Sunday, December 25, 2016

Avoiding and correcting false beliefs

People believe these things

Lawrence Davidson characterized the arguments in Rick Shenkman's 2008 book Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter as saying that Americans are: "(1) ignorant about major international events, (2) knew little about how their own government runs and who runs it, (3) were nonetheless willing to accept government positions and policies even though a moderate amount of critical thought suggested they were bad for the country, and (4) were readily swayed by stereotyping, simplistic solutions, irrational fears and public relations babble." Davidson then said that this is "a default position for any population," but that it is still a concern when, for example, "polls show [that] over half of American adults don’t know which country dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or that 30 percent don’t know what the Holocaust was."

In 2014, the National Science Foundation said that only a slight majority of Americans polled were able to correctly respond that viruses can't be treated with antibiotics and that 26 percent said that the sun revolves around the Earth.

In 2010, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting received funding amounting to 0.00014% of the U.S. federal budget. CNN/Opinion Research found early the next year that "Forty percent of those polled believe funding the CPB receives takes up 1 to 5 percent of the budget, 30 percent believe public broadcasting takes up 5 percent or more of the budget and 7 percent of respondents believe the non-profit receives 50 percent or more of the federal budget." The final cohort of respondents who thought it was more than half of the budget may also suffer from general mathematical or political illiteracy, but it seems fair to say that many people have false beliefs about the funding for public broadcasting. (For comparison, when a Roper poll in 2007 accurately informed participants that the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) receives funding equivalent to about $1 per American per year, half of the respondents said this amount was "too little.")

"There’s no shame in not knowing; there’s shame in not wanting to know. For years I’ve said this to my college students as a way of telling them that learning should never stop. But I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that, at a certain point, there should be shame in not knowing," Charles Taylor wrote in an opinion piece for the Boston Globe. He fretted over "creative-writing students who have never heard of Edith Wharton or Ralph Ellison; journalism students who can’t identify the attorney general; students who don’t know what the NAACP or the Geneva Convention are."

"The emerging narrative of this election is that Donald Trump was elected by people who are sick of being looked down on by liberal elites. The question the people pushing this narrative have not asked is this: Were the elites, based on the facts, demonstrably right?

* * *

That Trump voters chose an easily disprovable myth over readily available facts is one sign of their willful ignorance.

And still this imperviousness to fact pales next to the racism and xenophobia and misogyny — in other words, the moral ignorance — that Trump’s supporters wallowed in. All of the condescension of which liberals have been accused can’t begin to match the condescension of the current storyline that Trump voters are too disenfranchised or despised or dismissed to be held morally responsible for their choices.

* * *

The apologists for Donald Trump voters have given their imprimatur to a culture that equates knowledge and expertise with elitism, a culture ignorant of the history of the country it professes to love and contemptuous of the content of its founding documents."

It isn't clear from this brief column how Taylor thinks factual knowledge and moral knowledge might be related. Most people would say that moral knowledge depends on drawing conclusions that incorporate factual knowledge. (For example, you have to know whether someone else is threatening you before you can properly decide how to act in "self-defense." As another example, you have to know whether a crime occurred before you can express your opinion about it. Berel Lang wrote: "...the most extreme Holocaust 'revisionists' — Faurisson, Rassinier, Butz — do not deny that if the Holocaust had occurred, it would have been an enormity warranting moral reflection, judgment, and whatever else followed from these, presumably including condemnation and punishment; they deny only that it did occur."). Some would also say that moral knowledge is not merely a concatenation of ordinary beliefs and social agreements but that it exists in some separate sphere.

We care more about facts when we feel good about ourselves

“The 2000 [presidential] campaign was something of a fact-free zone,” said Brendan Nyhan, who was an undergraduate at Swarthmore at the time and who subsequently founded a political fact-checking website called Spinsanity that led to a book All the President's Spin. In his doctoral program at Duke University, he moved on to ask, as Maria Konnikova put it: "If factual correction is ineffective, how can you make people change their misperceptions?"

