Don’t confuse me with the facts

Illustration: Clifford Harper/agraphia.co.uk

Illustration: Clifford Harper/agraphia.co.uk

"The people at Politifact are terrified of being considered partisan if they acknowledge the clear fact that there's a lot more lying on one side of the political divide than on the other...So they've bent over backwards to appear 'balanced' — and in the process made themselves useless and irrelevant." ~ Paul Krugman

Everybody hates the fact-checkers.

Liberals hate them because they believe themselves to be superior to their ideological opponents who are bigoted, homophobic, misogynistic, anti-intellectual and evil personified, and therefore lie more than anyone else in human history. As a result, liberals' statements are beyond dispute.

Conservatives hate them because they are all tools of the Left, which routinely misleads and misinforms because of their contempt for the hoi polloi in flyover country, who have more wisdom from life experience than these elitists have from all the diplomas hanging on their walls.

These are generalities, of course, but they aren't far from the perceptions each side has of the other, and they despise fact-checkers precisely because they refuse to take sides.

I have two thoughts about the fact-checkers. The first is that they usually offer a lot of information to defend their conclusions, and that information can be researched and evaluated by anyone, so if you don't agree with their conclusions, you have the original sources to do your own research and refute them if you so choose. The end result is a full vetting of a statement or issue, and a better informed person.

The other thought is that fact-checking doesn't work with a great many people, no matter how well the evidence is presented.

On a number of occasions, I have presented facts that contradict a popular political narrative, not because I'm seeking to discredit or embarrass anyone, but because I believe that Christians ought to be dedicated to the truth.

That is also why, if I present incorrect information and it is brought to my attention, once I've validated that I was indeed wrong, I will issue a retraction and an apology.

A quick scan of the topics and associated comments on my Facebook public page and this blog, however, reveals that the facts don't change the minds of those who are committed to the narrative. Quite the opposite occurs and, apparently, that's not unusual:

"In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger." ~ Joe Keohane, "How facts backfire", Boston Globe, July 11, 2010.

The article goes on to say:

"In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we're right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote.

"This effect is only heightened by the information glut, which offers — alongside an unprecedented amount of good information — endless rumors, misinformation, and questionable variations on the truth. In other words, it's never been easier for people to be wrong, and at the same time feel more certain that they're right."

We place a lot of hope in the concept of an informed citizenry – our entire system of public education was founded for that very purpose – and I believe it is better for us to know as much as we can about policies and politicians so we are not easily misled. It is apparently impossible, however, to deal with the volume and speed of information that confronts us in the modern era without what researchers call "cognitive shortcuts" to help us function.

I've written about this previously when talking about stereotypes and their negative impact on our relationships with people we do not know intimately:

"Stereotypes are, in some respects, a defense mechanism for our brains in that they relieve us of the considerable burden of learning enough about people as individuals to know how to engage them. There's just too many people, too much to do, and too little time, and we fall back on typecasting so there's one less hard thing for us to do in our already hard lives."

Maybe we're expecting too much of human beings. If Walter Lippman observed in 1922 that "For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see", then perhaps there's no hope for fact-checkers or truth-tellers, or anyone else whose quest it is to ensure that the "truth will out", as Shakespeare put it.

It is my fervent belief, however, that Christians are not absolved from seeking out and speaking the truth simply because it is difficult, or even impossible, to secure agreement from others. Jesus Christ said, "For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth" (John 18:37).

That is why I will continue to examine, question and verify what I read and present to the world. I may not always get it right, but the Lord will know my heart sought after the truth, and that is what He expects of me, no matter how it is received. He never stopped telling the truth, even unto death on a cross, so I think I can endure a little "backfire effect".