scapegoating illegal immigrants for America's economic problems. Again Trump cynically played to that group with his claim that illegal immigration costs America $200 billion annually. The fact as found by various fact-checking groups is that there are no facts that support Trump's claim.

The fact-checkers also note that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office in a 2007 report estimated that the impact of any such cost "is most likely modest." And in a 2013 report, it estimated that under a bipartisan bill passed by the Senate, which the House of Representatives refuses to take up, granting legal status to these immigrants would actually boost the economic output and help decrease the federal budget deficits. But, despite such information. the believers of bad things caused by illegal immigrants are supporting Trump in the polls.

There are a number of such misconceived matters in our political system. In the study by Nyhan and Reifer they found many conservatives who still clung to the belief that tax cuts for the wealthy would increase federal revenue and boost the economy. They hold to this view despite the fact that such tax cuts by President George W. Bush did not have this promised effect. This group completely disregarded the refutation of such a tax policy by prominent economists and former Bush administration officials. This misconception about tax cuts still continues to prevails among elected Republican officials.

Nyhan's study also revealed that a person's degree of education was not necessarily a factor in this mind-set. People with high level of knowledge were found to be more likely to believe in conspiracy theories such as the manipulation of unemployment figures by the Obama administration.

I agree with Nyhan, based on my own experience, that it is near impossible to get any these people to admit they are wrong, especially in all things political. His recommendation is to call the people out who use these erroneous beliefs and for the media to run almost daily fact checks on their statements.

Trump should be shamed for what he is doing.

Robert "Frank" Jakubowicz is a regular Eagle contributor.


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