Remember when I wrote about the bad logic employed by another person's facebook friend? Someone who stated things like "FACT: Adam fell into mortality about 6000 years ago:" or "FACT: Only four people I know of on Earth can actually tell us what the planet was really like 2000 years ago. (John and 3 Nephites)"?
I admit it: I had signed on for the project of getting this guy to admit that these things weren't "facts" at all. Luckily circumstances removed this person from my experience, so that now he is only a vague, unpleasantly memory. Because chances are, I would never change his mind. Nor will anyone else.
Here's a study, discussed in the Boston Globe, that addresses why: people with wrong opinions don't want to change them. They actually reject facts when confronted with them. In fact, "facts could actually make misinformation even stronger."
This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters -- the people making decisions about how the country runs -- aren't blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.
"The general idea is that it's absolutely threatening to admit you're wrong," says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon -- known as "backfire" -- is "a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance."
The good news is that there seems to be at least one way to counteract this trend: boost people's self-esteem:
Nyhan worked on one study in which he showed that people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you'll listen -- and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won't. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.
But how do you make people feel good about themselves when the entire world mocks them for the silly underwear they wear? I mean, how do you make them feel good about themselves in a legitimate way, and not in the "oh, wow, you're so oppressed, and that's proof that you're extra special and God really loves you" way?