When facts fail: study notes that facts can reinforce false beliefs

[Hat tip to reader Helen from Scotland]  

A recent study in the journal Political Behaviour provides some fascinating – and worrisome – insights into how people treat facts that challenge erroneous beliefs.  

Titled “When corrections fail: the persistence of political misperceptions” [1] it clearly demonstrates the fact that people will cling desperately to a misconception despite overwhelming evidence that contradicts that belief. As the abstract notes:

“…An extensive literature addresses citizen ignorance, but very little research focuses on misperceptions. Can these false or unsubstantiated beliefs about politics be corrected? Previous studies have not tested the efficacy of corrections in a realistic format. We conducted four experiments in which subjects read mock news articles that included either a misleading claim from a politician, or a misleading claim and a correction. Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire effect” in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.”

Upon reading this paper my immediate thought was “Climategate”.   

This is the example par excellence of a misconception (that scientists have acted fraudulently to “manufacture” global warming) that has no basis in reality. It’s a belief in which large numbers within the denial community still cling too despite overwhelming evidence that no fraud took place.  

While many of us are surprised that so many individuals can continue to believe in a massive conspiracy, this paper provides some valuable insight into “why” this may be the case.  

Do corrections matter? Not according to this study…  

The authors looked at how individuals filtered information – based on their ideological preferences – on a number of issues: the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; the effectiveness of tax cuts as an economic stimulus; and the “banning” of stem cell research.  

Groups were given a mock news report followed by another one that “corrected” it. The results were interesting:  

“…The experiments reported in this paper help us understand why factual misperceptions about politics are so persistent. We find that responses to corrections in mock news articles differ significantly according to subjects’ ideological views. As a result, the corrections fail to reduce misperceptions for the most committed participants. Even worse, they actually strengthen misperceptions among ideological subgroups in several cases.”

Most of what we know about climate change is filtered via the mainstream media. The situation is not helped by the media who use the “he said/she said” formula of presenting both sides of an argument. The authors of this study note this as well:  

“…people typically receive corrective information within “objective” news reports pitting two sides of an argument against each other, which is significantly more ambiguous than receiving a correct answer from an omniscient source. In such cases, citizens are likely to resist or reject arguments and evidence contradicting their opinions—a view that is consistent with a wide array of research…”

Such “balanced” views actually distort the debate. By giving such prominence to climate “sceptics” the media helps feed the misconception that there is still debate over the facts of global warming.  

Climategate: the denier response  

As a recent poster on this blog with denialist tendencies said of the various inquires that found no evidence of conspiracy, data manipulation or fraud:

How come Phil Jones got to chose his own papers for the so-called “independent” Oxburgh enquiries?

Do they think we are stupid?

The above poster is representative of the majority of the denial community… “Of course its a conspiracy…” says the denier “Just look at the results of the Lord Oxbourgh’s inquiry!  

The above study shows why people continue to cling to false beliefs. It has nothing to do with intelligence: cognitive biases, ideology and prejudices build up a solid wall of denial that no facts, reasoned arguments or truths will breach.  

People such as this have (a) little real understanding of the science and (b) filter information based on their political views. I’d also suggest that the Dunning-Kruger effect is very much at work (i.e. the tendency for incompetent people to overestimate their abilities).  

The truth is supposed to set you free, when actually it can backfire  

The authors of the paper note that corrections can often have a “back fire” attempt:

“However, individuals who receive unwelcome information may not simply resist challenges to their views. Instead, they may come to support their original opinion even more strongly—what we call a “backfire effect.”

Within the denial movement Climategate is an established narrative. The various inquires that have cleared scientist have only served to further entrench the view within the denial community that there is a massive conspiracy.

Indeed, most “deniers” believed the results were a foregone conclusion: of course “they” cleared the scientists. What else could one expect when “they” are also in part of the conspiracy. Facts only serve to strengthen their belief global warming is not real.  

This is Climategate’s “backfire” effect.  

It also means the impact of the denial machine’s disinformation campaign are even more insidious.   

Not only are they free to lie, distort and construct fabrications, but the average person who falls for their misinformation becomes increasingly impervious to the truth. The strange logic of denial dictates that any and all information from “warmists” and “alarmists” is tainted, and thus inherently suspect.  

As the authors note in the conclusion:

“…The backfire effects that we found seem to provide further support for the growing literature showing that citizens engage in “motivated reasoning.” While our experiments focused on assessing the effectiveness of corrections, the results show that direct factual contradictions can actually strengthen ideologically grounded factual beliefs—an empirical finding with important theoretical implications.”

Before anyone rushes to say that it’s not fair to pick on “deniers” I’d note the study finds no one is free from such biases: those with either conservative and liberal worldviews are prone to making the same tendency to disregard factual corrections.  

So, we should give up then? Here’s the good news  

Despite the tendency for individuals to disregard conflicting information, the authors of the paper do note that over time it is possible for an individual to “correct” their misconceptions:

It’s important to note that the account provided above does not imply that individuals simply believe what they want to believe under all circumstances and never accept counter-attitudinal information. Ditto and Lopez (1992, p. 570), preference-inconsistent information is likely to be subjected to greater skepticism than preference-consistent information, but individuals who are “confronted with information of sufficient quantity or clarity… should eventually acquiesce to a preference-inconsistent conclusion.” The effectiveness of corrective information is therefore likely to vary depending on the extent to which the individual has been exposed to similar messages elsewhere. For instance, as a certain belief becomes widely viewed as discredited among the public and the press, individuals who might be ideologically sympathetic to that belief will be more likely to abandon it when exposed to corrective information.

