I’ve been saying for a long time that you can lead a Republican to facts, but you can’t make him think. Wouldn’t you know it, Scientific research has verified my conclusions. Up until now my opinion on this was formed strictly from personal observation, combined with a multitude of anecdotal evidence. But now Dan Kahan, a Yale Law School Professor, has added to a growing body of evidence, which provides verifiable evidence that leading a person to facts does very little to make them think.
Kahan’s paper titled “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government” was published early in September, 2013. The research shows that strong ideological beliefs undermine a person’s ability to interpret data and even perform math problems. The researchers first assessed the subject’s ability to handle the math problems and interpret the data by using material that had no political association. Subjects who were able to correctly interpret the data and solve the math problems when they addressed non-political situations, became unable to do so if the correct solutions and interpretations conflicted with their underlying ideological beliefs. Yes, this phenomena was documented in people with strong beliefs, both on the left or on the right.
One large difference between the two parties is the consistency with which facts tend to collide with an underlying worldview (religious or political) outside of the experimental laboratory. Previous studies have confirmed that showing facts to a person who has a misconception not only doesn’t correct the misconception, but actually causes them to become even more committed to their false belief. In a separate study conducted by Dartmouth College Professor Brendan Nylan and Jason Reifler of Georgia State University (2011) the researchers decided to test this idea using three commonly held misconceptions:
“where some citizens may be unwilling to acknowledge factual information that contradicts their
1. Whether insurgent attacks in Iraq decreased after the US troop surge
2. Whether the number of jobs in the US increased from January 2010 to January 2011
3. Whether average global temperatures have increased over the past thirty years
I think it’s safe to conclude that commonly held misconceptions in these three areas are only “commonly held” among die-hard Republicans. In spite of being presented with evidence which contradicted their beliefs, the subjects of those experiments became even more dedicated to the idea that the false information was true.
Aside from climate change, the Iraq war and President Obama’s economic record, there are literally hundreds of areas where Republican beliefs contradict facts. We see this type of rejection of reality in everything from gun violence to the abortion debate. It’s apparent in their false interpretation of United States history and their unfailing devotion to the theory of “trickle down economics.” It’s obvious when you think about their totally wrong conclusions about the Affordable Care Act as well as their inability to figure out that Obama has not raised their taxes. The list of realities that remain firmly out of the grasp of Republican minds goes on and on.
Anyone who has ever attempted to debate a Republican using graphs, charts, data, statistics, research, reputable sources of information etc… has experienced the mind numbing reality of it. Facts don’t matter. Regardless of how much information conflicts with their beliefs, regardless of how well documented an opposing view is, they dismiss every bit of it in favor of the voices in their heads. While the results of the study are depressing to the say the least, at least people on the left now have evidence to support what we already knew – you can lead a Republican to facts, but you can’t make him think.