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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

For a Lot of People, Facts Don't Matter

MilbankIn his Sunday column, Washington Post's Dana Milbank wrote about Arizona Governor Jan Brewer's recent claim that illegal immigrants were responsible for a crime wave that included beheadings. So Milbank did what journalists do -- he checked the story with the facts. And it was at this point that Brewer's story fell apart.

But those in fear of losing parts north of the neckline can relax. There's not a follicle of evidence to support Brewer's claim.

The Arizona Guardian Web site checked with medical examiners in Arizona's border counties, and the coroners said they had never seen an immigration-related beheading. I called and e-mailed Brewer's press office requesting documentation of decapitation; no reply.

Brewer's mindlessness about headlessness is just one of the immigration falsehoods being spread by Arizona politicians. Border violence on the rise? Phoenix becoming the world's No. 2 kidnapping capital? Illegal immigrants responsible for most police killings? The majority of those crossing the border are drug mules? All wrong.

Wow, a Republican executive fearmongering to shore up her political position. How unsurprising. Since Bush, scaring the bejeezus out of people to get what you want is often the first resort. Replace "terrorist" with "illegal alien" and you can almost quote from the exact same script.

Well, Milbank's debunking of a favorite urban legend was too much for the Washington Examiner's Mark Tapscott. Sure, reporters checked with Arizona coroners and came up empty, but that's because they didn't dig deep enough. Milbank's column was BS, according to Tapscott. See, he had the best expert witnesses in the world -- cowboys.

Tapscott points to letter to Jan Brewer from rancher J. David Lowell. It seems a ranch hand was out riding on the ridge where the west commences, where he found a human head. "Although the head was missing the lower jaw, it was immediately apparent that much of the mass and flesh of the head was still present," the letter relates. "The cowboy searched the area in hopes of finding the remainder of the body to no avail."

The letter says that the head was found along a trail that many believe is used by drug runners and human smugglers. "We suspect that the head may have been placed along side the trail as a warning to other drug and alien traffickers using the trail," Lowell writes.

Here's the thing though, if you find a body part and no body, the most likely explanation is predation of a corpse, not beheading by drug smugglers. It's a sad fact that people crossing the border illegally sometimes die in the desert. Drug runners leaving the head would have absolutely no reason at all to dispose of the rest of the body elsewhere -- it's just extra work in a crime whose purpose is to leave evidence. It's much more likely that wild animals dragged the body off someplace safe to consume it -- because that's the sort of thing predators and scavengers do all the time. On the other hand, beheading people is most definitely not the sort of thing that people do all the time. Just playing the odds, predation is the most likely explanation. And, if we assume that this head was reported and examined by one of the coroners reporting no beheadings (which they all reported), those odds leap to certainty. The disembodied head was the result of natural predation, not murder. Despite the expert testimony of Roy Rogers here, I'm going to go with the coroner on this one.

But you and I both know that logic and facts won't have any effect on the opinions of Tapscott or many of his readers. Experience with political opinion tells us that many people believe what they want to believe, the facts be damned. "Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information," writes Joe Keohane for the Boston Globe. "It's this: Facts don't necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger."

This is related to something called "confirmation bias," which, put as simply as possible, is the tendency of people to be skeptical of information that contradicts their beliefs and far too credulous of information that reinforces them. Creationists, global warming deniers, Holocaust deniers, birthers, etc. are all guilty of this -- if the science says one thing and the true believers say another, then the scientists are wrong. If the facts contradict the hypothesis, then the facts are flawed... or even lies.

But this takes it further. We can drop scientific terms like "confirmation bias" and get a lot more earthy here -- this is pigheadedness. If I argue with a creationist, I not only accomplish nothing, I actually get him or her to dig in their heels even more deeply. In his piece, Keohane describes this as a "threat to democracy," but I think that's overstating things immensely. I'm not alone.

"The good news and bad news is that democracy has never involved a well-informed citizenry reflecting on the issues of the day," writes Matthew Yglesias. "I think the misinformation literature needs to be read in tandem with the research indicating that overall levels of political information are extremely low. Two thirds of Americans can't name any Supreme Court justices and only one perent can name all nine. The reason the system functions is that democratic accountability doesn't depend on voters knowing what they're talking about. Most people have strong partisan identities, and just vote for the same team. And swing voters' views are driven overwhelmingly by economic performance."

Put another way, the study offers a psychological truth. And, as a psychological truth, it has always been the case. There have always been pigheaded people and democracy has survived. If this tendency to believe what you want to believe in a completely fact-free bubble were a threat to democracy, we wouldn't talking about voters today. All it would take would be a few elections to destroy the nation. Democracy is resilient and can survive even stupid, willfully ignorant voters.

People may not be losing their heads out there in the Arizona desert, but they're definitely losing them in the realm of politics. The good news is that if cooler heads don't always prevail, history shows they prevail often enough.


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Further: Dana Milbank and Brendan Nyhan, a Robert Wood Johnson scholar in health policy research with the University of Michigan, discuss the issue of political pigheadedness on NPR's Talk of the Nation.