I think this experiment helps explains a rather disturbing amount of our political discourse. What it neatly demonstrates is that the main reason so many campaigns traffic in dishonest allegations and pseudofacts is that, when it comes to voters, the facts don’t really matter. Most of us are just partisan hacks:
Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler provided two groups of volunteers with the Bush administration’s prewar claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. One group was given a refutation — the comprehensive 2004 Duelfer report that concluded that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded in 2003. Thirty-four percent of conservatives told only about the Bush administration’s claims thought Iraq had hidden or destroyed its weapons before the U.S. invasion, but 64 percent of conservatives who heard both claim and refutation thought that Iraq really did have the weapons. The refutation, in other words, made the misinformation worse.
A similar “backfire effect” also influenced conservatives told about Bush administration assertions that tax cuts increase federal revenue. One group was offered a refutation by prominent economists that included current and former Bush administration officials. About 35 percent of conservatives told about the Bush claim believed it; 67 percent of those provided with both assertion and refutation believed that tax cuts increase revenue.
In a paper approaching publication, Nyhan, a PhD student at Duke University, and Reifler, at Georgia State University, suggest that Republicans might be especially prone to the backfire effect because conservatives may have more rigid views than liberals: Upon hearing a refutation, conservatives might “argue back” against the refutation in their minds, thereby strengthening their belief in the misinformation. Nyhan and Reifler did not see the same “backfire effect” when liberals were given misinformation and a refutation about the Bush administration’s stance on stem cell research.
The Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels analyzed survey data from the 1990’s to prove the same point. During the first term of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the budget deficit declined by more than 90 percent. However, when Republican voters were asked in 1996 what happened to the deficit under Clinton, more than 55 percent said that it had increased. What’s interesting about this data is that so-called “high-information” voters – these are the Republicans who read the newspaper, watch cable news and can identify their representatives in Congress – weren’t better informed than “low-information” voters. (The sole exception was Republicans who are ranked in the top 10 percent in terms of political information. As Bartels notes, it’s only among these people that “the pull of objective reality begins to become apparent.”) These citizens According to Bartels, the reason knowing more about politics doesn’t erase partisan bias is that voters tend to only assimilate those facts that confirm what they already believe. If a piece of information doesn’t follow Republican talking points – and Clinton’s deficit reduction didn’t fit the “tax and spend liberal” stereotype – then the information is conveniently ignored. “Voters think that they’re thinking,” Bartels says, “but what they’re really doing is inventing facts or ignoring facts so that they can rationalize decisions they’ve already made.” Once we identify with a political party, the world is edited so that it fits with our ideology.