When the truth just ain't enough

Sunday July 25, 2010


‘It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." This quip by Mark Twain is as good an insight as there is to explain why there is a sharp political division in America today along ideological lines.

It isn't a lack of informed Americans that is dividing the country politically. It's misinformed Americans. A study conducted by Brendan Nyhan from the University of Michigan and Jason Peifler from Georgia State University entitled, "When Corrections Fail, the Persistence of Political Misperceptions," concluded that informing Americans of correct political information not only significantly failed to change or reduce their misperceptions, but had a "backfire effect" of strengthening the beliefs of the most strongly committed ideologues.

According to the authors, there is much written about the political ignorance of Americans, but very little research on their political misperceptions. The authors were prompted to do their study because they found that recent studies showed that most Americans appeared to lack factual knowledge of politics. They conducted experiments in 2005 and 2006 to find out if "fake or unsubstantiated beliefs" regarding politics could be corrected.

Their experiments consisted of panels of individuals with liberal, conservative and in between ideological political views. These panels were then subjected to two types of information, one type being statements such as those made by former President George W. Bush before the Iraq invasion, as well as mock news articles attributed to such news sources as the New York Times and Fox News, about the presence of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq.

Then the panels were given the correct information that WMDs were never found in Iraq. But in each ideological group, the members failed to update or change their beliefs about Iraq having these weapons. And in several instances this corrected information made members feel even stronger about their beliefs.

This result led Nyhan and Peifler to conclude that responses to corrected information on political issues differ significantly according to a person's ideological views. And they concluded that the "backfire effect" by people with strong ideological views showed that they likely engage in "motivated reasoning." In other words their partisan political beliefs (such as, in believing Bush's rationale for the preemptive invasion of Iraq) motivated their reactions to the correct information that differed with their beliefs.

Another issue that was used in this study was Bush's tax cuts. This is timely because Congress this year has to consider whether or not to continue these cuts and make them permanent. Nyhan and Peifler had their panels read the claims for these cuts made by Bush administration officials, Republican members of Congress, and conservative spokespersons. They all claimed that the cuts would stimulate economic growth and would effectively increase government revenue over what it otherwise would have been.

Then the panels were given the information that the "overwhelming consensus" among professional economists is that these claims based on the economic experience in America were unreasonable and improbable, and that tax revenues declined after the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. But this correction of tax cut misinformation not only failed to cause a significant decline in the misperception of the tax cuts, but it caused a "backfire effect" among conservatives and Republican members of the panel who agreed more strongly with the unsubstantiated assertion that revenues would increase because of the effect of the cuts.

This "backfire effect" reminded me of a story that the late Pittsfield City Clerk Francis "Tinker" Condron liked to tell about a city councilor who always thought he was right about the conduct of council business. This councilor approached Condron and sought his advice about a proposal he intended to put before the council. Condron told him that the state law prohibited such action. The city lawmaker told Condron he was wrong.

Condron then showed the councilor the text of the state law which clearly corroborated Condron's point. But according to Condron this only made the councilperson more resolute about the rightness of the proposal as well as going forward with it.

What makes the Nyhan and Peifler study relevant is that Republicans in Congress are making the same untrue claims about the economic stimulus effect of Bush's tax cuts. And when the issue of making these cuts permanent heats up in Congress this year, there is sure to be a lot of repetition of this misinformed argument by the Republicans and their supporters. The problem in correcting this political nonsense, as one commentator stated, is that apparently "the truth ain't enough."

So what can be done about politicians who do not allow the facts to stand in their way, such as the Republican leaders in Congress touting the continuance of Bush's tax cuts as an economic stimulus? One good step would be to for what remains of the objective media and informed political commentators to subject these politicians and their supporters to public ridicule by putting the facts in their way, rather than simply repeating their incorrect assertions as an arguable political position with merit.

Robert "Frank" Jakubowicz, a Pittsfield lawyer is a regular Eagle contributor.


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