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How Facts Backfire

- July 11, 2010

That’s the title of a very nice article by Joe Keohane in the Boston Globe. The subject is political misinformation and the stubborn persistence of political beliefs in the face of correct information. Keohane focuses on the work of Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler (see here or here for our links to this work). The piece also mentions the work of Larry Bartels, Jim Kuklinski, Milton Lodge, and Charles Taber — as well as a working paper (pdf) by Jack Citrin and me on the (null) effects of certain information about immigrants.

Of course, the picture isn’t always that grim. In another paper (pdf), I find that correct information about who pays the estate tax — namely, a small fraction of people, all of whom are pretty rich — increases support for the tax and it does so among primarily among people whom you might think would resist this information: conservatives and Republicans.

But, as Brendan correctly notes, the study of information and misinformation is “very much up in the air.” Political scientists simply don’t have a very thorough account of why factual information corrects misperceptions and changes attitudes in some contexts but backfires in others.