Living in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter

thomas paine on reason

People who believe science is the best way we have to explain the world we live in and who believe facts matter find themselves under increasing assault by people who refuse to accept things as they are. I am all for vigorous debate and disagreement, but there comes a time when what matters is facts. Recently, a family member — who happens to be a Trump-supporting Evangelical pastor — posted a quote allegedly by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on social media. Generally, I avoid discussing politics and religion on my personal Facebook account. Want to discuss such things with me? Go to my Facebook page or my blog. My personal Facebook account is reserved for photographs, family stuff, silly memes, and cat videos.

For whatever reason — boredom, perhaps? — I decided to respond to the Ocasio-Cortez quote. The quote seemed out of character for Ocasio-Cortez, so I went to Snopes to check it out. Sure enough, the quote was false. After determining the quote’s truthfulness, I left the following comment: thou shalt not bear false witness. This got me excommunicated; not unfriended, just blocked from seeing the man’s posts. I don’t play that game, so I unfriended him. I then let him know that I did so, and why.

The false quote perfectly fits this man’s worldview; his view of secularism, liberalism, socialism, and Democrats. In his mind, it must be true because it reinforces his sincerely-held political beliefs. I suspect many readers could tell similar stories; times when they challenged religious or political statements with facts. I have repeatedly responded to false claims on Facebook from friends and family members by commenting with a link to the relevant Snopes article. I have yet to have someone say to me, thanks for pointing out my error. I made a mistake. All I get is silence, and the false quote or meme continues to live on in infamy.

In 2017, Dr. R. Kelly Garrett wrote an article titled, Facts don’t matter to Americans, and we should be worried.

Garrett said:

Have you ever thought to yourself, “I’ll bet that’s true,” before you had all the facts? Most people probably have at some point.

Where people differ is in how often they do so. A 2016 survey that my colleague Brian Weeks and I conducted found that 50.3 percent of all Americans agreed with the statement “I trust my gut to tell me what’s true and what’s not.” Some of those polled felt quite strongly about it: About one in seven (14.6 percent) strongly agreed, while one in 10 (10.2 percent) strongly disagreed.

In other words, there’s a lot of variation in how Americans decide what to believe.

In a recent paper, we were able to use the findings from this survey and two others to dig into the different approaches people take when deciding what’s true.

We found some surprising differences between how people think about intuition and how they think about evidence. It turns out that how often someone trusts their intuition and how important they think it is to have evidence are two separate things. Both make a big difference in what we believe.

What we learned offers some hope for people’s ability to tell truth from fiction, despite the fact that so many trust their gut.

Many incorrect beliefs have political foundations. They promote a policy, an ideology or one candidate over another.

People are susceptible to political misinformation because they tend to believe things that favor their side — even if it isn’t grounded in data or science. There are numerous factors at play, from the influence of nonconscious emotions to the need to defend a group that the individual identifies with.

For these reasons, millions of Americans believe things that aren’t true.

….

With all the talk about political bias, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that politics aren’t the only thing shaping people’s beliefs. Other factors play a role too.

For example, people are more likely to believe something the more often they’ve heard it said — commonly known as the illusory truth effect. And adding a picture can change how believable a message is, sometimes making it more convincing, while at other times increasing skepticism.

Valuing intuition versus valuing evidence

Our study focuses on something else that shapes beliefs: We looked at what matters the most to people when they’re deciding what’s true.

We found that having faith in your intuition about the facts does make you more likely to endorse conspiracy theories. However, it doesn’t really influence your beliefs about science, such as vaccine safety or climate change.

In contrast, someone who says beliefs must be supported with data is more likely both to reject conspiracy theories and to answer questions about mainstream science and political issues more accurately.

The risk of relying on one’s intuition may be self-evident, but its role in belief formation is more nuanced.

….

In the end, knowing how much someone trusts his or her intuition actually tells you very little about how much proof that person will need before he or she will believe a claim. Our research shows that using intuition is not the opposite of checking the evidence: Some people trust their instincts while at the same time valuing evidence; others deny the importance of both; and so forth.

The key is that some people — even if they usually trust their gut — will check their hunches to make sure they’re right. Their willingness to do some follow-up work may explain why their beliefs tend to be more accurate.

It’s valuing evidence that predicts accuracy on a wider range of issues. Intuition matters less.

….

In this context, our results are surprising. There are many individual qualities that seem like they should promote accuracy, but don’t.

Valuing evidence, however, appears to be an exception. The bigger the role evidence plays in shaping a person’s beliefs, the more accurate that person tends to be.

We aren’t the only ones who have observed a pattern like this. Another recent study shows that people who exhibit higher scientific curiosity also tend to adopt more accurate beliefs about politically charged science topics, such as fracking and global warming.

There’s more we need to understand. It isn’t yet clear why curiosity and attention to the evidence leads to better outcomes, while being knowledgeable and thinking carefully promote bias. Until we sort this out, it’s hard to know exactly what kinds of media literacy skills will help the most.