From Konnikova's article:

"Until recently, attempts to correct false beliefs haven’t had much success. Stephan Lewandowsky, a psychologist at the University of Bristol whose research into misinformation began around the same time as Nyhan’s, conducted a review of misperception literature through 2012. He found much speculation, but, apart from his own work and the studies that Nyhan was conducting, there was little empirical research.

* * *

One thing he learned early on is that not all errors are created equal. Not all false information goes on to become a false belief — that is, a more lasting state of incorrect knowledge — and not all false beliefs are difficult to correct.

* * *

When there’s no immediate threat to our understanding of the world, we change our beliefs. It’s when that change contradicts something we’ve long held as important that problems occur.

[For more examples of how this might work, see these Disruptive Dissertation blog posts. In religious thought: "The specious claim that human calamities are caused by an angry God" In political thought: "False reports that President Obama is a Muslim"]

Konnikova went on to say:

In a series of studies that they’ve just submitted for publication, the Dartmouth team approached false-belief correction from a self-affirmation angle, an approach that had previously been used for fighting prejudice and low self-esteem. The theory, pioneered by Claude Steele, suggests that, when people feel their sense of self threatened by the outside world, they are strongly motivated to correct the misperception, be it by reasoning away the inconsistency or by modifying their behavior.

* * *

Normally, self-affirmation is reserved for instances in which identity is threatened in direct ways: race, gender, age, weight, and the like. Here, Nyhan decided to apply it in an unrelated context: Could recalling a time when you felt good about yourself make you more broad-minded about highly politicized issues, like the Iraq surge or global warming? As it turns out, it would."

It is also important to note the difference between actually believing something and merely claiming to believe it to maintain one's public image. Public image is more obviously related to one's identity and also to one's material interests. Alexander C. Kaufman provided this example:

"In December 2006, Exxon Mobil Corp. convened a two-day summit of environmental and ethics experts at a rural retreat near the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia....For decades, Exxon had funded far-right think tanks that seeded doubt over the scientific consensus on climate change. [The new CEO Rex] Tillerson and Ken Cohen, Exxon’s PR chief and chair of its political action committee, wanted to broaden the company’s political reach. One step was changing their messaging about climate change, moving away from the denial the company had been attacked for supporting....Not long after the summit, Exxon began to modify its public stance on climate change."

Sometimes what is claimed publicly is done to maintain relationships and make money. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky on how the American mass media operate:

"But a critical analysis of American institutions, the way they function domestically and their international operations, must meet far higher standards; in fact, standards are often imposed that can barely be met in the natural sciences. One has to work hard, to produce evidence that is credible, to construct serious arguments, to present extensive documentation — all tasks that are superfluous as long as one remains within the presuppositional framework of the doctrinal consensus. It is small wonder that few are willing to undertake the effort, quite apart from the rewards that accrue to conformity and the costs of honest dissidence."

Nyhan's work, by contrast, seems to be about more privately held beliefs.

So they say

Three writers have this to say. Elbert Hubbard: "Everyone is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day. Wisdom consists in not exceeding that limit." George Bernard Shaw said it would be better to know that one does not know: “Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” As hope, nonetheless, the words of Phyllis Bottome: "There is nothing final about a mistake, except its being taken as final."


"Why Americans Are So Ignorant: It's Not Just Fox News," Lawrence Davidson, Consortium News, April 8, 2013.

"Poll: Americans way off on public broadcasting funding,", April 1, 2011.

"Highlights of the 2007 Roper Public Opinion Poll on PBS."

"Yes, there is shame in not knowing." Charles Taylor. Boston Globe. Dec. 19, 2016.

Berel Lang. Heidegger’s Silence. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1996. p. 14.

"I don't want to be right," Maria Konnikova, New Yorker, May 19, 2014.

"Rex Tillerson Supposedly Shifted Exxon Mobil’s Climate Position. Except He Really Didn’t." Alexander C. Kaufman. Huffington Post. Dec. 26, 2016.

Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon, 1988. p. 305.

Elbert Hubbard, quoted in The Village Voice, quoted again in The Week, Feb. 22, 2013. p. 19.

George Bernard Shaw, quoted in, quoted again in The Week, July 18, 2014. p. 15.

Phyllis Bottome, quoted in the Associated Press, quoted again in The Week, June 13, 2014. p. 15.