“The day has gone by when you can fool people into believing that the nation, or a state or a country or a city is going to the dogs just because one political party happens to be in power in it. People are sick of the kind of editorial writing which sees only good in every measure and every man sponsored by one party and only bad on the other side….That is one reason why the bitterly partisan press is losing its influence in this country.” – Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Much has changed since FDR wrote those words 80-some years ago for a newspaper in the Hudson Valley. Tom Coburn is well aware of that, and he doesn’t seem at all pleased.
Coburn is a U.S. Senator from Oklahoma. He’s a conservative Republican, a physician and, incidentally, a two-time cancer survivor. He also was one of the most vociferous opponents of the Obama administration’s health care reform bill, which ended up as the single most bitter, protracted domestic political fight I’ve seen in my adult life. Republican/conservative anger over that bill’s passage remains ferociously intense.
A few weeks ago, Coburn stood up at a town hall meeting in Oklahoma and begged his constituents to develop a more reasonable and balanced view of politics. Coburn told his neighbors, “What we have to have is make sure we have a debate in this country so that you can see what’s going on and make a determination yourself. So don’t catch yourself being biased by Fox News that somebody is no good. The people in Washington are good. They just don’t know what they don’t know.”
In particular, Coburn took Fox to task for perpetuating the notion that Americans will be imprisoned for failing to purchase health insurance under the new law, which isn’t true and never was. Coburn’s press aide, John Hart, said later that his boss wants people to gather information from multiple sources rather than relying on just one news outlet. Hart said, “He makes those comments privately frequently about media networks. I think his point was to encourage citizens to be skeptical consumers. He was not trying to pick on Fox.”
Fox is worth picking on, though, as is MSNBC, which essentially has turned into Fox in drag. Fox shills shamefully for conservatives/Republicans, routinely distorting facts and sometimes ignoring them altogether. MSNBC does the same for liberals/Democrats. As the influence of the more objective, balanced and more complete print news media fades and the influence of cable, partisan talk radio and the Internet increases, we seem to have now entered a time when rational, fact-based discussion of important public issues in this democracy is increasingly more difficult to achieve. I know this because I do talk radio for three hours every afternoon on Albany’s WGDJ Talk 1300-AM. I deal every weekday from 3 to 6 PM with many people who are all opinion and no fact. They come from both sides of the political divide, and they’re not all ashamed of having no information whatever on which to base their beliefs. They heard it on Fox or MSNBC, dammit, and if it was on TV then it must be the truth. And, by the way, they’re mad as hell about it, and anybody who fails to agree is a vile, evil person.
To a greater extent than I can ever recall in a long, misspent life in journalism, political discourse in this country is now so vicious, so personal and so resistant to concrete, verifiable facts that national politicians are now receiving death threats on a more or less regular basis.
Much of this is because of a widespread and well-documented human behavior trait known to scientists as confirmation bias, or confirmative bias. That’s a purely human tendency for people to prefer information that conforms to their preconceptions regardless of the accuracy, or lack thereof, of that information. People tend to reinforce their existing points to view by selectively collecting new evidence, by interpreting evidence in a biased way or by selectively recalling information from memory.
Confirmation biases represent disturbingly common flaws in the way many human beings process and receive information. The result is overconfidence in personal beliefs and, often, unfettered rage when those beliefs are confronted with objective facts that challenge those beliefs. In many real-world situations, especially in political matters, evidence is complex and mixed, so any virtually quest for evidence to support a particular belief can be successful if conflicting evidence is ignored or rejected as untrue simply on the basis of gut reaction.
A few examples of what scientists found:
In 1982, scientists Lee Ross and Craig Anderson conducted experiments on confirmative bias that led them to this conclusion, “Beliefs can survive potent logical or empirical challenges. They can survive and even be bolstered by evidence that most uncommitted observers would agree logically demands some weakening of such beliefs. They can even survive the total destruction of their original evidential bases.” This scientific conclusion is based on tests and surveys that have been replicated countless times.
Brendan Nyhan is a political scientist and a health policy researcher at the University of Michigan. His own research and his review of other research into confirmative bias has led him to conclude that, “People tend to seek out information that is consistent with their views; think of liberal fans of MSNBC and conservative devotees of Fox News. Liberals and conservatives also tend to process the information that they receive with a bias toward their pre-existing opinions, accepting claims that are consistent with their point of view and rejecting those that are not. As a result, information that contradicts their prior attitudes or beliefs is often disregarded, especially if those beliefs are strongly held …
Nyhan wrote in The New York Times, “Our results indicate that … journalistic fact-checking often fails to reduce misperceptions among ideological or partisan voters. In some cases, we found that corrections can even make misperceptions worse. For example, in one experiment we found that the proportion of conservatives who believed that President George W. Bush’s tax cuts actually increased federal revenue grew from 36 percent to 67 percent when they were provided with evidence against this claim. People seem to argue so vehemently against the corrective information that they end up strengthening the misperception in their own minds.
Roosevelt thought that the days of confirmative bias were coming to an end in 1930. In actuality, thanks to Fox, MSNBC and the Internet, blindly biased ideas and nutty perceptions are more than ever a part of our political life as Americans. In the movie “A Few Good Men” Jack Nicholson played a Marine commander grilled on the witness stand by boyish Navy lawyer Tom Cruise. When pressed by the lawyer for the truth, the Nicholson character bellowed out, “The truth? You couldn’t handle the truth!”
Unfortunately, that seems to be truer than ever these days for far too many of our fellow citizens in this marvelous democracy of ours.