Is This the Post-Post-Truth Age?

by Vins

Truth may not have passed it’s “use by” date after all.

In September 2007, the Washington Post reported the counter-intuitive discovery that “our brains are biased to believe in faulty information, and corrections only make that bias worse.”

The story, which cited several peer-reviewed scientific articles and experiments, has been revived recently in the aftermath of the election of President Donald J. Trump.

Since Trump’s 2016 election, we are supposedly living in the “Post-Truth Age.” The president and his staff are known for their “alternative facts” and the Administration dismisses any contradiction from the media as “fake news.” Instead, government sources direct people to the president’s twitter feed for their information, and away from those who challenge the officially sanctioned “beliefs” with facts. In such a world, it can be easy to believe that the facts don’t matter. So, it seems, truth does little to dissuade people who aren’t inclined or don’t bother to listen, and research shows truth could end up increasing the divide between people with opposing beliefs. For example, Trump’s allegations that then-President Obama was a Muslim, or that he was not born in the United States, seemed to be reinforced and fueled by truthful denials.

“The existence of backfire effects” have “emerged more and more over time,” Stephan Lewandowksy, an author of the “Debunking Handbook,” told Vox in 2014. “If you tell people one thing, they’ll believe the opposite. That finding seems to be pretty strong.”

Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler’s study, “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions,” directly measured the effectiveness of corrections in a realistic context and seemingly confirmed the findings of previous studies that the truth further pushed people into their misperceptions.

However, in a much larger replication attempt, Tom Wood and Ethan Porter studied how some 10,000 students (thirty times more than Nyhan and Reifler’s original experiment) made sense of contentious issues, and the evidence was overwhelming: not a single person’s view “boomeranged” against the facts. After that, several studies were reviewed including the 1979 study done by Lord, Ross, and Leper that documented a “backfire effect” and all were found to have major flaws in their reasoning, with no repeat experiment reproducing the previous studies’ results.

So, while facts may not actually push people to believe the opposite, they are still largely ineffective in a world where “grabby lies” are the most appealing to people.

Source: Daniel Engber, “We’ve Been Told We’re Living in a Post-Truth Age. Don’t Believe It,” Slate, January 3, 2018, https://slate.com/health-and-science/2018/01/weve-been-told-were-living-in-a-post-truth-age-dont-believe-it.html.

Student Researcher: Whitney Howard (College of Marin)

Faculty Advisor:  Susan Rahman (College of Marin)