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19 July 2010

Democractic Downer: "How Facts Backfire"

Joe Keohane writes at Boston.com:

...[W]hen misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation....[Voters] already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper....And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we're right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote.
This does not bode well for democracy--or so we might think if our democratic ideals really served the purpose that they allege.

The point that Keohane and the authors of the study to which he refers above miss is that the real function of the democratic process is the illusion of agency, not actual agency. That our government does not serve the direct interest of the average voter is fairly well-established fact (see Clawson, Neustadtl and Weller's Dollars and Votes for one example). Despite that, we have done a wonderful job here in the United States of convincing ourselves that democracy works. In other places, folks are not so easily persuaded. Take Afghanistan for example. Would-be voters there assume--and probably rightly so--that the democratic veneer of their new government surrounds a corrupt system controlled by political elites and other interested powers. It should be no surprise that the fledgling Afghan government is far from stable. Democracy only works insomuch as the people are convinced that they have a voice. If the people feel muted, the illusion of democracy is a failure, and the masses rise up.

Granted, I have little in the way of a solution to offer. I am certainly no advocate for autocracy or oligarchy--especially since they lead even more quickly to the problems of constrained agency.

--Props to Stephanie McClure for passing on the article.

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