A writer named Joe Keohane has an article entitled “How Facts Backfire”. It raises a lot of worthwhile points and prompts a few thoughts relevant to Our current situation.
The gist of Keohane’s piece is that people seem to avoid facts that they don’t already agree with, and – he rightly observes – this is an ominous situation for democracy and the maintenance of a democratic polity.
Without further ado, into the piece.
“Mankind may be crooked timber, as Kant put it, uniquely susceptible to ignorance and misinformation, but it’s an article of faith that knowledge is the best remedy.”
So true about the “crooked timber of humanity” (as Isaiah Berlin expanded upon the phrase): what makes the timber of humanity crooked? Not only misinformation but emotions and not only emotions but deep-seated predispositions in the information-process that humans have evolved over the millennia of the specie’s soooo short existence.
Will not ‘truth’ conquer untruth (reality mis-perceived or reality purposely skewed … big diffs there)? Will not “the power of information” solve the problem in the end?
Not exactly, no.
And the clue as to why not is in his next bit: Studies conducted by U/Michigan five years ago indicate that “when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds”.
So folks are not embracing “information and facts” merely because they wish to have an accurate picture of the world.
And “political partisans” – that bunch raises a special yellow flag: when you have, say, embraced an ideology (and that’s exactly what Revolutionaries and cadres of Revolutions do) then your whole purpose and meaning in life depends on that ideology being accurate and right. OR, at least making sure that your view achieves the status of commonly-accepted truth and reality. Whichever is easier.
Ominously, the U/Michigan report goes on to advise that not only do such partisan types reject facts that do not correspond to their already-embraced ideology, but such contradictory facts actually serve, no matter how gently raised, to intensify the partisan death-grip on the originally-embraced ideology.
In their salad days 40-odd years ago, the Revolutions of the Identities and their cadres could score a lot of rhetorical points by making fun of the purported ideology of ‘patriarchy’ – which most folks were still clinging to despite all the ‘facts’ that the cadres were trumpeting in accents of outrage and fear.
Objections and hesitations and doubts on the part of the larger population could be dismissed airily as ‘backlash’, which is a neat psychological cover for the old charge that somebody has been making him/herself an ‘enemy of the Revolution’ (which in Lenin’s day was also nicely phrased as ‘enemy of the people’, as if the Revolution were undeniably in the best interests of the people).
Keohane notes accurately that “most voters – the people making decisions about how the country runs – aren’t blank slates”. Nobody is a blank-slate. A human is born with hard-wiring in the brain, and also with deeply and still little-understood predispositions that have evolved over thousands of generations, building on the experiences and hard-won insights that earlier generations of the species have worked out.
You don’t go and change that overnight. Surely, no democratic government is advised to try: not only will such a programme have to ride roughshod over essential core human dynamics, but in a democracy the government would have to betray the very dynamics of democratic deliberation. And that’s even BEFORE you get around to the question: is the government’s programme even accurate in its Content?
One of the Michigan researchers is quoted: “… it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong” and humans try to avoid that disconcerting realization.
True. As far as it goes. But a horse that hesitates going over a rickety bridge after putting one hoof on it is not simply afraid of being wrong; something tells the animal that the bridge isn’t going to bear the weight and being ‘wrong’ is the least of it – being dead is a consequence even more urgently to be avoided.
Thus a real human dynamic so long ignored by the mind-and-heart manipulations and assertions of the Revolutionary cadres these past 40-odd years: people hesitate not so much or not just because they are more interested in being ‘right’ than in finding out the truth (the Revolution’s version of the truth, anyway). Rather, people hesitate because something in their gut (that mysterious predispositional ability) that the whole bridge is too rickety to hold the weight the cadres want to put on it, and that there will be lethal consequences if the whole herd follows the vanguard cadres over the bridge.
This is not a matter of ‘you just don’t get it’. It is a matter of you just don’t intend to get it because you sense deep down that the bridge is rickety and may well lead to nowhere, or even to disaster.
Keohane asserts that “these findings open a long-running argument about the political ignorance of American citizens to broader question about the interplay between the nature of human intelligence and our democratic ideals”.
I want to both agree and disagree with him here.
I agree that there is a monstrously huge and perennial question in the American system’s governing dynamic. And it’s based in conclusions drawn from observing people: can they generally be trusted to do the serious advanced work of processing information so that they can most efficaciously deploy their Constitutional authority to govern the government? OR are they so generally lazy and dopey that only the ‘elites’ (defined by wealth, class, education, or even Revolutionary inspiration) of the country should be allowed a say in what’s really going to be national policy?
Recall that Justice Holmes – a Civil War officer in his 20s who survived near-fatal wounds and lived to be a Supreme Court Justice in his 70s, 80s and 90s (he died in 1935) – had a low opinion of the general public’s ability or willingness to grapple effectively with hard facts or great problems (in his experience, the failure of public deliberation led to the awful horrors of the Civil War); he had so little confidence in the public’s ability to conduct deliberation that he wanted all possible points of view to be openly allowed, since a weak public in the throes of a single overriding ideology would be an even worse outcome than a squabbling but diverse public.
