Monday, October 13, 2008

How Do You Persuade People to Care About Facts?

One thing I find myself bothered by, again and again, is the fact that so many people seem unwilling to be persuaded by facts. By this statement, I don't simply mean the undeniable reality that two intelligent people, when presented with the same series of facts, may well come up with two entirely different conclusions or opinions on an issue. That's a sometimes difficult fact of life, but one that I'm pretty content to live with. Here, I'm talking about those people holding a strong belief about a matter who, when presented with facts that make their position impossible to sustain, continue to hold the same belief. Their belief isn't wrong, they seem to say, the facts are wrong!

We run into this quite a lot in the world of theological studies, for example. If the Bible and science are believed to be at odds on a given matter, it is reasoned, science must be wrong. But even that's not quite what I want to talk about here. As much as I may disagree with the premise (that the interpretation of the Bible is at times irreconcilable with scientific inquiry), I have respect for the act of taking the Bible seriously.

This anecdote from Slacktivist gets at the issue fairly well:
...I had occasion to consult Snopes [in response to a disagreement with] an acquaintance who is, in many ways, a likable enough person. But he also seems to hear and absorb a lot of information that ain't necessarily so.

This time it had to do with Target, the nationwide discount retail chain. He refuses to shop at Target because they hate veterans. I hadn't heard that. It seemed implausible, since hating on veterans would be just about the most self-destructive PR strategy one could imagine for a retail chain. Plus I know a lot of veterans and I've never heard about this from any of them. Those I know best, in fact, shop at Target all the time.

But OK, I said, let's look it up. And we went to Snopes and there it was. Snopes explains that this rumor is not true. They provide the background of the rumor and trace its history back to a single e-mail from a single person. They cite that person and his retraction and apology. They cite official statements from Target and evidence of the company's support for veterans' causes. They cite veteran's groups gratefully attesting to that support. This is all sourced and linked back to sources and in general a devastatingly thorough and altogether Snopes-like job of debunking and rebutting the rumor.

The result of this, of course, is that the acquaintance still does not shop at Target because he still chooses to believe that they hate veterans, and now he no longer believes anything from Snopes.com because, he says, this proves they can't be trusted.

This kind of situation seems to pop up an awful lot when it comes to political issues. It's fairly common knowledge that the number of people who haven't already made up their minds are comparatively few. We all know (if we're being honest with ourselves) that no matter what happens in, say, the next Presidential debate, the folks who already liked McCain will say McCain won and the folks who already liked Obama will say Obama won. As fascinated as I am with the fact checking sites and analysis that invariably follow, it really doesn't make much difference. And I'm certainly not immune to this problem. I have my biases just like anyone else, and am influenced by them. This is just a fact of human nature.

But when people start believing horrible things about a candidate--things that can be readily proven as just not true, I find myself in a bit of despair. To paraphrase Slacktivist's contention in the post linked above, "fact checking is necessary, but it isn't sufficient." How do we deal with such people? Check out some of the videos he links to. There are some downright dangerous things going on here. Here are people who continue to believe things that aren't just matters of disagreement, but things that are out-and-out lies! (Note: I'm not saying that all such people are "liars," but I am saying that such people have been deceived by someone who is an out-and-out liar.) People like these, left unchecked, could do something truly destructive in their anger. How do we deal with them? If fact checking isn't sufficient, what else should we be doing?

Slacktivist articulates the problem pretty well, but doesn't seem to have much of a solution, either. I desperately would like to find one. I have a strong impulse to try to reason with those who argue against me, especially when I know have the facts to back up my assertions. I hold up examples like this one (not mine) as stellar efforts in that regard. But I find Slacktivist's experience echoes my own more often than not. People simply refuse to be persuaded, even when the facts are entirely against them. Failure to stop this kind of bull-headedness could have tragic consequences. Not because the "wrong" candidate might win or lose an election, but because people tend to act on their beliefs, and these kinds of lies almost seem to encourage violent kinds of behavior that no rational person (either conservative or liberal) wants to see happen.

So, how do we get people to stop insisting on believing things that are provably wrong?

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