Fact Checkers Rejoice

Today Dan Engber offers solace to people (such as myself) who worry that we are living in a post-truth age, and are not very far from a time when claiming that “2 + 2 = 4” will be considered wildly controversial and overtly political. In a cover story for Slate, Engber challenges that deep sense of skepticism.

Engber particularly takes issue with the idea that presenting people with facts will lead to a “boomerang” that causes people to double down and dig into their erroneous beliefs and assumptions. Yes, we all prefer to hear information that aligns with what we already believe. Yes, we all engage in motivated reasoning when confronted with evidence that challenges our beliefs. And yes, our highest officials now routinely regularly engage in disinformation and other forms of deceit. All that said, Engber persuasively shows that — more than commonly understood — presenting people with facts and objective evidence can actually change their perspective. This is hard work, but not impossible work.

To make his case Engber dives deep into the social science literature. He shows that several of the most famous studies that show the “boomerang” against facts had poor methodology and/or could not be replicated. He also brings to the fore little known research that directly refutes the boomerang hypothesis. The debate continues, and this piece makes a solid contribution.

I fear that Engber is somewhat too sanguine about the realities of political tribalism and groupthink, even if he is right that the boomerang effect of sharing facts is over-stated. The fact that someone like Roy Moore could get anywhere close to the US Senate shows the deep grip of motivated reasoning, when people perceive high enough stakes. Nonetheless I am glad that Engber can provide comfort to those of us in libraries and journalism who never stopped believing that facts matter.