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Study suggests that politics destroys people’s ability to use logic and recognize facts

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Dan Kahan of Yale Law School released a paper three years ago, called “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government,” and his research is reaching new relevancy today as we dive nose-first into the election year. The findings aren’t entirely unsurprising, but they’re sad. We’re taught that good education and a push for public literacy will lead to a more enlightened, logical world, right? That’s how we’re going to solve things like climate change and gun control that depend entirely on the everyday person’s ability to look at facts and figures and reach an ethical conclusion. According to Kahan’s research, however, an individual will dodge mathematical fact in order to hold strong to their belief system.

Marty Kaplan of Alternet and RawStory put it quite simply, “It turns out that in the public realm, a lack of information isn’t the real problem.  The hurdle is how our minds work, no matter how smart we think we are.  We want to believe we’re rational, but reason turns out to be the ex post facto way we rationalize what our emotions already want to believe.” He went on to tie some of Kahan’s findings together beautifully with the work of Dartmouth’s Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government. Kaplan examined some of these findings, and the results are horrifying:

“People who thought WMDs were found in Iraq believed that misinformation even more strongly when they were shown a news story correcting it.

People who thought George W. Bush banned all stem cell research kept thinking he did that even after they were shown an article saying that only some federally funded stem cell work was stopped.

People who said the economy was the most important issue to them, and who disapproved of Obama’s economic record, were shown a graph of nonfarm employment over the prior year – a rising line, adding about a million jobs.  They were asked whether the number of people with jobs had gone up, down or stayed about the same.  Many, looking straight at the graph, said down.”

Kaplan calls it the “most depressing study ever”, and I can’t help but feel his dismay. The brains of those who want to deny fact after fact will continue doing just that- it’s the way the brain has been wired from the start.

So, where do organizers go from there? The study tells us that people respond better to emotion over reason. It places us in a position where data must go hand in hand with an approach that applies to people’s feelings, something I think the vegan movement in particular is already doing a half-decent job at. Our approach must be flexible and come from all angles. In a perfect word, the facts would be enough, but when the human brain is apparently incapable of using logic alone, perhaps we must dig a little deeper.

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