Bill Moyers: "Facts Still Matter"

By Chris Mooney | February 15, 2011 2:58 pm

We should all read his latest speech–about the denial of reality in America, and how to counter it. He touches, albeit briefly, on the same research that I’ve been covering on Point of Inquiry, and especially in two shows with Brendan Nyhan and Dan Kahan:

Perhaps, we were naïve, but in those days many of us still assumed that an informed public is preferable to an uninformed one. Hadn’t Thomas Jefferson proclaimed that, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government”? And wasn’t a free press essential to that end?

Maybe not. As Joe Keohane reported last year in The Boston Globe, political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency “deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information.” He was reporting on research at the University of Michigan, which found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in new stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts were not curing misinformation. “Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.”….

…These studies help to explain why America seems more and more unable to deal with reality. So many people inhabit a closed belief system on whose door they have hung the “Do Not Disturb” sign, that they pick and choose only those facts that will serve as building blocks for walling them off from uncomfortable truths. Any journalist whose reporting threatens that belief system gets sliced and diced by its apologists and polemicists (say, the fabulists at Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the yahoos of talk radio.) …

No wonder many people still believe Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, as his birth certificate shows; or that he is a Muslim, when in fact he is a Christian; or that he is a socialist when day by day he shows an eager solicitude for corporate capitalism. Partisans in particular – and the audiences for Murdoch’s Fox News and talk radio – are particularly susceptible to such scurrilous disinformation. In a Harris survey last spring, 67 percent of Republicans said Obama is a socialist; 57 percent believed him to be a Muslim; 45 percent refused to believe he was born in America; and 24 percent said he “may be the antichrist.”

Updating those figures: A recent poll finds that birthers are now more than half of GOP likely primary voters.

Later, Moyers also takes on 9-11 Truthers. And he somehow ends up reasonably optimistic about the importance of journalism, though I don’t quite see how it follows from what he just said. I am not sure he is really grasping the full implications of what’s happening to “truth” in our discourse right now if he can say this:

That’s what keeps us going, isn’t it? The knowledge that all the bias and ignorance notwithstanding, facts still matter to critical thinking, that if we respect and honor, even revere them, they just might help us right the ship of state before it rams the iceberg.

It’s the “to critical thinking” part that’s crucial. Supposing you are actually engaging in critical thinking, I agree that facts still matter.

But that’s kind of a big supposition these days.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Political Misinformation

Comments (7)

  1. -birthers are now more than half of GOP likely primary voters.

    And of course, we all know how strongly John Boehner objects to their lunacy

  2. Mike H

    Bill Moyers on “facts mattering” :

    Amid “bits of dirt on figures such as Martin Luther King,” Judge Silberman found a 1964 memo from Mr. Moyers directing Hoover’s agents to investigate Barry Goldwater’s campaign staff for evidence of homosexual activity. A few weeks before, an LBJ aide named Walter Jenkins had been arrested in a men’s bathroom, and Mr. Silberman wrote that Mr. Moyers and his boss evidently wanted leverage in the event Goldwater tried to use the liaison against them. (He didn’t, as it happened.)

    When that episode became public after Mr. Silberman testified, an irate Mr. Moyers called him and, with typical delicacy, accused him of falling for forged CIA memos. Mr. Silberman offered to study the matter and, should Mr. Moyers’s allegations pan out, he would publicly exonerate him. “There was a pause on the line and then he said, ‘I was very young. How will I explain this to my children?’ And then he rang off.”

    Facts matter indeed, especially when recollecting tales of gay witch hunts and political dirty tricks campaigns. But Moyers is a good liberal, and after all being a good liberal means never having to say you are sorry.

  3. Chris

    How many out there think Obama is a reptilian shape shifter?

  4. and after all being a good liberal means never having to say you are sorry.

    I thought the conservative line was that being a good liberal means always having to say you are sorry.

  5. Joe

    And what about denying the FACT that mounting, record-setting deficits will bankrupt the country and unjustly place a tremendous burden to future generations? Or the FACT that rather than a religion of peace, a core tenet of Islam is to wage war on and subjugate non-believers? Islamic terrorists pose a as likely and severe ( if not more) threat to the world as global warming. And causal evidence is even more verifiable as it appears throughout the Qu’ran and cheerfully expressed by it’s leaders. Yet, other forces (political correctness? Fossil fuel dependence?) cause many to deny evidence and dig in their heals.

    Yes there is a lot of delusion going around on both sides of the aisle. I wish this publication wasn’t only fixated on one while serving as an apologist for the other.

  6. Brian Too

    @2. Mike H,

    You’ve gone nearly a half-century into the past to dig up some dirt. Congratulations, hope none got on you!

    Also, didn’t Hoover have files on everyone? Regardless of whether he was ‘directed’ to do so or not?

  7. Ted Lind

    I just can’t imagine how about 20% of the populace believe President Obama is not a citizen. I guess they think that somehow slipped by the Republicans, Democrats and all the lawyers who vet future presidents. One would have to be convinced there was a conspiracy of thousands of politicians and government officials. Apparently critical thinking is dead among a fair percentage of our population.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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