Just a few favourite excerpts.
Facts are important, but facts are not enough to win an argument. The focus on facts doesn’t necessarily lead to a more informed electorate and better decisions.
Doubt is easy to produce, and facts alone aren’t enough to dispel it. A simple untruth can beat off a complicated set of facts simply by being easier to understand and remember. When doubt prevails, people will often end up believing whatever sticks in the mind.
A false claim was vastly more powerful because everybody kept talking about it.
Facts can be boring.
A 2016 study of how people read news online began with data from 1.2m internet users, ended up with 50,000. Only 4 per cent read enough serious news to be worth including in such a study. Worries about segregating oneself in an ideological bubble? For 96 per cent the bubble isn’t liberal or conservative, it was: “Don’t bother with the news.”
In the war of ideas, boredom and distraction are powerful weapons.
Smoking-related diseases aren’t news. Hence, the tobacco industry financed research in rare and unrelated diseases. “The opposite of terrorism: trivialism” (Proctor). Terrorism provokes a huge media reaction; smoking does not. Yet, according to the US Centers for Disease Control, smoking kills 480,000 Americans a year. This is more than 50 deaths an hour.
We see what we want to see — and we reject the facts that threaten our sense of who we are. When we reach the conclusion that we want to reach, we’re engaging in “motivated reasoning”. When people are seeking the truth, facts help. But when people are selectively reasoning about their political identity, the facts can backfire, as those facts provoke a defensive reaction in someone who badly wants to stick to their existing world view.
Scientifically literate people were more likely to be polarised in their answers to politically charged scientific questions. But scientifically curious people were not. Curiosity brought people together in a way that mere facts did not.
Journalists and policy wonks can’t force anyone to pay attention to the facts because they find it boring or confusing. We have to find a way to make people want to seek them out. Curiosity is the seed from which sensible democratic decisions can grow.
The facts need a champion. Somebody who can create a sense of wonder and fascination not just at struggles of life in a tropical rainforest, but at the workings of our own civilisation: health, migration, finance, education and diplomacy.