The NYT’s Timothy Egan on the wilful ignorance (if that’s the right term for it) of far-right Americans and the media that abets them.
From the NYT’s Opinionator blog (“Building a Nation of Know-Nothings“):
Take a look at Tuesday night’s box score in the baseball game between New York and Toronto. The Yankees won, 11-5. Now look at the weather summary, showing a high of 71 for New York. The score and temperature are not subject to debate.
Yet a president’s birthday or whether he was even in the White House on the day TARP was passed are apparently open questions. A growing segment of the party poised to take control of Congress has bought into denial of the basic truths of Barack Obama’s life. What’s more, this astonishing level of willful ignorance has come about largely by design, and has been aided by a press afraid to call out the primary architects of the lies. …
So where is this “media?” Two sources, and they are — no surprise here — the usual suspects. The first, of course, is Rush Limbaugh, who claims the largest radio audience in the land among the microphone demagogues, and his word is Biblical among Republicans. A few quick examples of the Limbaugh method:
“Tomorrow is Obama’s birthday — not that we’ve seen any proof of that,” he said on Aug. 3. “They tell us Aug. 4 is the birthday; we haven’t seen any proof of that.”
Of course, there is proof as clear as that baseball box score. Look here, www.factcheck.org, for starters, one of many places posting Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate. …
Finally, there is Fox News, whose parent company has given $1 million to Republican causes this year but still masquerades as a legitimate source of news. Their chat and opinion programs spread innuendo daily. The founder of Politifact, another nonpartisan referee to the daily rumble, said two of the site’s five most popular items on its Truth-o-meter are corrections of Glenn Beck. …
Climate-change denial is a special category all its own. Once on the fringe, dismissal of scientific consensus is now an article of faith among leading Republicans, again taking their cue from Limbaugh and Fox.
It would be nice to dismiss the stupid things that Americans believe as harmless, the price of having such a large, messy democracy. Plenty of hate-filled partisans swore that Abraham Lincoln was a Catholic and Franklin Roosevelt was a Jew. So what if one-in-five believe the sun revolves around the earth, or aren’t sure from which country the United States gained its independence?
But false belief in weapons of mass-destruction led the United States to a trillion-dollar war. And trust in rising home value as a truism as reliable as a sunrise was a major contributor to the catastrophic collapse of the economy. At its worst extreme, a culture of misinformation can produce something like Iran, which is run by a Holocaust denier.
It’s one thing to forget the past, with predictable consequences, as the favorite aphorism goes. But what about those who refuse to comprehend the present?
I’m presuming “truthiness” has fallen out of favour as a word since the end of the Bush era, for Egan did not make use of it in his commentary. Too bad. It applies.
But then again, maybe it doesn’t apply because we’re talking about still believing something that is provably wrong.
Egan started his column out by saying Sen. John McCain (Ariz., Rep.) was once a man of honour until the Tea Party frenzy put his political career at risk (McCain made it through the primary, but only by veering hard to the right).
However, a New Republic column excoriated McCain for his mendacious behaviour during the 2008 presidential campaign.
That story tipped me to work by political scientists Brendan Nyhan of Duke University and Jason Reifler of Georgia State University. Their depressing conclusion? Lies work in politics, especially with true believers.
With the presidential candidates trading accusations on television and in the press, journalists’ attempts to correct misinformation is unlikely to sway public perceptions, according to a series of experiments by a Duke University political scientist.
“What we found is that corrections are ineffective for the group most likely to have the misperception,” said Brendan Nyhan, a Ph.D. candidate in Duke’s political science department. “Even worse, we found that those people may actually end up believing in the misperception more strongly after hearing a correction.”
“Right now there is a national debate about accuracy in political ads and what the media’s role is,” Nyhan said. “A lot of people want more aggressive fact-checking. But even if the media were putting fact-checks into every article, the public’s beliefs might not change very much. The problem is that the people most likely to have the misperception will often reject the correction.”
In the experiments, two groups of volunteers were given the same mock news articles with a potentially misleading claim by a public figure. For one group, the misleading claim was followed by a correction. Results show that people predisposed to believe the claim were just as likely to continue believing it after reading the correction. In several cases, people who were predisposed to believe the claim and received the correction believed the misinformation more than those who did not receive the correction.
Note the following quote from page 31 of a paper posted by Nyhan:
Currently, all of our backfire results come from conservatives (emphasis mine – BD) – a finding that may provide support for the hypothesis that conservatives are especially dogmatic (Greenberg and Jonas 2003; Jost et al. 2003a, 2003b). However, there is a great deal of evidence that liberals (e.g. the stem cell experiment above) and Democrats (e.g., Bartels 2002: 133-137, Bullock 2007, Gerber and Huber 2010) also interpret factual information in ways that are consistent with their political predispositions. Without conducting more studies, it is impossible to determine if liberals and conservatives react to corrections differently.33
Not all conservatives are crackpots, and not all “progressives” are models of rational thinking.
But it’s a matter of record that belief in global warming has dropped precipitously among U.S. conservatives. This happened even after the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its 2007 reports.
