Image of Donald Trump speaking in Arizona. Via Gage Skidmore from Wikimedia CC BY 2.0

Is post-fact reasoning redeemable?

You know how I do. When people make strong claims, I want evidence and arguments. So this US presidential campaign was a lot of work. A lot! (E.g., I read over 1000 pages about Clinton-related investigations alone). The problem is that people made loads of unsupported claims during the election. So I asked for loads of evidence. Curiously, people didn’t take kindly to my requests for evidence. As a reasoning researcher, this was fascinating. But as an aspiring reasoning teacher, it was thoroughly demoralizing. In this post, I’ll discuss my experience, some research that bears on my experience, and what this tells us about the redeem-ability of post-fact reasoning.

1.  Too Many Unsupported Claims

First of all, there were way too many unsupported claims in my midst. I just didn’t have the time to follow-up on all of them.

People who know me might be surprised by this. After all, I interact with very few people. I go to work. And I go back home. I rarely “hang out”, as they say. So it’s not like I was canvassing local neighborhoods or searching the internet looking for unsupported claims. I was just going about my day. But in talking to a few friends/family, checking my online social network, running into people around town, etc., I was inundated with more unsupported claims than I could address.

2.  People’s Responses Were Disappointing

When I asked for evidence, I expected people to give some evidence — even if it wasn’t always good evidence. But I was wrong. Usually, people didn’t even try to give evidence. And when they did give evidence, it was bad evidence. Looking back, people responded in one of four ways.

2.1  Change the subject

One way people responded was by changing the subject. So, for instance, when I asked for evidence for a damning claim about Hillary Clinton, they’d start talking about something else:

“Look, Trump tells it like it is. So […]”.

2.2  Overwhelm the fact-checker

Another way people would respond is with further unsupported claims. For example, when I asked for evidence for the damning claim about Hillary Clinton, people would say, “She’s…

  • got blood on her hands!”
  • just not a good person!”
  • got character issues.”

These claims require even more evidence. So when people made the claims, fact-checking became even more difficult.

2.3  Cite poor evidence

Sometimes people did give evidence — albeit bad evidence. For instance, when I asked an old co-worker why they thought that Hillary Clinton had bad character, they replied,

I watched the Benghazi hearings. I could see it on her face.

That was it. That’s all they could muster. (Aside: think about the fact that this person can serve on a jury.)

2.4  Attack the person (not the claim)

A third response was some sort of attack.

You’re just a blind leftist.†

Let me guess, you also support baby killing.††

3.  What Does This Mean?

Given my experience, I’m entirely unsurprised that some people call ours a “post-fact era” and some people call certain voters “irredeemable.” After all, the only kind of evidence that people seemed to appreciate was the evidence that confirmed the view they had before they started looking for evidence — #confirmationBias. And if people are only interested in confirming their own view of the world, then it would seem that they care more about feeling correct than they do about the facts or about “the common good” (Brennan 2012).

4. The Problem: It Was Never About Facts

Think about it. There are very careful, detailed, free, and easy-to-find reports produced by massive professional investigations and large-scale fact-checking operations out there.

Cover page of the Inspector General's Report on email record management and security
Exhibit A: the Inspector General’s report on email management and security (PDF).

Reports like this bear directly on many peoples’ unsupported claims — e.g., peoples’ unsupported claims Hillary Clinton’s email use. But — as far as I can tell — people who make such claims haven’t even read the report. Worse, when I point such people to such reports, they flat-out reject the reports! (And for fallacious reasons.).

For example, the Inspector General’s report on email security and management found that Republican Secretary Powell used a private line to send official emails from a personal email address. It also found that Republican Secretary Rice (like Powell and Clinton) failed to follow State Department separation procedures regarding email. Oh, and it found that 90 of Powell’s/Rice’s immediate staff used personal emails for official business. When I mention this report’s findings around some people, they respond like this:

The [report/institution] is [liberal, government, mainstream, establishment, elitist, etc.]. I don’t trust that stuff.

