Study: Right Twists Facts

Ken AshfordElection 2012, RepublicansLeave a Comment

Even though he backtracked like the Road Runner in reverse, people are still reflecting on the "science" behind Rep. Todd Akin's stunning assertion that women's bodies are able to ward off pregnancy from a rape.  Of course, there is absolutely nothing to support that assertion, but there are segments of the right wing that actually believe it and report it as fact.  It gets repeated often enough, and before you know, it takes on what Stephen Colbert calls, "truthiness".

Does this happen a lot?  Oh, indeed.  And this is the subject of a new scientific study by psychologists Brittany Liu and Peter Ditto of the University of California-Irvine, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The PDF is here, but Chris Mooney summarizes:

In their study, Liu and Ditto asked over 1,500 people about their moral and factual views on four highly divisive political issues. Two of them — the death penalty and the forceful interrogation of terrorists using techniques like waterboarding — are ones where liberals tend to think the act in question is morally unacceptable even if it actually yields benefits (for instance, deterring crime, or providing intelligence that can help prevent further terrorist strikes). The other two — providing information about condoms in the context of sex education, and embryonic stem cell research — are ones where conservatives tend to think the act in question is unacceptable even if it yields benefits (helping to prevent unwanted pregnancies, leading to cures for devastating diseases).

In the experiment, the subjects were first asked about their absolute moral beliefs: For instance, is the death penalty wrong even if it deters others from committing crimes? But they were also asked about various factual aspects of each topic: Does the death penalty deter crime? Do condoms work to prevent pregnancy? Doesembryonic stem cell research hold medical promise? And so on.

If you believe some act is absolutely wrong, period, you shouldn’t actually care about its costs and benefits. Those should be irrelevant to your moral judgment. Yet in analyzing the data, Liu and Ditto found a strong correlation, across all of the issues, between believing something is morally wrong in all case — such as the death penalty — and also believing that it has low benefits (e.g., doesn’t deter crime) or high costs (lots of innocent people getting executed). In other words, liberals and conservatives alike shaded their assessment of the facts so as to align them with their moral convictions — establishing what Liu and Ditto call a “moral coherence” between their ethical and factual views. Neither side was innocent when it came to confusing “is” and “ought” (as moral philosophers might put it).

However, not everyone was equally susceptible to this behavior. Rather, the researchers found three risk factors, so to speak, that seem to worsen the standard human penchant for contorting the facts to one’s moral views. Two of those were pretty unsurprising: Having a strong moral view about a topic makes one’s inclination toward “moral coherence” worse, as does knowing a lot about the subject (across studies, knowledge simply seems to make us better at maintaining and defending what we already believe). But the third risk factor is likely to prove quite controversial: political conservatism.

In the study, Liu and Ditto report, conservatives tilted their views of the facts to favor their moral convictions more than liberals did, on every single issue. And that was true whether it was a topic that liberals oppose (the death penalty) or that conservatives oppose (embryonic stem cell research). “Conservatives are doing this to a larger degree across four different issues,” Liu explained in an interview. “Including two that are leaning to the liberal side, not the conservative side.”

In other words, everybody experience a little discomfort when the facts do not align with their worldview, but conservatives much more so.  And whereas liberals are more inclined to live with this discomfort, conservatives are much more likely to reconcile the conflict by, well, skewing the facts inside their head.

Hence, they leave the reality-based community.

RELATED: Not only that, they just don't give a damn:

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