One of the key driver of a persons acceptance of a fact (or belief) is its popularity.  

This is the reason why the denial machine works so hard to flood the internet and mainstream media with disinformation.  

Its also the reason why the comments field on every online news item is quickly flooded with the comments of deniers. They are working hard to create the impression that large numbers of people share their world view in the hope this has a cascading effect. The more that doubt global warming, the more will follow their lead.  

Which is why the continual, sometimes exhausting and seemingly never-ending work of correcting the falsehoods of the denial movement is vital. By providing an antidote to their campaign of misinformation, we will eventually neutralise their effectiveness.  

More importantly, clearly articulating the basics of climate science and explaining it to the general public will make an enormous difference. As I’ve already noted we have not paid sufficient attention to this issue:

Thus I’ve come to the belief that we need a body of similar scope and ambition to the IPCC that will help educate the public. And yes, in saying this I understand just how complex it would be to establish such an initiative. So I’m speculating, thinking “big”…

The IPCC materials are publically available, but they are not easily digestible. They are intended for a specific audience, and are a masterful synthesis of the science. However they are not readily accessible to a lay audience, let alone people without access to the Internet. The IPCC materials target an elite audience.

It has taken me months to read them, understand and educate myself on the basics of the science. And I have access to the internet, the benefit of a post-graduate education and the time to devote to this interest. How does my opportunity compare to the average farmer in China? Or the slum dweller living on Jo’Burg?

We need to broaden the audience of the IPCC from policy makers to a global scale… The scientists can’t do it alone, it needs to be part of a broader initiative. The remit of the IPCC could be broadened. It could be a multidisciplinary body comprising not just scientist but sociologist, historians, psychologists, communications experts and politicians that would examine communications strategies for the various demographics and “audiences”.

Sure, I’m quoting myself here: but I stand by these comments.

[1] When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler in Political Behaviour 30 March 2010 (10.1007/s11109-010-9112-2)


11 thoughts on “When facts fail: study notes that facts can reinforce false beliefs

  1. Fred Orth says:

    Thank you. You keep bringing forth more and more meaningful analysis. Greatly appreciated. Now, I have to figure a methodology to communicate this to the deniers in my world.

  2. Well put… I’ve found that it is nearly pointless discussing the science with a number of people that have come by my blog or in a number of other places. I even provided a nice little write up in a comment on Bolt’s blog – with a handful of references to which the person who I had been answering shrugged it off, saying that I proved nothing…
    It’s mind-boggling how individuals can get into “science debate” and feel that the science has nothing to offer. I’ve basically given up on that fight and am just working on providing the basic facts / some general discussion. This small group of very loud deniers will not change (as you say here) until their point is unpopular.

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      Thanks Moth,

      July was a blogging hiatus for me, and during that time I gave serious consideration as to what real difference blogging about “The deniers” actually makes.

      For a few weeks I thought it made no real difference, and that my efforts were wasted. The problem was “too big” and that the continuiung effectiveness of the denial movement was disperiting. However after much deliberation I came to the following conclusions…

      1) I think the above study shows that even though the cognitive/political biases of individuals are an enormous challenge, persistence will pay off.

      2) My commitment to climate change activism is only increasing. Indeed, I am looking at becoming more active politically and seeing what groups and people I can work with both locally and virtually.

      3) I’m not going down without a fight. People of conscience should not turn away from an issue because they feel powerless, or that the problem is for someone else to fix.

      4) When I started this blog my goal was to reach *one person* a day. I’ve far exceeded that, and the feedback from readers has been encouraging.

      I’d also note how much I’ve been enjoying your blog of late, as you have been exploring some really interesting questions.

      • John R T says:

        Your claims lose robustness because of your grammatical errors.

        When we speak of bravely clinging to dis-proven belief systems, the AGW pew offers today’s shining example.


        ‘Quadrant Online’ also presents helpful guidance for the flock.

        [John , the link is dead. Re grammatical errors I’m indeed aware some get through to final draft and strive to have them corrected. Being a busy professional with a two year old means doing most of this on the fly… so if anyone wants to volunteer to help proof read then please do!]

  3. adelady says:

    Persistence pays. I’ve often found in business meetings that an idea might be ignored or dismissed when first raised. 6 to 12 months later, it seems to be part of the wallpaper – and no-one notices it happening.

    The frustrating thing with the info on blogs is that people rarely say thanks for that, I see what you mean now. But you / we must keep saying it. Firstly for the sake of readers who never contribute but who are informed by your comments anyway, but secondly, the resistant person will take in the info, however reluctantly.

    Just look at how the “deniers” have changed emphasis. Only 6 months ago many were vigorously arguing in many places, not just the science blogs, that there was no warming at all. Now it’s only a few diehards who are trying to say that the globe is actually cooling.

    Keep at it.

  4. John R T says:

    Another link for Booker article –


    Proofing: from several weeks ago, my comment on your post:

    { I will be happy to be a first reader.}

  5. Archie says:

    Awesome article.

  6. […] with evidence that they are wrong, will become more convinced of their incorrect belief. (See When Facts Fail, with a link to the study. Sadly, the study itself is behind a paywall.) A more recent study shows […]

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