Fact, opinion, and self delusion

As another year full of news, opinion, and prevarication begins, a crack fact-checking team has chosen their “Lie of the Year” for 2010. PolitiFact.com is a group of editors and investigative reporters tasked by the St. Petersburg Times newspaper in Tampa , Florida to "fact-check statements by members of Congress, the White House, lobbyists and interest groups." No doubt in order to beat the holiday media rush on fluff, the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists announced their pick of 2010’s “most significant falsehood of the year” on December 16. And the winner . . . matching the top vote getter among PolitiFact readers . . . is "government takeover of health care!" (my exclamation mark.)  
PolitiFact.com, which also maintains an "Obamameter" to track the President's campaign pledges, is careful to qualify their choice of the winning whopper. “By selecting "government takeover' as Lie of the Year, PolitiFact is not making a judgment on whether the health care law is good policy. The phrase is simply not true.” The authors explain that whereas a “takeover” of the health care system would need to involve a transition to government-owned hospitals, government-employed physicians, and government funding of doctors’ bills, the actual structure of “ObamaCare” contains none of these elements. In fact, under the new system privately-run insurance companies are set to harvest a windfall in new customers. This is clearly a system reliant on private companies and the “free market.”

Yes, as government grabs go, this one’s a bust - but that hasn’t prevented endless repetition of 2010’s number one nose-stretcher by scores of politicos, hundreds of lobbyists, and a slew of self-interested think tanks. It’s this kind of foul air in the body politic that sometimes just makes you want to stay in bed.

But government overreach is not my point this week. To bring me closer, I offer a quote from a founding father. (It seems that whatever one’s point is, those guys can always be relied on to help make it, even from the grave.) Let’s do Thomas Jefferson, who reportedly said “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” Of course by “well-informed” old Thom was referring to accurate, provable information, not fibs that might earn dubious awards somewhere down the line.

Surely, factual information in the public arena is something everyone who loves democracy can agree upon. Like the house that Jack built, we depend on verifiable evidence to form opinions that enable us to make the decisions that allow democracy to work. I am quite sure the fine folks at PolitiFact.com believe this, and I’ll admit to being a longtime subscriber myself. But what if we’re all mistaken? 

Last summer my friend Mark slipped me a newspaper article from the Boston Globe website entitled “How Facts Backfire.” The piece, relating the findings of a series of studies at the University of Michigan , hit me like a ton of bricks. According to author Joe Keohane the studies showed that “when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs.”

Egads. Could The Pencil Warrior’s most persuasive arguments be doomed from their well-intentioned starts? Is there more truth to the oft-stated irony about “confusing the issue with facts” than we might care to admit? I couldn’t take this at face value, so I located the original paper, written and presented by political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler. Sure enough; according to Nyhan and Reifler “ideological subgroups failed to update their beliefs when presented with corrective information that runs counter to their predispositions. Indeed, in several cases, we find that corrections actually strengthened misperceptions among the most strongly committed subjects.” 

The distinctions the researchers themselves drew made me feel only a little less uneasy. Apparently it’s “the most committed subjects” among “ideological subgroups” that are most likely to reject fact in favor of opinion, to hold steadfast to ideology even in the face of inconvenient facts. Assuming for the sake of discussion the study is accurate, I suspect it’s not uncommon to assume it’s the other guy or gal who fits that description.

It’s a shame this little gem of a story hasn’t gotten more attention. It should serve as a caution to anyone, including your humble author, who might argue a position without attention to a few guideposts: 1) do some research; 2) the more sources the better; 3) attempt to verify your sources - look for motives; 4) remember you may still be wrong; and 5) don’t take yourself too seriously.
I think it was a fitting touch for Nyhan and Reifler to introduce their paper with a quote from Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Dave Wheelock, a member of the Oneida Nation, is a collegiate sports administrator and rugby coach. His history degree is from the University of New Mexico . Reach him at davewheelock (all one word) at yahoo.com. Mr. Wheelock's views do not necessarily represent those of Socorro News, but frequently do. Copyright 2011, Dave Wheelock; all rights reserved. This article was originally published in the Mountain Mail, and is reprinted here with the permission of the author.