The Sciences

Bill Moyers: "Facts Still Matter"

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyFeb 15, 2011 7:58 PM

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We should all read his latest speech--about the denial of reality in America, and how to counter it. He touches, albeit briefly, on the same research that I've been covering on Point of Inquiry, and especially in two shows with Brendan Nyhan and Dan Kahan:

Perhaps, we were naïve, but in those days many of us still assumed that an informed public is preferable to an uninformed one. Hadn't Thomas Jefferson proclaimed that, "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government"? And wasn't a free press essential to that end? Maybe not. As Joe Keohane reported last year in The Boston Globe, political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency "deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information." He was reporting on research at the University of Michigan, which found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in new stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts were not curing misinformation. "Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.".... ...These studies help to explain why America seems more and more unable to deal with reality. So many people inhabit a closed belief system on whose door they have hung the "Do Not Disturb" sign, that they pick and choose only those facts that will serve as building blocks for walling them off from uncomfortable truths. Any journalist whose reporting threatens that belief system gets sliced and diced by its apologists and polemicists (say, the fabulists at Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the yahoos of talk radio.) ... No wonder many people still believe Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, as his birth certificate shows; or that he is a Muslim, when in fact he is a Christian; or that he is a socialist when day by day he shows an eager solicitude for corporate capitalism. Partisans in particular - and the audiences for Murdoch's Fox News and talk radio - are particularly susceptible to such scurrilous disinformation. In a Harris survey last spring, 67 percent of Republicans said Obama is a socialist; 57 percent believed him to be a Muslim; 45 percent refused to believe he was born in America; and 24 percent said he "may be the antichrist."

Updating those figures: A recent poll finds that birthers are now more than half of GOP likely primary voters. Later, Moyers also takes on 9-11 Truthers. And he somehow ends up reasonably optimistic about the importance of journalism, though I don't quite see how it follows from what he just said. I am not sure he is really grasping the full implications of what's happening to "truth" in our discourse right now if he can say this:

That's what keeps us going, isn't it? The knowledge that all the bias and ignorance notwithstanding, facts still matter to critical thinking, that if we respect and honor, even revere them, they just might help us right the ship of state before it rams the iceberg.

It's the "to critical thinking" part that's crucial. Supposing you are actually engaging in critical thinking, I agree that facts still matter. But that's kind of a big supposition these days.

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