But in today’s media environment — where news consumers are subjected to a barrage of opinions, data and misinformation — gut feelings and people’s need for evidence to back those hunches up can play a big role. They might determine whether you fall for a hoax posted on the Onion, help spread Russian disinformation or believe that the British spy agency MI6 was responsible for Princess Diana’s death.

For now, though, when it comes to fighting the scourge of misinformation, there’s a simple strategy that everyone can use. If you are someone who consistently checks your intuition about what is true against the evidence, you are less likely to be misled. It may seem like common sense, but learning to dig into the story behind that shocking headline can help you avoid spreading falsehoods.

Several days ago, a Christian man named Bill Wood stopped by this site to wow me with his intellectual prowess. Wood posted verbose comments meant to “educate” me about Biblical and scientific truth. You can read his comments here. Wood demanded I explain to his satisfaction my deconversion. I pointed him to the WHY page. Not good enough for Wood. He doubled and tripled down, refusing to accept any “truth” but his own. Wood is a classic reminder of why I don’t get into discussions with Evangelicals. Their minds are made up as to what the “truth” is. Wood believes the Bible is God’s inspired, inerrant, infallible Word. I asked him if he had read any of Bart Ehrman’s books, knowing that the answer was likely a big, fat, emphatic NO! Sure enough, all I got was another lengthy sermon. You see, for the Bill Woods of the world, their minds are closed to anything that challenges their worldview. They have decided this or that is “truth,” end of discussion. Their “gut” (often called the Holy Spirit) tells them that whatever they believe about God, Jesus, religion, science, etc. is true. In Bill Wood’s mind, creationism trumps science; theological dogma trumps archeological, geological, and sociological facts. All the facts in the world won’t change his mind.

We now live in a post-facts world. Instead of chasing truth wherever it leads, people scour the Internet looking for websites, blogs, memes, and social media posts that reinforce their beliefs. In 2016, eighty-one percent of voting white Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. Three years later, a majority of Evangelicals still support the President, despite his having told over 15,000 public lies. On January 23, 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump said:

I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s, like, incredible.

Fast forward to today. Does anyone doubt that what Trump said is the truth; that no matter what he says or does, a sizeable percentage of Americans will resolutely support him. To these people, facts don’t matter. As long as their beliefs and worldview are confirmed, Trump is free to run roughshod over our Republic. As long as Trump says he is anti-abortion, anti-transgender, anti-immigration, anti-welfare, anti-socialism, anti-atheism, anti-anything enacted by Obama, white Evangelicals, conservative Catholics, and Mormons will continue to vote for him. Racists and white supremacists know that Trump is their best chance for a whiter America. No matter what the “facts” are, an overwhelming majority of Republicans and libertarians move in lock-step fashion with the President.

What are people who value facts supposed to do? If a large number of Americans are impervious to the truth, what hope is there for this great nation of ours? I know that this post will do nothing to change hearts and minds. People who agree with me will shout “right-on, brother!” Those who don’t will just see me as yet another liberal, commie, socialist out to destroy white Christian America.

We truly live in perplexing times. I have no confidence in things becoming better any time soon. I shudder to think what four more years of Donald Trump will bring us. Imagine what would happen if Republicans somehow took control of Congress? We are fools if we think the United States is invulnerable to decline and collapse. History tells us about many great civilizations who have come and gone. We are not immune to a similar fate.

What do you think people who value facts and truth should do? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Are you on Social Media? Follow Bruce on Facebook and Twitter.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

7 Comments

  1. Karen the rock whisperer

    “What do you think people who value facts and truth should do? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.”

    VOTE.

    Get politically involved, even if it’s uncomfortable as hell. Write those emails and call those congresscritters. Write down what you”ll say in those calls beforehand, so the phone person can understand what you want and/or object to, and add that to their boss’ database of what constituents think. Deal with one issue at a time, but always beat the facts/science drums.

    VOTE. Even if the ghastliest jerk on the planet ends up being a general election nominee for some office, and yet this person generally supports science: vote for them. Likewise, if Mr./Ms. Delightful Person who Just Wants What’s Best is running, and their track record suggests they have only a passing acquaintance with facts or reality in general, vote for the other person. If you have to hold your nose or even bring a barf bag into your polling place, do it.

    The planet will run along just fine without us, but I’m personally invested in our species. I’d like to keep it from facing extinction, or even just widespread devastation, due to the actions of people in power who make stupid decisions based on the size of their financial worth and that of their cronies. The only way I know to influence our future is to be as political as I can, even though I don’t enjoy it. I want to sit and make jewelry, or try a new recipe, or take and edit a bunch of photos. But I’m not gonna fiddle while Rome burns.

    Reply
  2. GeoffT

    I’ve been in dialogue (polite description) elsewhere with a small bunch of ultra right wing conservatives, plucked from the archetypal branch, who argue their bizarre opinions in crazy ways, though always trip themselves up in the reasoning stakes, not that they realise it. One of their hallmarks is outright denial of any form of opinion, or fact, that runs contrary to their ideologies, and the one this article brings to mind is Snopes. There is no better source anywhere of the reality behind any given claim (though the BBC does have a similar site they simply call ‘fact check’) yet, because it undermines them, these ultras are saying it’s just a left wing, liberal, biased site. To be honest, I’ve started trying to ignore them, let them return to their infested swamps.

