The Strange Problem with Facts

Do you ever get the feeling that politics in our democracy is dominated by whoever shouts the loudest?  Does it feel like the truth is weak and flabby, the 90 lb. nerd at the beach getting sand kicked in his face?

Well some very bright neuroscience researchers, after cleaning the sand from their faces and mourning their lost girlfriends, are beginning to find explanations for this problem in the way our brains function.  What they are learning may help us understand why so many of us are inspired by hysterical ranting and resistant to facts.

Some of recent research is summarized in an article in the Boston Globe called “How facts backfire.” It’s also described in more detail in a book by Jonah Lehrer called “How We Decide.”

To simplify, they have discovered that many of us, when confronted with facts that contradict deeply held opinions, respond in a strange way.  Instead of reassessing those opinions in light of the new information, we become even more radical in defense of those beliefs.  In short, the more wrong we are, the more extreme we become.

Researchers have an adorable tendency to “discover” the obvious.  Here they have uncovered the neural source for the strong negative emotion we experience when we find out we’ve been wrong about something.  We tend to care more about avoiding that bad feeling than we do about actually getting the facts straight.  So, there is a strong urge to deny, filter, and protect.  This Columbus-like discovery adds some psychiatric gloss to what anyone involved in politics has long understood.  The facts don’t always get across.

Extrapolate that process out and you begin to understand the movements that develop when fundamental realities of our lives start to drastically change.  Rather than adapt, as all living things must do to survive, many of us entrench and deny with an intensifying passion.

When you consider that one of the hallmarks of our era as described forty years ago by Alvin Toeffler is constant, accelerating change, you get a glimpse of our lunatic future.  Hold on to your aluminum hat because if these researchers are right, the Tea Party is just an introduction to more impressive movements yet to come.

For conservatives in particular, who recognize the value of organic, gradual change over impatient social engineering, there is a heightened vulnerability to this kind of thinking.  We in particular need to be cautious about demagogues who would manipulate our emotions while pulling the wool over our eyes.  If we fall into this trap we will compromise the effectiveness of our message and marginalize ourselves.

Will this bug in our software lead representative government to implode?  Probably not.  But it helps us understand and perhaps confront one of the headwinds we face as we adapt to changing circumstances.

I expect I’ll have plenty of time to sort out the implications of this discovery while serving my time in a FEMA concentration camp.  I could use a break, but those trailers smell funny.

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