Thursday, March 02, 2017

There's an intriguing sociological reason so many Americans are ignoring facts lately

I try to give the facts, but not get into an argument that will solidify their belief. I have been told that sometimes people think about what I've said later and realize I was right.
(I don't always succeed in behaving the way I know I should.)

Tristan Bridges, Sociological Images
Feb. 27, 2017

Facts about all manner of things have made headlines recently as the Trump administration continues to make statements, reports, and policies at odds with things we know to be true.

Whether it's about the size of his inauguration crowd, patently false and fear-mongering inaccuracies about transgender persons in bathrooms, rates of violent crime in the U.S., or anything else, lately it feels like the facts don't seem to matter. The inaccuracies and misinformation continue despite the earnest attempts of so many to correct each falsehood after it is made. It's exhausting. But why is it happening?

Many of the inaccuracies seem like they ought to be easy enough to challenge, as data simply don't support the statements made. Consider the following charts documenting the violent crime rate and property crime rate in the U.S. over the last quarter century (measured by the Bureau of Justice Statistics). The overall trends are unmistakable: Crime in the U.S. has been declining for a quarter of a century.


Now compare the crime rate with public perceptions of the crime rate collected by Gallup (below). While the crime rate is going down, the majority of the American public seems to think that crime has been getting worse every year. If crime is going down, why do so many people seem to feel that there is more crime today than there was a year ago? It's simply not true.


There is more than one reason this is happening. But one reason I think the alternative-facts industry has been so effective has to do with a concept social scientists call the "backfire effect."

As a rule, misinformed people do not change their minds once they have been presented with facts that challenge their beliefs. But beyond simply not changing their minds when they should, research shows that they are likely to become more attached to their mistaken beliefs. The factual information "backfires." When people don't agree with you, research suggests that bringing in facts to support your case might actually make them believe you less.

In other words, fighting the ill-informed with facts is like fighting a grease fire with water. It seems like it should work, but it's actually going to make things worse.


No comments:

Post a Comment