A farewell to facts

A childhood friend, who is now a retired journalist and journalism professor, posted this cartoon on Facebook recently:


(Original source)

A few hours earlier, another childhood friend had posted something to Facebook – something political – with so many factual errors that I was venting to my partner about it. He thought I should respond; I thought not.

At least a dozen of my Facebook friends are people I knew when I was a kid. My parents divorced when I was 12, and after my mom relocated us to another town, I thought I’d never get to know what happened to all the kids I’d been growing up with. I was thrilled when Facebook gave me the opportunity to reconnect. I love them! It’s fascinating to learn about the adults they’ve become.

It’s also, as I’ve found, an opportunity to see for myself what people outside my day-to-day life are thinking. The challenge is, whether and how to respond when their facts are… iffy.

The comic above illustrates what we social scientists call the “information deficit” model. The idea is, people are lacking in facts, so if you give them the facts, they’ll understand and behave “rationally.”

That model might work if we went around thinking that there are topics we don’t know anything about but should, and then we had the time and inclination to take in the information when it’s offered. But usually people don’t work like that. Either we figure we know enough about the topic to have an opinion, or we find someone who’s supposed to know about these things and then trust them to do their job.

It’s more realistic to go with a “motivated reasoning” model, like I described in my recent post on how stories-about-us work. We figure out how we feel or who we trust, and we use that information as a shortcut to decide what we think about things. Once we’ve made up our mind, we’ll go to more mental effort to defend our position, if need be.  We’ll use the evidence that supports our position, and ignore the evidence that doesn’t. Research by Dan Kahan and others has shown that this motivated reasoning is equally common for conservatives and liberals, and the more educated you are, the more likely you’ll use the facts to bolster what you already believe, rather than starting from scratch.

In the real world, this leads to some strange things. We saw it with the COVID virus, where a few individuals who had been vocal early on about the need for caution later changed their minds entirely. For some, this is surely “COVID fatigue,” feeling like it’s been “enough already.” They want or need the closure that comes from having it all behind us. For others, though, it seems that we can see the power of political party identities in action – when the virus was treated by both parties as a common threat, they strongly favored protective measures, but when Republican leaders decided to treat the virus as a partisan thing, they quickly fell in line and started saying the opposite of what they’d said two months before.

I’m also reminded of a story a family member told me about how firmly someone he knew was promoting some supposedly conservative policy position, but he had it backwards – the position he was espousing was actually the liberal position. Awkward!

Motivated reasoning includes selectively choosing facts to make one’s case, but what about “facts” that are outright wrong?

I’ll admit, I’ll sometimes chime in, when I know my experience has given me better access to the information than the person posting could be expected to have. Sometimes they’re actually interested in the information, which is cool, but if they aren’t, that’s fine too. It’s not about “fixing them.” Rather, it’s about me being responsible.

Most of the time, though, I think there’s a better way to look at it. It’s basically how we should think about other people’s religions. If you have religious beliefs, you may consider them literally true, but even if you don’t, you probably consider them metaphorically true, and the rest of us should consider them metaphorically true as well. What do I mean by that? It’s like the “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” letter – regardless of whether Santa is physically there at the North Pole right now, supervising the elves building toys for delivery in four and a half months, there is also the living idea of Santa Claus that brings value and magic to children and their adults alike. Or, say, Robin Hood – whether or not some medieval Englishman actually forcibly redistributed the wealth in 1452771009-movies-robin-hood-disney_smNottingham, he’s a part of our cultural heritage who still inspires us today. So if your friends are Christian and you aren’t, you could get hung up on whether certain teachings in Christianity are literally true (the Virgin Birth, for example), or you could honor the feelings behind those teachings (respecting Jesus as an extraordinary person whose life could have important lessons for us). We can look beyond the literal words to see what deeper meaning is there.

So when we’re evaluating someone’s social media post, the important thing is not always whether the facts, suppositions, and suspicions are correct; it’s whether they feel right to the person saying them. The post may be expressing a deeper truth, and if so, that’s what we should respond to.

However! How we go about responding to these “deeper truths” is important! If we think, “They said X but they really mean Y,” that’s reductive and not respectful. They probably mean both X and Y, and they might mean Z instead of Y, who knows? If we say, “You said X, did you really mean Y?” that’s reductive, disrespectful, and patronizing, too.

On the other hand, if you want to start an actual dialogue, you could say, “When you said X, it also seems to me that you’re saying Y, am I understanding?” If they’re also up for dialogue, you might go on to say that you don’t share their X-thoughts, but Y makes sense to you. Common ground!

It’s hard to resist the immediate temptation to correct the facts. I can say from talking with many inveterate fact-correctors that they feel like they’re respecting the other person’s intellect. I don’t think it feels like that on the receiving end, though – it often feels like condescension.

We could even say that the left/right split in the United States is only one facet of our polarization. Another facet is the deep split between those who want us to be able to move past the toxic aspects of polarization and those who relish it. Ironically, and unfortunately, the very act of pointing out that someone has, however innocently, been manipulated by extreme partisans is an act that reinforces that toxic divide.

I think the answers involve respect and trust. And probably patience, though I’m not so good at patience myself. If someone acts like a decent human being in all the other spheres of life but seems to go off the deep end where politics are concerned, we should probably focus on the “decent human being” side and not on what can feel like the “unfortunately manipulated” side. The rest of it may take time.

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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1 Response to A farewell to facts

  1. Pingback: Three relationships with our collective stories: Authority, democracy, and the big yawn | The Meta-Narrator

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