The Economist’s “Word of the Year” for 2016 was “post-truth.” Fact-checkers at major media outlets are doing a land office business. Concern about “fake news” is all the rage. The answer seems pretty simple. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” So the solution to the whole post-truth/fake news problem is to force people to get the facts right.
Except it’s not that simple. Tim Harford, the author of The Undercover Economist and columnist for the Financial Times, wrote an article in FT Weekend last month on “The problem with facts.” The thing I found most interesting was this section, which is not on how our allegiances, or the “tribes” to which we belong, affect our opinions, but on how our allegiances affect our facts:
“An early indicator of how tribal our logic can be was a study conducted in 1954 by Albert Hastorf, a psychologist at Dartmouth, and Hadley Cantril, his counterpart at Princeton. Hastorf and Cantril screened footage of a game of American football between the two college teams. It had been a rough game. One quarterback had suffered a broken leg. Hastorf and Cantril asked their students to tot up the fouls and assess their severity. The Dartmouth students tended to overlook Dartmouth fouls but were quick to pick up on the sins of the Princeton players. The Princeton students had the opposite inclination. They concluded that, despite being shown the same footage, the Dartmouth and Princeton students didn’t really see the same events. Each student had his own perception, closely shaped by his tribal loyalties. The title of the research paper was “They Saw a Game”.
A more recent study revisited the same idea in the context of political tribes. The researchers showed students footage of a demonstration and spun a yarn about what it was about. Some students were told it was a protest by gay-rights protesters outside an army recruitment office against the military’s (then) policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. Others were told that it was an anti-abortion protest in front of an abortion clinic.
Despite looking at exactly the same footage, the experimental subjects had sharply different views of what was happening – views that were shaped by their political loyalties. Liberal students were relaxed about the behaviour of people they thought were gay-rights protesters but worried about what the pro-life protesters were doing; conservative students took the opposite view. As with “They Saw a Game”, this disagreement was not about the general principles but about specifics: did the protesters scream at bystanders? Did they block access to the building? We see what we want to see – and we reject the facts that threaten our sense of who we are.”
I was going to give a couple of current-day examples of this phenomenon, but I realized the examples I gave would probably by affected by my tribe. So I will just urge you to read the quote again – and think about it. And then try, when you are identifying “facts,” to keep it in mind. It won’t solve the problem, but it might help a little.