The man hears what he wants to hear

(and disregards the rest)

Jonah Lehrer reports the result of a depressing but unsurprising experiment: The Facts Don’t Matter.

Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler provided two groups of volunteers with the Bush administration’s prewar claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. One group was given a refutation — the comprehensive 2004 Duelfer report that concluded that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded in 2003. Thirty-four percent of conservatives told only about the Bush administration’s claims thought Iraq had hidden or destroyed its weapons before the U.S. invasion, but 64 percent of conservatives who heard both claim and refutation thought that Iraq really did have the weapons. The refutation, in other words, made the misinformation worse.

A similar “backfire effect” also influenced conservatives told about Bush administration assertions that tax cuts increase federal revenue. One group was offered a refutation by prominent economists that included current and former Bush administration officials. About 35 percent of conservatives told about the Bush claim believed it; 67 percent of those provided with both assertion and refutation believed that tax cuts increase revenue.

In a paper approaching publication, Nyhan, a PhD student at Duke University, and Reifler, at Georgia State University, suggest that Republicans might be especially prone to the backfire effect because conservatives may have more rigid views than liberals: Upon hearing a refutation, conservatives might “argue back” against the refutation in their minds, thereby strengthening their belief in the misinformation. Nyhan and Reifler did not see the same “backfire effect” when liberals were given misinformation and a refutation about the Bush administration’s stance on stem cell research.

It’s particularly interesting that the backfire effect is more pronounced with Republicans; this certainly resonates with my admittedly biased view. Better information doesn’t seem to fix the problem, either:

During the first term of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the budget deficit declined by more than 90 percent. However, when Republican voters were asked in 1996 what happened to the deficit under Clinton, more than 55 percent said that it had increased. What’s interesting about this data is that so-called “high-information” voters – these are the Republicans who read the newspaper, watch cable news and can identify their representatives in Congress – weren’t better informed than “low-information” voters.

Anyone have a better solution? Or should we just throw in the towel on democracy?


My nomination for the best use of the phrase “a retarded ponens/tollens showdown”:

Here is what you do not do. You do not start with a mystifying conditional like “If the universe is only physical (or whatever), then there is no free will,” because how do you know that? You don’t. But you may think you do and so you get caught in a retarded ponens/tollens showdown: the universe is physical, ergo no free will, or… free will, so the universe is not physical. But, again, through what method of divination do we validate this conditional? None. Because we already know it is false.

Religion, Secularism, and Mystery

To follow up on my early post Christopher Hitchens v. God, Jonah at the Frontal Cortex has some insightful comments on religion and secularism. The money quote:

When people like Dawkins attack wimpy agnostics or moderate believers, they forget that many atheists aren’t uber-rationalists. They carry around tarot cards, not The Selfish Gene.

Jonah also makes a good point that science and religion may not have irreconcilable differences:

It’s important to note that science isn’t necessarily in conflict with our need to believe in some sort of mystery. Modern science, after all, has discovered some of the craziest ideas around, from the principles of quantum physics to the fact that our head holds a trillion cells trafficking in minor jolts of electricity. These ideas are both materialist and mysterious, since they hint at a universe that exceeds the current capacities of our imagination. What Hamlet said to Horatio is still true.

This sort of analysis seems to me far more nuanced and interesting than that advanced by what I’ll call the “vulgar atheists” — Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, et al.

Weather Methodology

Can someone explain weather methodology?

Yesterday’s forecast:

Predicted Weather

This morning’s forecast:

This Morning’s Prediction

Actual conditions:

Actual Weather

Apparently, they don’t teach Cromwell’s Rule in meteorology school. (HT to Steve, a statistics major in college, for the reference.)

Small Fish

I’ve been reading the news about the world’s tiniest fish, but I really didn’t appreciate how small this fish is until I saw this image on boingboing (from Science News, I believe).

All I can say is: that is a small fish.