how facts backfire

how facts backfire

Much of this study’s results, though early, do not surprise me. I think I reached a similar qualitative conclusion many years ago simply by nature of being participant in, or party to, too many debates between people who weren’t quite ready to take a position and clearly defend it.

In conversation, pointing out and successfully identifying and eliminating inaccurate information is actually hard to do. It’s not exactly a new concept that statistics are manipulable, and even with Roambi, few people have charts at the ready, so confronting people in a conversational setting with verifiable statistics does two things:

  1. It raises the ante in the conversation, and the confronted person usually isn’t ready with their own charts/graphs/proof, which triggers defense mechanisms,
  2. Even if they’re intellectually willing to admit they had stored false information, you’ve caused a short circuit in their reasoning.

Cue a quick existential crisis, here rendered in Stoppardian explicated internal monologue:

Who told me this? Dad? Aunt Nancy? Professor Hornblower? Jon Stewart? I think it was Aunt Nancy!
Did she lie to me?
Did she lie to me on purpose?
Oh god, she saw me at the swimmin’ hole and told me it was normal! She explained Euclidean Geometry to me!
I never checked her facts! I got a D in Geometry! Oh Crap!
She watches The View! AHHHHHHHHHHHH!

*cue some sort of 1960s MOOG sound effect meant to depict the tumbling jenga tower of our character’s world view.*

In the current world of curated knowledge and fast skimming, people are coming to trust the people delivering data as validation of the data itself, much like a politician relies on their staffers to read & digest legislation. We then double that trust by freely dropping statistics, quotes and facts into our lives that we personally have not investigated — they’ve been ‘repped’ by someone we’ve decided to trust.

As the story mentions, we live in an unprecedented age of information access, but yet misinformation and rumor have grown to match. I think a lot of the misinformation is accidental, but that doesn’t defray the ultimate point: humans trust people more than facts. If we learn something we took as fact is untrue, it forces us to call into question its source. That’s not easy.