Why truth is under fire

Studies have long shown that human beings are resistant to information that upsets their worldview. But why do we appear so prone to that temptation now? 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff/File
Students at the univerSity of Notre Dame in South Bend, ind., participate in an event to respectfully share divergent political views.

The Monitor’s political editor, Liz Marlantes, recently alerted me to a new study by the respected RAND Corp. think tank. “Truth Decay” looks at why so many of us disagree about basic facts and have so little trust in formerly respected sources of information.

Here’s my executive summary: We all need to look in the mirror.

The study suggests that a perfect storm of factors is conspiring to manipulate how we see truth, and the danger is not being aware of how those factors can mold our thinking.

Some are not new. Studies have long shown that human beings are resistant to information that upsets their worldview. “People do not just maintain preexisting beliefs: Being confronted with corrective information can make misperceptions more ingrained and cause people to become less willing to consider alternatives,” the authors note.

But why do we appear so prone to that temptation now? 

Among the more obvious answers is the influence of social media and 24-hour news. Social media throw out vast quantities of incorrect information; 24-hour news fills much of its day with opinion and commentary. In large doses, neither is terribly helpful. (Speaking of large doses, did you know that the average number of tweets per day rose from 5,000 in 2007 to 500 million in 2013?)

Among the less obvious is the fact that we increasingly live and vote with people who think the way we do. While the study touches on Britain and France, it focuses on the United States, where politicians gerrymander districts with “laser-like precision,” as one federal judge put it. The goal: to artificially play up divisions for political gain.

But even beyond gerrymandering, Americans are living in communities where there is less diversity of opinion. In the 2016 presidential election, 1,196 counties were decided by margins greater than 50 percent. From 1976 to 2012, the median number of such landslide counties was 450.

Broader forces occasionally resurface, too. The “yellow journalism” of the 1890s was the result of seismic changes in America’s social, racial, and economic fabric: a rise of income inequality as the economy evolved to urban manufacturing, a perceived loss of agrarian values, a large demographic shift fueled by immigration. A recession stoked anger against elites and the government and kindled a populist backlash. We’re seeing echoes of those things now. 

One antidote, the study suggests, is simply being more self-aware: “[B]eing aware of bias, either one’s own or that of a source, can reduce the effects of ... bias.” But it also hints at a deeper antidote: “One study found that forcing people to articulate alternative viewpoints or to cite evidence of a differing explanation can reduce the influence of biases over beliefs by forcing consideration of another perspective and engagement in critical thinking.”

It is a prescription for each of us to leave our mental comfort zones and consent to see the world in new ways. And it is an apt summary of how the Monitor sees its role in journalism today.

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

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