Is the human brain ill-suited for democracy?
Facts are supposed to help us make informed decisions and be better citizens, says Joe Keohane in The Boston Globe. But, as brain science shows us, that's not the reality
"It's one of the great assumptions underlying modern democracy that an informed citizenry is preferable to an uninformed one," says Joe Keohane in The Boston Globe. "'Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,' Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1789." The firm American belief in this notion is at the heart of our democracy. We believe that "knowledge is the best remedy" to "ignorance and misinformation," and that if people have the facts they'll be "clearer thinkers and better citizens." Unfortunately, we may have been wrong all along. Here, an excerpt:
"Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. 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 bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper."