The Skeptics

The Truth Is Out There

Adam Berinsky from M.I.T. reports over at YouGov that less than a year after President Obama released his long form birth certificate, the number of Americans who believe that Obama is an American citizen has dropped back to same level as before the certificate was made public. The percentage of Republicans who believe Obama is an American has dropped even lower than before. Rumors, Berinsky argues, die hard, and thanks to the Internet, they spread faster and further than ever before.

Rumors may seem a bit far afield for this blog. But in fact, rumors are close cousins of lies, misinformation and propaganda, standard tools of foreign policy in democratic nations and dictatorships alike. Rumors, like their cousins, are designed to alter judgments about people and policies by shifting the basis on which citizens consider them. For example, recent rumors about Obama’s “death panels” can be understood as an effort to shape judgments about Obama’s health care plan by focusing attention on a specific element of that plan (end of life decisions) through the strategic use of misinformation (i.e., that there would be such things as panels determining who would live and die). In this sense, the death-panel rumor differs very little from the Bush administration’s claims about Iraqi WMD in the run up to the 2003 war.

Sadly, Berinsky’s findings are not surprising. As John Stuart Mill argued 150 years ago in On Liberty:

It is a piece of idle sentimentality that truth, merely as truth, has any inherent power denied to error, of prevailing against the dungeon and the stake. Men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error…

Indeed, one of the most depressing things about Berinsky’s findings and those of others who have studied misinformation is how closely connected misinformation is to people’s desire to believe the worst about their partisan opponents, other social groups, etc. Partisans these days, it seems, are zealous to learn and quick to believe the worst about their opponents.

Worse yet, there seems to be little that can be done to correct misinformation once it takes root. In their recent piece in Political Behavior, for example, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler conduct experiments aimed at discovering whether or not news stories were capable of correcting misinformation about Iraqi WMD by including corrective statements in articles also containing misleading information. Not only do they find that the corrections were generally ineffective, they find several instances of a backfire effect, in which the correction effort actually increased the rate at which the most partisan subgroups believed the misinformation.

Beyond the partisan bias issue, Nyhan and Reifler’s findings also point out that the news media’s approach to covering rumor and misinformation is not helping. Handcuffed by the commitment to “objectivity,” the mainstream news media will continue to repeat bogus claims even as journalists seek to debunk them, with the unintended effect of actually strengthening rumors and increasing misinformation (Studies have shown that “adwatch” news stories have a similar effect for political advertising claims). Those who can still recall Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth will note that these findings jibe closely with Gore’s argument about news coverage of climate change. Despite near universal agreement among scientists about the human origins of climate change, Gore complained, news media accounts have continued to provide equal time to climate change skeptics in order to provide “objective” coverage, thus encouraging climate change doubters to hold fast onto their beliefs.

John Stuart Mill believed that men were "corrigible," that with sufficient discussion, opinions would improve over time and the truth would lead toward consensus. He also believed that the truth has one special advantage over falsehood: it is true! As a result, though it may not be recognized at any given time, it will always be there to be rediscovered. Given recent research, however, it appears that Mill’s confidence was misplaced, and that there in fact is no assurance that politically motivated people are interested in the truth. And sadly, it may be that American politics of the past generation reveals the implications of a world in which the truth has no special hold over the American public.