December 25, 2009

Apologies to Michael Shermer

The debate over healthcare reform, like just about everything these days in this highly polarized America, has become contentious. This time however, things are a bit different. The rhetoric has risen to a frenzied pitch and there is actual public violence like we haven’t seen since perhaps the Viet Nam protests. There are a good many talking points in this debate that are misleading - many outright lies - yet the masses are swallowing the bait and taking protest to the streets. So, with apologies to Michael Shermer, I will ask…

Why do people believe strange things?

In a survey and interview-based study published in a recent issue of the journal Sociological Inquiry, sociologists from four major research institutions concentrated on the most curious aspect of the 2004 presidential election: the strength, intensity and resilience of belief held by many of the Bush administration lie that Saddam Hussein was linked to the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

The paper, authored by researchers Steven Hoffman, Ph.D., a visiting assistant professor of sociology at the University at Buffalo; Monica Prasad, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology at Northwestern University; Andrew Perrin, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, addresses what it refers to as a "serious challenge to democratic theory and practice that results when citizens with incorrect information cannot form appropriate preferences or evaluate the preferences of others."

The study revealed that, although this belief influenced the election outcome, it did not result from as much pro-Bush propaganda as it did from the urgent need by many in this country to justify a war to which we were already committed. The findings illustrate possible reasons why some Americans form or accept false beliefs regarding Obama's citizenship, and in the healthcare debate.

The journal article, titled "There Must Be a Reason: Osama, Saddam and Inferred Justification," calls unsubstantiated beliefs, a "serious challenge to democratic theory and practice," and the authors discuss how and why such beliefs continue to be maintained by so many voters for so long in the absence of supporting evidence.

Co-author Dr. Hoffman says that over the course of the 2004 presidential campaign, several polls showed that majorities of respondents believed that Saddam Hussein was either partly or largely responsible for the 9/11 attacks, a percentage that declined very slowly, dipping below 50 percent only in late 2003. "This misperception that Hussein was responsible for the Twin Tower terrorist attacks was very persistent, despite all the evidence suggesting that no link existed," Hoffman says. In the study a rather substantial sampling of voters reported believing in a link between Saddam and 9/11. The researchers presented the available evidence of the link, along with the evidence that there was no link, and then urged respondents to justify the incorrect belief. For all but one, the overwhelming evidence that there was no link left no impact on their arguments in support of the link.

Hoffman says "Our data shows substantial support for a cognitive theory known as 'motivated reasoning' (similar toconfirmation bias), which suggests that rather than search rationally for information that either confirms or disconfirms a particular belief, people actually seek out information that confirms what they already believe. "In fact," says Hoffman. "For the most part people completely ignore contrary information. [the study] demonstrates voters' ability to develop elaborate rationalizations based on faulty information."

So while pundits and politicians continue to blame the all-so-obvious misinformation campaigns of the Bush administration and FOX news, this study argues that premise and points to an individual or collective desire to believe in a pre-conceived worldview instead. While these deluded individuals point to the false authorities as support for the belief, it is the individual who is seeking confirmation.

As Hoffman says, "the argument here is that people get deeply attached to their beliefs," and that we humans form “emotional attachments that get wrapped up in our personal identity and sense of morality, irrespective of the facts of the matter. The problem is that this notion of 'motivated reasoning' has only been supported with experimental results in artificial settings. We decided it was time to see if it held up when you talk to actual voters in their homes, workplaces, restaurants, offices and other deliberative settings."

The same phenomena appear to be at work in this healthcare debate, with lies and hypocrisy bubbling from the bowels of advocates and opponents alike. Even as the bills have passed both houses we are seeing the talking heads still on the offensive. It don’t matter what the other side is for, I’m agin it…

The results of this study are rather dramatic, proving that irrespective of which political wing a person is affiliated, individuals exist in mass who are comfortable in their delusion and wishing to not to be confused by facts; almost all refusing to change positions even when confronted with the falsity of beliefs.

We need far more skeptics and many fewer sheep.

This missive was heavily plagiarized from a published interview with Dr. Hoffman, which can be found HERE.



Old NFO said...

Excellent post- One of the more interesting things in that link is that they never associated Hussein with Al Quieda, which was the real association. I have always been a skeptic of both sides, as I spent too many years in the military with access...

Anonymous said...

More proof that in general, humans have shit for brains . . .