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Facts, Fancy & Moving Forward

by Scott Bittle

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Facts are stubborn things, John Adams once declared. But so, apparently, are people.

There's been a lot of attention this week to research suggesting, as the Boston Globe put it, that "facts don't necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite." Studies show people with strong partisan views not only reject conflicting information but are likely to hold onto their misconceptions even more strongly. (Here's a roundup of commentary on this point).

This research isn't new, but one reason why it may resonate is the concern among many commentators that people are more prone to getting their information from sources that fit their preconceptions the quality Stephen Colbert famously defined as "truthiness." Even setting that aside, surveys continue to show wide gaps in how Republicans and Democrats perceive problems. That includes our own Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index, which found Republicans getting significantly more anxious about global affairs, even as Democrats' belief that the U.S. was "on the right track" jumped 41 points.

So is it hopeless to even try to give people authenticated facts and balanced information to consider as they make decisions in politics? Should journalists and good government groups who try to promote better understanding of issues just throw in the towel?

First off, not everyone is a political partisan, and even those with strong political views may not hold them on every subject. Most Americans aren't up to speed on every problem facing the nation. How could they be? There's a flood of information out there, but only so much time in the day to keep up with the topics you're interested in, much less everything else.

Secondly, clearly people do change their minds as they get more information. Surveys show this time and again: on equal opportunity for women, on gay rights, on race relations, the war in Iraq, even offshore drilling, there have been huge shifts in public opinion as people have absorbed new ideas and had time to think about them. Sometimes it happens quickly; more often the process can take time, years or even decades. But there's no doubt that it happens.

Finally, more and better facts don't automatically translate into better decisions. People need facts, yes, and false information must be challenged. But just as important, they need context. The public has a "learning curve" on complicated issues, and any number of things can derail it, like wishful thinking, mistrust, and a lack of urgency. Most of all, people need a sense of what their options really are, with a sense of the pros and cons involved in making decisions because every decision does involve making tradeoffs.

In fact, one of the fastest ways to help people advance on the learning curve is to present them with a set of choices with the pros and cons clearly spelled out. Looking at the choices side-by-side helps people grasp an issue more quickly than just about anything else.

That's what public engagement is all about. Under the right conditions, people can and do weigh alternatives fairly and come to practical conclusions. We've seen it time and again in the engagement projects we've run all across the country. But our political system and the media do a terrible job of helping the public juxtapose the options side-by-side and sort through the benefits and trade-offs. What the system does now is to highlight the flaws in virtually any idea for addressing nearly every tough issue -- immigration, the national debt and federal budget deficit, energy, and others. Since we're not able to find a solution with no downsides, we basically end up doing nothing.

The real danger to democracy here isn't that people have trouble hearing other views, or that they're prone to believe what they want to believe. The real danger is that, as a society, we'll use this psychological insight as an excuse to throw up our hands and say that there just are no solutions we can agree on. And the best way of ensuring that we don't solve our problems is to stop trying.




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