This was the strongest statement yet that human-caused global warming was a real problem, and conservatives reacted by being even more frenzied in their attacks — which worked.
Although Barack Obama is more progressive on the climate issue than Bush (how could it be otherwise?), he doesn’t pass legislation — Congress does. Not the following from Globe and Mail national affairs columnist Jeffrey Simpson on Aug 27:
… The U.S. political system is paralyzed by climate-change legislation. It has effectively thrown up its hands, so deep are the political divisions in Congress and in the country. Nothing will emerge from Congress this year to put a price on carbon – the key element to any serious policy – and maybe not for many years.
I would note that the scientific case for the theory of evolution is even stronger than the one for global warming, yet only four in 10 Americans believe in evolution.
In one of the more disquieting developments, belief is growing among Americans that Obama is a Muslim (?!?!). To see why that’s absurd, watch this Jimmy Kimmel video.
Yet this Pew Centre poll from Aug. 19 found that belief Obama is a Muslim increased by 16 percentage points among conservative Republicans since 2009. Wacky — although in fairness, doubts have also seeped into Obama’s supporters.
But the crucial question is this: On what evidence? And if people aren’t forming beliefs based on evidence, where does it lead?
In Egan’s view, this meme is powered in part by a relentless campaign of innuendo from powerful conservative media personalities and outlets.
But historian Allan Levine argued that perhaps the periodic, collective inability to think critically is what’s at play, in an Aug. 20 Globe and Mail commentary about the controversy over Parc51, an Islamic community centre near 9/11′s Ground Zero in lower Manhattan:
“Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way,” explains Linda Elder, an educational psychologist and president of the Foundation for Critical Thinking. “People who think critically consistently attempt to live rationally, reasonably and empathically. They work diligently to develop the intellectual virtues of intellectual integrity, intellectual humility, intellectual civility, intellectual empathy, intellectual sense of justice and confidence in reason.”
But once students enter the real world, they are confronted by a wide range of complex issues that play on their prejudices and biases, narrow ideas that are reinforced by their families, peers and the media. Thinking critically is hard work, and far too many of us take the easy and lazy route. We just react.
How else to explain the tremendous and illogical current backlash against Muslims in the United States.
From the Pew poll:
Beliefs about Obama’s religion are closely linked to political judgments about him. Those who say he is a Muslim overwhelmingly disapprove of his job performance, while a majority of those who think he is a Christian approve of the job Obama is doing. Those who are unsure about Obama’s religion are about evenly divided in their views of his performance.
Religion and faith count for a lot in the United States. In 2004, when George W. Bush won re-election, you could reportedly see banners at his rallies saying “God wants Bush.”
I would really love those out there in Dubya-lover land to explain to me how they could read the New Yorker editorial this week and still vote for him.
But the fact probably is that outside of college towns, not a lot of New Yorkers got sold or otherwise read in the areas where Bush dominated. And even if they did read it, Dubya supporters wouldn’t have batted an eye in supporting him when they cast ballots on Nov. 2, 2004.
It was a faith-based decision. It’s worth clicking through to my older post to read what Ron Suskind had to say about the nature of Bush’s appeal — and the dislike his base had for the reality-based community.
Now, if those same people have faith that Obama is a foreign-born Muslim socialist who signed off on TARP (read the full Egan post), I suppose they are entitled to their beliefs.
But when you believe crazy things despite abundant evidence to the contrary, and enough people share that belief to move the wheels of government, bad things can happen to a country.
Rational, evidence-based thinking based doesn’t guarantee a perfect outcome (in any event, democracy is about process, not outcomes), but it reduces the risk of a catastrophically bad one.
If people will themselves into believing things that aren’t true and allow faith to override evidence, I would suggest they are increasing the risk of disaster.
Choose your path accordingly, my American friends.
Given that I flatter myself into thinking of myself as a rationalist, where does faith logically fit in, given that you can never have perfect information with which to make decisions?
From the archives
If you’ve made it this far, here are some additional links that didn’t fit into the narrative but still offer useful background.
June 24, 2006 - ‘Licence to lie’
A Salon excerpt of Ron Suskind’s book “The One Per Cent Doctrine.”
Nov. 30, 2004 – What I’d ask Dubya
Nov. 30, 2004 – Dear American Friends
Nov. 9, 2004 – Finally, someone picked up on the PIPA survey!
Nov. 7, 2004 – The values-vote myth: A counter-argument
About half-way down is a reference to the PIPA survey, which essentially found that Bush supporters believed untrue things about various foreign policy issues to a much greater degree than did Sen. John Kerry supporters (the NYT’s Bob Herbert columnized on the survey at the time).
Nov. 6, 2004 – More post-election analysis from the NYT
The headline on one story excerpted? “The day the Enlightenment went out.”
Nov. 4, 2004 – Why the post below doesn’t matter
An excerpt from an NYT magazine article on Bush supporters (the headline refers to the blog link below).
Nov. 4, 2004 – Election afterthoughts from OOT NY media elitists