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Why Let the Facts Spoil Your Beliefs


In his New York Times column today, Nicholas D. Kristof offers some thoughts that should chill the hearts of any of us whose work involves trying to make convincing, cogent, and well-fashioned arguments that are meant to persuade people to think or behave differently. As he writes, “…there’s pretty good evidence that we generally don’t truly want good information — but rather information that confirms our prejudices. We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber.”

Kristof says this problem is being exacerbated by the decline of the traditional news media, where, like it or not, we’re exposed to more than just the things we want to read or know about.  Instead, more of us rely on self-selected online sources that provide “news and opinions that we care most about.”

Kristof adds that “this self-selected ‘news’ acts as a narcotic, lulling us into a self-confident stupor through which we will perceive in blacks and whites a world that typically unfolds in grays.”

If all that isn’t disturbing enough, also upsetting are findings from a study he cites.  The study found that when Republicans and Democrats were offered  “neutral” political research, respondents said what they most wanted were “intelligent arguments that strongly corroborated their pre-existing views.” At the same time, “there was little interest in encountering solid arguments that might undermine one’s own position.”

Kristof’s “solution,” if you can call it that, is less than perfect.  But it does make sense: “The only way forward,” he says “is for each of us to struggle on our own to work out intellectually with sparring partners whose views we deplore. Think of it as a daily mental workout analogous to a trip to the gym; if you don’t work up a sweat, it doesn’t count.”

Hey, I don’t know about you, but I agree with him.

Photo from  sokabs on Flickr.com. Used with gratitude under a Creative Commons license. Click for terms.

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