Notice the mental shortcuts these people use to systematically dismiss certain evidence. They’re not dismissing evidence based on careful analysis. They’re dismissing it based solely on its association with a group that they don’t like. So their political claims aren’t even intended to be about facts; they’re about identity.

It’s like spectator sports: spectators boo when their favored team receives a foul — even if, empirically, the foul is indisputable.

5.  Is This Normal?

In short, kind of. Three sorts of empirical findings affirm this.

First, people systematically ignore relevant evidence (Kahneman 2013, Chapter 13). And even when people are presented with evidence, they are often biased in their assimilation of it — #biasedAssimilation (Lord et al 1979). For instance, when people are presented with counter-evidence, they systematically prefer the evidence that confirms their own view (Corner et al 2012; Hart and Nisbet 2012). That or they discount the counter-evidence (ibid.). And sometimes people actually strengthen their view when presented with counter-evidence — #backfireEffect (Nyhan and Reifler 2010).

More than that, people do not trust perceived political opponents — and it’s getting worse (Hetherington & Rudolf 2015, 2016).

And since President Johnson, trust in government is way down, in general (ibid.). More specifically, most Republicans report that they “never” trust the government (vs. a minority of Democrats that report the same thing) (Hetherington & Rudolf 2015, italics added).

So when the Inspector General’s report about email conflicts with Republicans’ claims about Hillary Clinton, then it might be normal for Republicans to flat-out reject the report — and not because they’re Republican, but because they’re human. (NB: normal ≠ good, acceptable, etc.).

6.  What now?

Honestly, I’m not sure. And to be honest, dealing with peoples’ responses to my requests for evidence is exhausting.

Part of my exhaustion comes from having the wrong expectations. Looking back I (foolishly) expected people to care about evidence and to update their arguments and conclusions according to evidence (and logical norms). But apparently people don’t always do that.

Indeed, sometimes people don’t even have arguments! They just have the conclusions! #beliefBias

And sometimes peoples’ mission is not some sort of open-minded inquiry into the best arguments and evidence. Rather, their mission is to uphold their own group’s views and/or intentions (Mercier 2012; Mercier & Sperber 2011; Norman 2016; Sperber & Wilson 2001).

But when people reason this way, there might be no amount of counter evidence that can update their view. Their reasoning seems to be immune to facts. In other words, post fact reasoning does seem to be irredeemable. But I hope that I am wrong about that.

 

Notes

† (1) Answer: no. I’ve been registered as “No Party Affiliation” for at least 5 years — switching only when presidential primaries require a strategic change in affiliation. Before that, I was registered as a Republican. And so far, I’ve voted for a Republican, a Democratic, and a third-party presidential candidate. (2) If asking for evidence is a “leftist” thing to do, then that seems like a point for leftists, no?

†† Answer: no.

Featured Image: “Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore 6” (cropped) via Gage Skidmore on Wikimedia, CC BY 2.0

 

Published by

Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog

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Rick
Guest
Rick
Great piece Nick. I think the wilful ignorance is one sided however. I don’t know a liberal that doesn’t like to discuss climate change, disparity of educational opportunity, income inequality, monetization of healthcare, persistent poverty and racism after decades of money and programs and many other issues. To the extent they are discussed, it is within our own “safe” bubble. I have been struck by how uninformed we are in an age where facts and information are so available. We only look at data that confirms what we want to believe. The idea that everything you believe is based on… Read more »
Jesse
Guest
Jesse
My focus when thinking about this topic of post-fact discussion and decision making is on instrumental effectiveness. By speaking in terms of ‘redeemability’, this throws the discussion into the moral arena which I see as ineffective. Is it useful to make a negative moral judgment of people who do not carefully consider evidence that conflicts with their opinions? Rather than wishing that things were different or condemning a massive portion of society, it seems more prudent to accept how it is and then focus on solutions. It seems to me that you are implicitly putting the burden of change on… Read more »