3. ON THE LIST: FACTS DON’T MATTER
Your brain just thinks what you already think.
Every week, The Shit List shares one problem. Here’s what we’re adding.
It’s Super Tuesday, and a ton of voters are making decisions that seem irrational. But there’s actually a reason for that: when it comes to politics, our brains are designed to confirm the beliefs we already hold. Even if facts dispute those decisions. No matter what.
Science has shown that people are likely to manipulate facts, even math and numbers, to reinforce their previously held beliefs. This conclusion stems from a 2013 study called “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government,” conducted by Yale professor Dan Kahan.
In the study, Kahan presented subjects with hypothetical statistics that countered their beliefs. For example, someone with a strong belief against gun control was shown a set of figures clearly indicating that banning concealed weapons reduced crime (and vice versa).
Rather than interpreting the statistics correctly, Kahan’s subjects instead tallied them up in a way that reinforced their political leanings. Or, to put it more simply, they ignored the numbers on the page and came to a conclusion that didn’t challenge their beliefs. They saw the stats they wanted to see.
You might think these subjects were just particularly shitty at math. But the results were very different when people were presented with a politically neutral problem. When the hypothetical statistics were applied to the efficacy of a skin cream instead of gun control, they were taken at face value.
In fact, the subjects who rated the best at math were the most willfully ignorant when it came to the political calculations. So, getting a 5 on your AP Calc test in high school is no defense — you might be even more entrenched than the rest of us.
If you’ve ever wondered how our political discourse got so lousy, now you know. It’s very difficult to convince people through fact-based arguments — our brains are hot-wired to resist them.
Sure, you can show someone a chart of CO2 levels reaching a massive peak. But if they’re not a believer in global warming, science suggests their stance won’t waver. Same goes for facts about immigration. Or facts about Muslims and ISIS. (But thanks for trying, Pew.)
Lobotomies for everyone! Just kidding. Though our brains are a bit buggy, they also gift us with the capacity for self-awareness.
We could use it to recognize our blind spots and work to overcome them! We could recognize our own biases and be unafraid of discourse or data that challenges them! We could actively seek out new sources of information, from different perspectives, and make earnest attempts to reconcile their worldview with our own!
One can dream, anyway.
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