Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Does the Truth Set Us Free?

Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.
That is from an article by Joe Keohane summarizing a number of recent studies about human nature.

I spent the first half of my career working at aid agencies gathering facts to inform policy analysis and recommendations to governments.  This describes the mental model I followed most of those years:
If people are furnished with the facts, they will be clearer thinkers and better citizens. If they are ignorant, facts will enlighten them. If they are mistaken, facts will set them straight.
Alas, that does not seem to be the case:

Rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs.
When someone does not agree with us, we are often tempted to redouble our arguments to convince them we are right.  Aid agencies often offer carrots and sticks as well.  The research points to why that often does not work either:

The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.
Is it time for us to let go of the idea that facts and good analysis can convince people?  I hope not.  But on the other hand, the Buddha realized that he could only be enlightened if he faced reality rather than ignoring it.  The question is how best to combine human nature with facts and analysis to help society progress.