Global warming is a hoax! Climate change, like autism, is actually caused by vaccines, typically administered by Apollo astronauts who didn’t really land on the moon. Oh, and President Obama was born in Kenya. These, at least, are some of the core beliefs in aluminum foil hat land — the place black helicopters are always approaching to impose one-world government, and death panels are always forming to shut off grandma’s oxygen.
Nuttiness, of course, knows no party, and while a lot of the currently popular rubbish comes from the right, the left is hardly without its caseload of kooks. Does anyone really think HIV was cooked up in a government lab to wipe out undesirable minority groups? Do all of the people at groups like PETA and Earth First truly have their complete complement of marbles? (More on Time.com: The Authentic Self: How Do You Know If You’re ‘Really’ Racist or Sexist?)
It’s not mere extremism that makes folks at the fringes so troubling; it’s extremism wedded to false beliefs. Humans have long been dupes, easily gulled by rumors and flat-out lies. This weakness has been on full display recently in the ongoing shoutfest over the planned mosque (which isn’t really a mosque) at Ground Zero (which isn’t really Ground Zero) in downtown Manhattan. Recently, researchers at Ohio State University conducted a study to determine how sticky such false beliefs are and what it takes to disabuse people of them.
For all the shrillness that’s defined the debate over the 13-story Islamic Cultural Center planned for Park Place in lower Manhattan, reasonable minds can have reasonable disagreements over it. The tension between the first amendment and the sensitivities of the locals does deserve an honest airing. But that’s been made harder by some key bits of misinformation.
The cultural center will not be built on the site of the World Trade towers destroyed on September 11, but about a tenth of a mile away, on the site of what is now a coat factory. In crowded Manhattan, a tenth of a mile is a good two blocks. The center will contain a mosque, but it will feature a lot of other facilities as well, including a culinary school, an auditorium, a restaurant, a library, a fitness center and a 9/11 memorial. It will not open on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 as blogs and e-mails have claimed — and with that date just 10 months away, such a thing wouldn’t even be possible. (More on Time.com: What Goes on Inside the Brain of a Misbehaving Boy?)
Most important, the imam who is leading the effort to get the center built, Feisal Abdul Rauf, is not a terrorist sympathizer, and in fact worked with the U.S. State Department during the last Bush administration to foster tolerance between the east and west. In the wake of 9/11 he did say American involvement in wars in the Arab world made the U.S. an “accessory” to the terrorist attacks. Even Rauf’s friends don’t pretend that that won him any friends — though a lot of people said a lot of dumb things post-9/11.
In the new study, R. Kelly Garrett and Erik Nisbet, assistant professors of communication at Ohio State University, recruited 750 people who reported being familiar with — and believing — at least one of the rumors about the proposed center. They then set about to determine whether exposure to the more nuanced facts of the case would change their opinions and, if so, how best those facts should be presented.
All of the subjects were given full, written rebuttals of the rumors, as provided by the Annenberg Public Policy Center‘s FactCheck.org, as well as by the St. Petersburg Times‘s Politifact, which has won a Pulitzer Prize for its accuracy as a fact-checking source. After reading the material, however, only 28% of the subjects rejected the rumors, while another 35% at least acknowledged that there was some merit to the new information. (More on Time.com: Photos: The Health-Care Debate Turns Angry)
How the subjects received the information, however, made a big difference. Volunteers who were also shown a picture of Rauf in the company of people in Western style clothing were likelier to reject the rumors than people who merely read the rebuttals. The picture, Garrett said, provided visual corroboration for idea that Rauf “is an American, just like the rest of us.”
Subjects who read the rebuttals and were shown a picture of Rauf in the company of people in Arab-style dress, by contrast, were less likely to reject the rumors — even though they already surely knew that such traditionally garbed people would heavily populate Rauf’s world. Rejection of the rumors also plummeted among subjects who read the rebuttals along with Rauf’s words about America’s shared responsibility for 9/11.
What was most disturbing to the researchers was not just how easy it is to manipulate people’s belief systems with insinuating pictures or inflammatory quotes — if it weren’t easy, negative political ads wouldn’t work. More troubling was that, even in the best of circumstances, fewer than a third of people were willing to reverse their positions, regardless of the contradictory evidence they were given. Part of this was almost certainly due to the limitations of the study itself. (More on Time.com: Never Mind the Tea Party. Can a ‘Liberal Gene’ Make You a Party Animal?).
“This was a single, brief exposure in an experimental context,” Nisbet said. “Repeated exposure to rebuttals from a variety of sources, if presented in an effective manner, may further increase the accuracy of beliefs over time.”
Even when people do take time to learn the facts, however, the effort often does no good. Garrett cites a body of studies showing that when subjects are presented with data that contradicts their beliefs, they often — paradoxically — respond by cleaving to their biases even more tightly. Some of that may be simple ego — none of us like being told we’re wrong. But some investigators are looking deeper, conducting studies of the brain to see how the prefrontal cortex, the seat of reason, and the amygdala, the seat of fear and other primal emotions, light up or power down in such situations.
No matter what the scans and other studies reveal, of course, it’s up to us to find a place in a world of facts and make our decisions based on that information — at least if we hope to get anything accomplished. We may not always agree on what those facts mean, but at a minimum we need to agree that they mean more than fantasy.