Facts are chaff and fact checking is useless

0Shares

In these times of mass misinformation there is a new band of heroes on the horizon. A wave of hoax-slayers and fact-checkers has emerged to fight the contagion, set the record right.

But sadly, they don’t change much. They only rally the already-convinced. In a polarised environment, facts alone do little to persuade anyone. The sides are already taken. If people are swayed by phony videos of cows or soldiers, photos or fudged data about development, they are already leaning that way.

No rumour is going to stick unless it confirms something in one’s experience or existing bias, as social psychologists keep pointing out. Exposing logical errors or fibs doesn’t change that deeper consensus.

We see facts through our tinted lenses, our social scripts and personal history. So merely busting a rumour does nothing to uproot the tangle of presuppositions that made us receptive to that rumour.

Most of us already know this, after the first couple of times we scotch a false story on a WhatsApp group, only to get displeased silence or a tight “forwarded as received”. Then those likeminded people go back to circulating the same kind of information.

Our core beliefs are not open to rational revision. We work with intuitions and mental shortcuts, shaped by our upbringing and experience. For instance, a plantation family in the American south was unlikely to see slavery as unjust. They had to legitimate their own behaviour, and the lifestyle that slavery made possible, by holding tight to the belief that black people were lazy or simmering with violence.

Our core beliefs are not open to rational revision. We work with intuitions and mental shortcuts, shaped by our upbringing and experience. For instance, a plantation family in the American south was unlikely to see slavery as unjust. They had to legitimate their own behaviour, and the lifestyle that slavery made possible, by holding tight to the belief that black people were lazy or simmering with violence. It’s the same in India or anywhere else – it is difficult to see your parents as unjust or to face your economic anxieties, so you need some rationalisation.

Our instincts are remarkably stubborn, in the face of contradicting evidence. The philosopher Tamar Gendler suggests a category called “alief ”, as opposed to belief – it’s what makes you shrink from a glass walkway over a canyon even if you “know” it’s perfectly safe. It’s the same with political judgments; knowing is besides the point. It is not just our cognitive bugs that trap us in a flawed or partial view. An ideological belief involves your social identity – your feelings flow with your group’s feelings. If your father is in the security forces, and you’ve felt anxious for him, it may be hard for you to see as the stone pelters do; and vice versa. Cow zealots are not going to be persuaded by the humanity of the Muslim men, they simply don’t weigh lives in the same way you do. There are barriers to accessing any other way of feeling.

Right now, there is a war for the relatively-open minds, and there is a deluge of propaganda at work. WhatsApp messages are reinforced by news television, where anchors act like conductors of mass emotion. It is classic priming, where each word has a cluster of hidden associations. Words like Naxal or liberal or jihadi or martyr are repeated incessantly to create a social meaning, so that the bias doesn’t even have to be stated.

Of course we shouldn’t just submit to these terms. But it isn’t helpful to just see their audiences as dupes or bigots either. The only way to proceed is by addressing the hurts or humiliations behind the hard stances, even if you believe those feelings are unwarranted. If you seek to persuade anyone, you need to recognise that it takes huge effort for anyone to walk out of the mental structures they were born and raised in, where they find community. We all protect our identities; to detach a belief from a person, one needs to sever the link between the attitude and the holder’s self-image. We need to tell the story differently. Point-scoring does the opposite, it makes people descend further into their trenches.

Of course, opinions do change. Maybe art or books or movies can sneakily move you, maybe loving an unlikely person can crack your fortifications. Social groups do sniff something in the air and change direction. Obviously, material reality causes political plates to shift – after a period of bloodletting, people do value mutual tolerance. But in the meanwhile, fervent arguments and facts are a waste of breath.

These lines by Kashmiri poet Ghulam Hassan ‘Ghamgeen’ capture the muddle: “Easy to put a shoulder to a hill and shift its location/ But very difficult to change a mind, not even one.”

The Article First Appeared In TOI

 

 

 

 

Be Part of Quality Journalism

Quality journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce and despite all the hardships we still do it. Our reporters and editors are working overtime in Kashmir and beyond to cover what you care about, break big stories, and expose injustices that can change lives. Today more people are reading Kashmir Observer than ever, but only a handful are paying while advertising revenues are falling fast.

ACT NOW
MONTHLYRs 100
YEARLYRs 1000
LIFETIMERs 10000

CLICK FOR DETAILS


Observer News Service

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

KO SUPPLEMENTS