    Interestingly, I’ve been pondering my own psychological history from incredibly naive in my early years, to now being irritatingly cynical in every avenue of my life. When friends make some harmless remark that involves any sort of claim I immediately challenge it. I’m known as ‘Mr Cynical’ though I’m learning to be a little more circumspect about how I address it. What it has revealed to me is that people have entrenched positions on many things in life; is superunleaded petrol better than ordinary, can exercise be harmful, is meat essential to a diet?, and so on. Every one of these things I’ve refused to take the party line and gone away and researched. Of course my cynical position might now render me intransigent?

    Bill Wood is typical of a certain kind of conservative. Did you note he opened with claiming to be a Mensan, presumably virtue signalling his high IQ. I suspect he’s done one of these fallacious online IQ tests which give everybody a high score, and are nothing more than money grabbing methods. High IQ is much more obvious by the standard of argument made, and this is where Bill trips himself up big style. He doesn’t reason, he simply calls on what he sees as authoritative quotes to support a position he’s not prepared to move from, post hoc rationalisation as they say. He’s reasonably articulate, can clearly string words together in a seemingly logical way, yet his actual comments are highly incoherent.

    Reply
    1. Astreja

      The size of one’s IQ does not matter if it is dwarfed by one’s gullibility. This seems to be the problem with Mr. Wood. What I found particularly revealing about his mythological screeds was his incessant demand for “honest” discussion.

      He needs a mirror. A really, really big mirror.

      (Oh, and Happy New Year to all!)

      Reply
    2. Karen the rock whisperer

      Being reasonably skeptical is a good thing. I try to hold the beliefs I do have provisionally, and revisit them periodically or when new data appears. I’m comfortable accepting things provisionally if they come from trusted sources, but then I really like to verify.

      But, I went through a cynical period when I was younger, and didn’t realize how negative an effect that was having on me. Cynicism ultimately ends up assigning bad intent to third parties, though it may not start out that way. The thing is, it’s much better for mental health if you assume that bad things that humans individually or collectively cause are probably the result of ignorance or carelessness unless there’s clear evidence to the contrary. We’re all very good at being clueless and careless, and so are our institutions.

      Now, that isn’t to say there aren’t genuinely evil people in the world. Of course there are, and too many of them are serving in the US government right now or paying those who are. But being cynical about it gets in the way of fighting the good fight that is our obligation as citizens in whatever country we live. It also significantly reduces your own authentic happiness, which comes from inside you.

      Reply
  3. Dave

    Christianity is strongly opposed to critical thinking so is it any wonder that those who embrace this faith the strongest reject facts and embrace creationism, conspiracy theories and the orange menace in the White House? I am fortunate to live outside of the Bible belt but I grew up in a conservative Evangelical home where faith was valued over intellect. Fortunately I was able to reason my way out of religion while my siblings continue to drink the Kool Aid

    Reply
  4. ObstacleChick

    Bruce,one of my good friends from childhood is still an evangelical Christian (barely, but it’s the church and friends she grew up with so her social community is centered there), and she is one of the few who don’t support Trump. She is quite vocal about it too, which has cost her some church friends. She fact checks EVERYTHING before posting, and will fact check other people’s posts too.

    Yesterday I saw a meme our former Sunday school teacher posted regarding the unreliability of Snopes and that it’s biased toward Democrats and was backed by Soros, according to FactCheck site. It didn’t take long for me to find that FactCheck posted an article in 2018 debunking that meme, so I commented on her post so she could look up the article. She deleted my comment. I saw an hour later my friend had posted the same article I did. Within minutes that comment was deleted as well. I texted my friend, and she said, “You just can’t convince people with facts unless they are willing to consider those facts.” This former Sunday school teacher is more concerned with posting anything she thinks support her views than in seeking truth. My friend, on the other hand, says there isn’t much she can do to change minds in her community, but she is damned sure to fight a personal battle against the spread of falsehoods whenever she can. I admire her for it. She is a lone liberal Christian in a sea of far-right conservatives who are hell bent on ignoring and silencing her.

    Reply
  5. Melissa A Montana

    I agree totally with Karen the rock whisperer. We must get involved. Giving up is not an option. The cult followers are probably lost, but there are people still on the fence with Trump. I saw on Twitter how many were furious at him for wanting to ban vaping flavors, and were saying they wouldn’t vote for him if it happened. A stupid issue certainly, after all he has pulled, but I take any victory I can get. We must keep pushing the truth. I used to be part of the RW cult, but the truth finally reached the point I couldn’t deny reality anymore. Some of them will see it when his promises fail and the Republican lies never come to pass. Some of the QAnon cultists and Nazi accounts are getting fed up because the mass arrest of Jews and liberals haven’t happened. (Yes, I snoop on their accounts sometimes.) Besides, when all this is in the history books, I want to be remembered as a sane voice of reason, not a crazy cult follower. The internet is forever, right?

    Reply

Please Leave a Pithy Reply

%d bloggers like this: