We are awash with people who reject facts and embrace myths …
- Rejection of the scientific consensus that humans are the cause of climate change
- The assertion that 9/11 was an inside job
- The claim that vaccines cause autism
We are wholly familiar with much of this. This is because the realisation that it is like this has now entered the public consciousness due to the current occupant of the White House. Mr T is very much a vector for much modern mythology, and almost each and every day via his twitter account something weird is claimed that is them embraced as “truth” by many of his followers regardless of the rebuttals that soon follow from the adults in the room.
Tristan Bridges has written an interesting article within Sociological Images. It catches attention because it highlights the rather interesting observation that facts just don’t matter to some.
He starts off with something we all know …
Facts about all manner of things have made headlines recently as the Trump administration continues to make statements, reports, and policies at odds with things we know to be true. Whether it’s about the size of his inauguration crowd, patently false and fear-mongering inaccuracies about transgender persons in bathrooms, rates of violent crime in the U.S., or anything else, lately it feels like the facts don’t seem to matter. The inaccuracies and misinformation continue despite the earnest attempts of so many to correct each falsehood after it is made. It’s exhausting. But why is it happening?
Tristan then proceeds to illustrate this with a few rather powerful graphs …
Many of the inaccuracies seem like they ought to be easy enough to challenge as data simply don’t support the statements made. Consider the following charts documenting the violent crime rate and property crime rate in the U.S. over the last quarter century (measured by the Bureau of Justice Statistics). The overall trends are unmistakable: crime in the U.S. has been declining for a quarter of a century.
Now compare the crime rate with public perceptions of the crime rate collected by Gallup(below). While the crime rate is going down, the majority of the American public seems to think that crime has been getting worse every year. If crime is going down, why do so many people seem to feel that there is more crime today than there was a year ago? It’s simply not true.
Why this happens is a good question, but what is the right answer?
Tristan goes on to specifically discuss the “backfire effect”, but he does also correctly point out that there is more than one psychological reason for it all. You can find his interesting posting on that here. I would however like to make a couple of additional observations.
Observation 1 – It is not New
Humans have been ensnared by alternative facts for more or less our entire history and have at a social level been believing things that clearly conflict with reality. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is religion. It is a socially acceptable means for accepting things on the basis of no evidence at all. Popular variations of belief makes a virtue of this and promote people who just believe as heroes (Abraham). As a contrast, those that dare to ask questions are labelled morally dubious (doubting Thomas).
A comment that could have been written describing Trump is this …
The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.
Beyond just commenting on belief, there are also a few other quotes within that same text that contains echoes of what we now face …
But the zeal of fanaticism prevailed over the cold and feeble efforts of policy.
Augustus was sensible that mankind is governed by names; nor was he deceived in his expectation, that the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom.
Every law, either human or divine, was trampled under foot; and as long as the party was successful, its deluded followers appeared careless of private distress or public calamity.
Observation 2 – A key driver is Emotion
What rests behind many modern cognitive biases such as Confirmation bias, Belief bias, or the backfire effect, is that humans do not generally operate on a rational basis, but rather within an emotional modality.
In other words, misinformation that has been embraced for emotional reasons will often trump (no pun intended) cold hard facts. Vast swathes of the population feel left behind and are naturally drawn to an individual who issues sound bytes that pander to such feelings. You might also perhaps wonder why the religious right would get behind and support an individual who is the very opposite of almost every single value they embrace. But dig and you find that he offers them security by pandering to both their fears and insecurities.
If you label Trump supporters as “stupid” to their face, or perhaps simply cut them off, you are not in any way addressing the core problem.
Trump himself already has sown the seeds of his own inevitable downfall, it will be his failure to deliver what he has promised that will lead many of those that rallied around him to face disillusion and disappointment. Sadly a lot of damage will have been done before we get there. It will also not really change anything, the insecurities and feelings of being abandoned will remain and that simply prepares the stage for the next Trump like demagogue to pander and leverage the mob.
If there is truly going to be a real change, then these people need to be engaged in a meaningful way that actually addresses their real concerns.