“Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free”
– John 8:32
Or maybe not.
Far be it from me to correct Jesus, but to survey the modern political landscape is to see precious little evidence of the truth setting anyone free. Indeed, it is to become convinced that a great many would not know the truth if it bit them on the nose. They prefer the soft comfort of lies to the hard challenge of facts.
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In that sense, a new poll by the Huffington Post and YouGov only illustrates again something we already know. It says that most Americans — 61 percent — believe crime is on the rise over the last decade. Which is just not true. The violent crime rate for 2014, the last year for which full statistics are available, was 365.5 per 100,000 people. To find a time when crime was lower, you’d have to go back to when Richard Nixon was in the White House, “Room 222” was on television, “One Less Bell to Answer” by the 5th Dimension was on the turntable — and everyone still had turntables. In other words: 1970.
So this thing most of us believe to be true is empirically and demonstrably false. Check it for yourself by perusing the Uniform Crime Reports at FBI.gov. Not that I think that will change many minds. Those who are ideologically invested in the notion of a nation where crime is spiraling out of control will likely round file those statistics in the same mental receptacle where they and others store President Obama’s citizenship, global warming and the fact that vaccines do not cause autism.
This happens often enough that there’s a name for it: confirmation bias. It was quantified in a 1979 Stanford University study which found that confronting people with facts proving a belief wrong does not change their minds. Rather, people tend to disregard the proof and harden the false belief.
Later research has found similar results. In 2004, Drew Westen, a psychology professor at Emory University, ran a study which showed that, given weak evidence confirming their view or strong evidence refuting it, most people will give greater weight to the former.
I’m as guilty as anyone. As someone who considers the Indian-themed name of Washington’s professional football team to be offensive, I was vexed a few months ago when a Washington Post poll found that the vast majority of American Indians are not insulted by it. My instinct was to discount the poll and question its methodology.
And yes, maybe the methodology was, indeed, flawed. Or maybe that was just how I defended myself from an unwelcome truth.
This question of how and why we believe as we do is not abstract. As Westen told me in 2004, “The scary thing is the extent to which you can imagine this influencing jury decisions, boardroom decisions, political decisions.”
It gets scarier when you factor in the cynical manipulations of demagogic politicians, Internet hoaxers and putative news organizations that use our confirmation biases to steer our opinions — and our fears. It becomes easier to understand why America now feels like one nation cleaved in two, a people living in alternate realities governed by separate and unequal “truths.” And it brings to mind what Lincoln — quoting Jesus — said about a house divided.
The divisions of this house argue for a renewed scholastic emphasis on critical thinking, for a principled tearing down of ideological silos and, maybe, for a little self-reflection. They also suggest that maybe John 8:32 isn’t so far off the mark. After all, it says that before the truth can set you free, you must first know it.
Apparently, that part is easier said than done.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.