There's No Arguing With Conservatives ... No, Seriously, Scientific Studies Prove It

If the other side is utterly immune to the truth -- and it only makes them dig deeper into their fantasy world -- what's a leftie to do?
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A new study out of Yale University confirms what argumentative liberals have long-known: Offering reality-based rebuttals to conservative lies only makes conservatives cling to those lies even harder. In essence, schooling conservatives makes them more stupid. From the Washington Post article on the study, which came out yesterday:

Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler provided two groups of volunteers with the Bush administration's prewar claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. One group was given a refutation -- the comprehensive 2004 Duelfer report that concluded that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded in 2003. Thirty-four percent of conservatives told only about the Bush administration's claims thought Iraq had hidden or destroyed its weapons before the U.S. invasion, but 64 percent of conservatives who heard both claim and refutation thought that Iraq really did have the weapons. The refutation, in other words, made the misinformation worse.

A similar "backfire effect" also influenced conservatives told about Bush administration assertions that tax cuts increase federal revenue. One group was offered a refutation by prominent economists that included current and former Bush administration officials. About 35 percent of conservatives told about the Bush claim believed it; 67 percent of those provided with both assertion and refutation believed that tax cuts increase revenue.

In a paper approaching publication, Nyhan, a PhD student at Duke University, and Reifler, at Georgia State University, suggest that Republicans might be especially prone to the backfire effect because conservatives may have more rigid views than liberals: Upon hearing a refutation, conservatives might "argue back" against the refutation in their minds, thereby strengthening their belief in the misinformation. Nyhan and Reifler did not see the same "backfire effect" when liberals were given misinformation and a refutation about the Bush administration's stance on stem cell research.

If you've ever gotten in an argument with your conservative friends (assuming you haven't offered each other a mutual Carville-Matalin-style political ceasefire to preserve the friendship), you've probably seen this "backfire effect" in action. The more you try to tell people that Sarah Palin is lying when she says she was against the Bridge to Nowhere, the more they believe she was telling the truth. The more you try to explain how similar McCain's policies are to Bush's, the more they maintain he's "the original maverick."

The typical mantra of the left is that we don't need to sink to the Republicans' level because we have the truth on our side. But if the other side is utterly immune to the truth -- and indeed, the truth only makes them dig deeper into their fantasy world in which the economy is fundamentally strong and the War in Iraq is a staggering success -- what's a leftie to do?

I ain't got the answers, ace, except to say this: When arguing with conservatives in front of on-the-fence independents, remember that you're not trying to convince the conservative to actually buy into silly notions like facts and reason. You're highlighting the differences between left and right for the outside observer. If the other guy insists on political views that belong only in Disney World's Fantasyland, other folks will realize what's happening.

But if there is no third party, do yourself a favor and save your breath. As the study demonstrates, you're only making matters worse. Consider that aforementioned ceasefire. It is football season, after all. There's plenty of other things to argue about. Go Mizzou!

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