One of the most disconcerting revelations of my five plus years in the WWL Think Tank is a belief that we Americans have become a society of "American'ts," obsessed with why we can't, rather than how we can. Social Security, health care, war, energy policy, you name it, no matter how many hours we talk, the end product is almost always why we can't do something. That revelation was supposed to be the subject of this Think Tank blog. That changed when I stumbled across an article from July 11, 2010 entitled, "How facts backfire," and the studies to which I was directed. After reading the studies I think the point of these thoughts should be better entitled, "Why humans refuse the truth."
In 1789 Thomas Jefferson wrote, "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government." Mr. Jefferson apparently didn't have access to much research. His belief is challenged by a 2005-2006 study by researchers at the University of Michigan. They found that, "When misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs." Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. The facts actually make misinformation even stronger!
I've always called this fear. I've always labeled the Democrats and Republicans as "fear clubs," due to my belief that both clubs are the result of evolution and survival. If you joined the herd, look like the herd, act like the herd, there is less of chance that you will be singled out for attack...and if you are you'll be able to turn to those who look and act like you for comfort. But scientists have a different label: It's called "backfire." Researchers in the Michigan study say backfire is "a natural defense mechanism to avoid cognitive dissonance." Cognitive dissonance is, "the feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time."
I named my show "The Think Tank" for a reason. I have little formal education, but have done pretty well in life by copying what I believe to be the "science method." An article called "miniature scientific thinking" lists one of the directives for scientific thinking as, "Search for data that opposes your position as well as alternative theories." This is why most scientific findings are usually described as theories (i.e., Einstein's theory of relativity). Virtually any time I come to believe something I immediately check and challenge that belief. Having to minimize my embarrassment at being wrong in front of millions of people on radio has strongly reinforced my efforts to challenge my strongly-held beliefs. A case in point was my frequent labeling of the two political clubs as "Demo-don'ts" and "Republ-ican'ts." Those often-used labels have subsided a bit, as I began to realize the problem is us, the voters, not the politicians. We send them to govern with orders to cut the budget and give us smaller government…and then if they actually DO make the cuts that cause us pain or sacrifice, we get rid of them at the ballot box. Thus, my new discovery of "Americants".
I thought my revelation was a new phenomenon, but such is not the case. In a recent email exchange, one of our top Louisiana demographers and political analyst Elliot Stonecipher puts it this way: "Those of us in the business we are in must be aware of the mountain of evidence we daily encounter of this context. It is simple to say and it is simple to see: The vast majority of people are ill-informed, not likely to spend much time mitigating that ignorance, and highly unlikely to be able to back-up much of what they say."
Elliott has a six-step fact-finding process of his own:
a. There are things I feel,
b. there are things I think,
c. there are things I believe,
d. there are things I know, and
e. there are things of which I am certain.
(The final point (f) sums up the decades of experiencing the first five)
f. As to the things of which I am certain, I am fully prepared to learn I am wrong about even those.
In 2000, researchers at the University of Illinois also found that, "The ones who were the most confident they were right were by and large the ones who knew the least about the topic they were asked." Some scientists call it "motivated reasoning." This type of reasoning reflects "whether or not the information is accurate, we accept it as fact, as confirmation of our beliefs. This makes us more confident in said beliefs, and even less likely to entertain facts that contradict them."
The journal Political Beliefs released a report in 2005 that showed when participants were shown hard evidence that there were no weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq, those participants "believed the misinformation even more strongly after being given the truth." The journal also studied the effects of "fact-checking" websites. The study showed that such sites had little or no effect on the readers who held strong beliefs. The researchers called this "salience," which basically means the stronger the belief the stronger the backfire.
So how does all this deliver me to my current belief system? (It's a belief I call Katrina-ized. ) I have a little experience along the lines of backfire, salience, cognitive dissonance and motivated reasoning. I spent thirty plus years, trying to convince southern Louisiana that one day we would drown, due in large part to loss of wetlands. As I watched Katrina unfold I was incredibly perplexed as to how we had closed our eyes to proof. Now as I read the scientific research I finally have begun to understand. It doesn't take much to extrapolate pre-Katrina to our current day America. Mainly, a refusal to see, admit to and prepare for change and sacrifice, whether it concerns energy, costs of wars or things we simply can no longer afford.
I can find no research that shows how we can turn around our refusal to see our problems and act upon the issues we face. Pre-Katrina there was no evidence that southern Louisiana was prepared to act on our major problems. But, we got Katrina-ized. We were driven to our knees. We saw little of a happy future. But, answers came, via pain, sacrifice and forced change. We had to fall down to get up. Again, I don't see any way America will avoid falling down.
But, just like New Orleans and the metro areas found out, there is no country, culture, or dogma that can change, innovate and create faster and better than America. China, India, Brazil and many other developing countries are making a run for the top, but they are supertankers that take forever to turn away from disaster. America is like a pirogue in a bayou, a quick turn and a new direction. If I'm right, America's Katrina-ization may be a painful medicine that leads to a much better future. It's a painful path that will perhaps even lead to less fear and more knowledge that leads towards truth.
Garland Robinette is the midday host of "The Think Tank" on WWL Radio in New Orleans. Garland is also an accomplished artist, and you can see his work by clicking here.