Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Why You Shouldn’t Argue With Conservatives

I have settled on the idea that it is fruitless to argue politically with conservatives for some time now. I break this rule from time to time because of my penchant to stamp out ignorance, only to see the one I argue with come away more confirmed than ever in their “facts.” But it was only today that I learned that there was a name for this effect.

It’s called The Backfire Effect.

Apparently it is real. Here is an article on it published last September on Mother Jones.

The Backfire Effect occurs when you refute someone’s misinformation with something more akin to the truth. Merely by hearing the refutation, the believer in the misinformation becomes even more convinced of the lies he holds near and dear to his heart.

From Mother Jones:

“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.”

The message I take home from this is clear: don’t argue with conservatives, it only makes things worse.

But according to Nyhan and Reifler, it doesn’t work the other way. A liberal who carries misinformation around doesn’t react in the same way when challenged by a conservative with a refutation. They suggest that is because conservatives are more rigid in their beliefs. But I like the Mother Jones writer, Kevin Drum’s idea, too. Conservatives simply lack credibility.

“…right-wing talkers have spent so many years deriding "so-called experts" that they now have negative credibility with many conservatives. The very fact that an expert says a conservative claim is wrong is taken as a good reason to believe the claim.”

Nyhan, however, tested that idea out by varying the sources of refutation, sometimes from Fox News, sometimes from the New York Times and found that the credibility of the source had little effect.

Bringing up what I do say, if anything, when confronted with conservative misinformation.

“You gotta stop getting all of your news from Fox.”


Tony said...

This explains a lot, and is especially appealing after sitting through lunch listening to both my manager and a peer blame Democrats for everything wrong with the country. They both have some very serious misperceptions and stereotypes, as well - that labeling thing. I'd be pounding my head against a wall trying to reason with them.

Hal said...

The message is, Tony, don't. Don't because all it does is reconfirm in their minds the beliefs that they hold. It is a huge waste of time.
Time better spent persuading he persuadable.

Let them cook in their juices. Their party is all but dead anyway.

Anonymous said...

hal, you shouldn't argue with anyone. at least check with your spin masters before you do.