Folks today would do well to recall that his ‘openness’ to public deliberation made him popular with Progressives of his day, but that he himself did not trust the Progressive approach to introducing broad changes, regardless of how well-intentioned they were.
Brandeis, his colleague on the Court, followed Lincoln: placing a trust in the mysterious but reliable outcome of sustained general public deliberation – it was almost a democratic mysticism, but without a deliberative democratic politics has no Ground in the competence of its ultimate governors, The People. *
Again, in the increasingly complicated polity that the US was becoming in the 1890s and the early 1900s, even the Progressives were leery of The People, so eager were they to get their reforms enacted and enforced. And there were some very good reforms back then.
So I agree that there is a very important Question here. And that it is somehow not simply a matter of personal willed choice but also of deep-seated, long-evolved human predispositions (that no government can afford to ignore).
But I disagree that the nub of the problem is political “ignorance”.
It is, rather, I would say, political “incompetence”. Specifically, the inability to maturely process and evaluate information: to gather relevant information – whether pro or con, to sift and assess it, to deliberate with others about it, and then to judge that information and come to a conclusion and to a ‘position’, and then to share that position with other citizens and also communicate your conclusions to your elected representative (who, in theory, has not previously indentured him/herself to Money or Advantage, or Ideology in such a way that s/he isn’t – and can’t be – interested in whatever it is you have to say since his/her course is now set by forces that don’t include accuracy or deliberation on the part of voters).
This ‘incompetence’ abides in human nature: as Keohane indicates, there is something in people that doesn’t want to admit being-wrong.
But it’s also more than that: there is a tendency, stronger as one grows beyond childhood and youth, to be careful in running eagerly across bridges, since grown-ups know that the consequences of carefree carelessness can be expensive, devastating, and even irreparable – no matter how urgent or exciting the ‘high’ of yelling ‘Just Do It!’. This profound human reality got lost among the Boomers, who were rewarded with the status of being Wise before they ever grew up beyond the assorted ‘highs’ of sex and revolution.
“And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we choose to accept”. Yes, beyond that inner conservatism that calculates possible consequences before doing something, beliefs – whether right or wrong – can engage self-image and pride issues of not wanting to be-wrong.
Of course, it’s also a matter of the blind men and the elephant: each came in contact with a different part of the elephant (the tusk, the trunk, the ears, the legs, the bulk of the body, the tail) and so each came up with a different ‘view’ of the beast.
The democratic assumption – not unknown to Lincoln and Brandeis and the Framers before them – is that since everybody is kinda ‘limited’, then if everyone gets together and shares what information they have, some accurate and usable information about the elephant can be arrived at, given enough time and commitment to the process.
This is hell-and-gone from the Revolutionary approach: it is precisely the assumption of a Revolution that its cadres are NOT blind, and everybody else IS blind. Once – like Lenin – you’ve made that assumption, then democratic process is useless and obstructive since everybody except you is blind and their input is useless. Instead, you have a moral right – and authority – to impose your not-blind Vision on everybody else since they don’t know and can’t know what’s good for them and you do.
The humility of democratic process – We are each and all blind but each and all possessed of a piece of the puzzle – is the opposite of the Ideology of Revolution (or Fundamentalism): the ‘true believers’ are arrogant and prideful, even when they mean well, because they refuse to accept any possibility of being wrong or even of having incomplete information.
And the most dedicated cadres are always ready to break a few eggs to get the omelette that the Party Line assures them will bring Perfection.
These things don’t end well.
Perhaps the American electorate can be forgiven for never imagining that in the late 1960s, with the USSR of Lenin’s true-believing heirs still alive and kicking, the Beltway itself would embrace such anti-democratic frakkery. But it’s been 40-odd years now, and it’s time to take a long and careful and acute look around.
“This effect is only heightened by the information glut”. Yes. And not just that there is so much ‘information’. But that there is so much Spin and other forms of Manipulation, some of it officially endorsed by persons whose high office or huge education indicates that they should know better.
And this includes the mainstream media, and indeed a little further on in the article Keohane quotes researchers who discovered that folks aren’t inclined to change their opinions just because of a newspaper article. Possibly Americans are approaching the mainstream media and the pols the same way that the canny Soviet citizenry approached the official trumpeting of the nomenklatura (the political elites and government bosses) and the articles in Pravda and Izvestia.
“The last five decades of political science have definitively established that most modern-day Americans lack even a basic understanding of how their country works”. I can’t let it go by: that’s about the same time-frame as the Revolutions of the Identities.
AND their Method of government-by-imposition rather than by national deliberation and consensus-building.
So when Keohane and the researchers say “how government works” I wonder whether they mean the civics-textbook sense OR the Revolution-tinged sense of ‘elite imposition according to an already-held and Beltway-supported Ideology’.
It gets more interesting as Keohane, following the research results, reports that “misinformed people often have some of the strongest political opinions”. Again, this stems in large part from the type of person who embraces a particular view not because of its carefully-judged Accuracy but rather because the individual desperately needs the sense of Status and Belonging and Validation that comes from being part of The Best Thing … such types are often attached to Revolutions and to Fundamentalisms.
