According to a new study by Brendan Nyhan, a Ph.D. candidate in Duke’s political science department, and co-author Jason Reifler of Georgia State University, their experiments show that with the presidential candidates trading accusations on television and in the press, journalists’ attempts to correct misinformation is unlikely to sway public perceptions.
“What we found is that corrections are ineffective for the group most likely to have the misperception. Even worse, we found that those people may actually end up believing in the misperception more strongly after hearing a correction.”
“In the paper, we suggest motivated reasoning as an explanation for these results. People often counter-argue information that contradicts their predispositions. That may be what is happening here.”
Nyhan and 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.
Their paper, which is undergoing review, suggests 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.
I consider this to be the case as well with creationists and religious zealots. It would explain why followers of preachers like Ken Ham and Ray Comfort, and their followers seem to be immune to the feeble lance of reason.
But if these extremists are utterly immune to the truth -- and indeed, the truth only makes them dig deeper into their fantasy world of religion, what is a rational person to do?
When arguing with in front of on-the-fence thinkers, remember that you're not trying to convince the creationist to actually buy into silly notions like facts and reason. You're highlighting the differences between science and faith for the outside observer. If the other guy insists on religious views that belong only in Disney World's Fantasyland, other folks will realize what's happening.
But if there is no third party, do yourself a favor and save your breath. As the study demonstrates, you're only making matters worse.