Say the words “gun control” and you’ll get one of two reactions: “It threatens my Second Amendment rights” or “It helps keep guns away from bad guys.”
Never mind that “gun control” is a nebulous phrase with wide-ranging interpretations. The very words simply divide people into two camps where never the twain shall meet.
That’s pretty much the way it is with most things political these days — climate change, health care, terrorism, Donald Trump. The mere mention of these terms splits a crowd in two.
“Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines — and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive — than at any point in the last two decades,” according to a Pew study. “These trends manifest themselves in myriad ways, both in politics and in everyday life. And a  survey of 10,000 adults nationwide finds that these divisions are greatest among those who are the most engaged and active in the political process.”
It’s a world of “ideological silos” where people say that “most of their close friends share their political views. Liberals and conservatives disagree over where they want to live, the kind of people they want to live around, and even whom they would welcome into their families.”
While most people still reside somewhere in the political middle, according to Pew, such people still “remain on the edges of the political playing field, relatively distant and disengaged, while the most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous Americans make their voices heard through greater participation in every stage of the political process.”
Furthermore, a consortium of researchers used data from roll-call votes over eight decades and found that “political disagreements in Congress have grown exponentially since the 1950s.”
Politico vividly traced the evolution of Congress from 1949 through 2011 in which Democrats and Republicans began as a one-celled organism that ultimately underwent mitosis.
Certainly the “either/or” logical fallacy comes into play, “whereby the arguer characterizes a complex problem with many possible solutions as having only two possible solutions: one desirable and one not.”
But that only begs the question: Why are people so willing to accept such a black-and-white world view?
Answer: Pre-existing beliefs.
“An array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience has further demonstrated how our pre-existing beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions,” writes author Chris Mooney. “This tendency toward so-called ‘motivated reasoning’ helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal.”
Clearly, confirmation bias is more pervasive than ever.
“A confirmation bias is when a person selectively seeks out information that supports a belief or idea that they already have, thus ‘confirming’ their existing beliefs. However, information that supports the contrary is not taken into consideration, dismissed, or selectively ignored.”
To demonstrate the power of confirmation bias, the New York Times offers a simple test online at j.mp/nyt-prob-solve-test in which you must guess a predetermined rule that governs the following sequence of numbers: 2, 4, 8. Simple, right?
Most people stick to their original theory even if it doesn’t work. “Not only are people more likely to believe information that fits their pre-existing beliefs, but they’re also more likely to go looking for such information.” Very likely, they’ll find it.
Researchers from Italy and the U.S. published a study in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” that described how the Internet — and Facebook, especially — enables people of like minds to create “echo chambers” that attract even more people of like minds.
“Facebook users do indeed tend to engage in creating echo chambers, encasing themselves in environments that mesh with their own personal beliefs while rejecting other viewpoints, thereby reinforcing their own views.”
In an era when limitless information is readily accessed and evaluated, people neither access nor evaluate it, even when it’s done for them by reputable fact-checkers.
For instance, although Politifact awarded Donald Trump its “Lie of the Year Award,” the Washington Post’s Fact Checker gave Trump more “four-Pinocchio scores” than any other candidate, and Factcheck.org dubbed Trump “King of the Whoppers,” his followers remained unfazed.
“What to conclude from this?” asks journalist Jack Shafer. “Perhaps that the fact-checkers don’t know what they’re writing about — which I reject — or that Trump supporters don’t know about the fact-checker’s findings, which seems wildly unlikely given the saturation coverage his lies have enjoyed. My guess is that Trump supporters don’t believe and just don’t care what the fact-checkers say.”
Or, as author Farhad Manjoo puts it, we now live in a “post-fact society.” And that’s a fact.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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