To these types, any hesitation in declaring support for what they have embraced constitutes nothing short of a personal attack upon themselves; they are threatened by deliberation and doubt and objection not only in themselves but also in others because their own deficient sense of self-confidence has been tied to The Best Thing for support … and you, if you disagree, are not ‘supporting’ them.
Such types are found in every human group. But in the past 40-odd years of Revolution, such types have been subtly ‘valorized’, while cautious and careful tire-kicking persons have been pooh-poohed as ‘backlashers’ who ‘just don’t get it’ – and the Beltway has put the power and prestige of the government behind such truly corrosive frakkery. **
It’s also caused by the fact that “people tend to seek consistency” – they want their vision of How Things Work to remain the same. Yes, but it’s more than that.
People also seek Meaning and if they have an idea of How Things Work then you want to be careful in how you change them (assuming you have the right to change them at all). I am always amazed that while America has rightly been described as becoming a ‘therapeutic culture’, yet that ‘therapeutic’ approach has not been allowed to interfere with the ‘certainties’ of the Revolution.
Because any good therapist will realize that you don’t change a person’s most profound assumptions overnight, with the ease of changing the oil in a car. Or putting a new engine in a car. Therapists realize (or should) that Shylock was wrong: you can’t just cut into a human being, take out an offending chunk, and not have any consequences. And this is far far more true of the human psyche than it is of even open-heart or brain surgery. Genuine restorative or growth-oriented therapy takes time because the human subject needs time to absorb and implement – if s/he even accepts – the ‘new’ mode of feeling or seeing things.
Nicely, the researchers discovered that “politically sophisticated thinkers were even less open to information than less-sophisticated types”. I’d say the reason for that is that these ‘thinkers’ are not really genuinely ‘sophisticated’ – they don’t possess that “political competence” I mentioned above. They may have mastered a lot of factoids, selectively filtering out the ones “inconvenient” to what they have already decided to ‘believe’ and commit themselves to; they may know the names of certain significant players and be familiar with all their favorite commentators’ latest positions or the latest Party-Line positions … but they can’t and don’t want to process any of that ‘information’. Instead they absorb it whole and undigested.
This is not ‘sophistication’ in any adult sense.
“In an ideal world citizens would be able to monitor constant vigilance.” Let me say this: the maintenance of constant vigilance over public affairs by a politically competent Citizenry is not and cannot be an ‘ideal’ situation. It absolutely must be the normal situation in a democracy, especially one in such dire straits as Ours.
And indeed part of the reason We are in such dire straits at this point is that the ‘elites’ and the nomenklatura and the Party Bosses have precisely NOT wanted such interference by the Citizenry or by The People for at least 40 years.
Instead, whether from Left or from Right, those malefactors of great influence have sought to reduce the citizens and the Citiznery and The People to a herd in an old Hollywood Western, available in the background to stampede upon cue and then disappear somewhere off-camera in a cloud of dust, dung, and loud mooing.
This is not my idea of democracy and this democracy can’t last if it goes on much longer.
For 40-odd years the Revolutionary Method has proposed – with government connivance – ideas so extraordinary that no sane human would ever accept them without long, close, and careful deliberation, private and public.
Which is precisely what the Revolutions sought to avoid and indeed to sidestep.
And now after these 40-odd years the Citizenry seems detached from the competence that is essential for them to sustain democracy and a democratic republic by governing the government.
Folks have to get back in the game. No government in history has ever liked being governed. The Framers saw THAT in 1787 and any objections to the incompleteness or dishonesty or ‘quaintness’ of their achievement must be secondary to the awesome and awefull Accuracy of their core insights as to the strengths and weaknesses of human beings and of Citizens in a democracy, and of the ceaseless unreliabilities of governments when left to their own devices.
*It has often struck me how similar Lincoln’s and Brandeis’s ‘mystical’ view of the ultimate reliability of The People resembles the Catholic Church’s abiding awareness that the best way to get a grasp on the Will of God is through a serious and prayerfully grounded convocation of the worldwide order of bishops, each of whom was presumed to be in touch with both the pulse of his own religious flock and with the Holy Spirit. There is some mysterious but real ‘chemistry’ that – in order to be sparked and generated – requires the ‘critical mass’ of a wide and competent deliberation.
This is, of course, hell-and-gone from the Leninist vanguard-elite theory of governance: that the Party cadres are thoroughly committed to the Party Line, and then go out to make sure that ‘the masses’ are brought into line with that Line. It doesn’t fit well with The People or with many other essential American elements of governance.
**You can’t help but encounter this when trying to examine ‘victim stories’: so very often any effort to slow down and cool down the chemical reaction in order to get a clearer picture of things is denounced as ‘insensitive’ and ‘re-victimizing’ and ‘dissing’. No wonder a Citizenry bethumped by all that for decades could sit still as the Bush-Cheney Imperium spun its whackulous claims of WMD’s in Iraq (an example Keohane himself will raise in this article). “And”, in Lincoln’s profoundly simple and sad phrase, “the war came”. And then another.