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It's Not About Facts

In the aftermath of the election, with the commentariat scrambling to understand why people voted as they did, I find a piece by Drew Westen that aired yesterday on All Things Considered to be quite fascinating.   Westen is a professor of psychology at Emory, who has been doing  research on how people come to the conclusions they do about political issues, and he has found that facts play a relatively minor role.  He says,

"An experiment completed right before the election shows just how powerful these emotional polls can be. Here's what we told the participants. A soldier at Abu Ghraib prison was charged with torturing prisoners. He wanted the right to subpoena senior administration officials. He claimed he'd been informed the administration had suspended the Geneva Conventions. We gave different people different amounts of evidence supporting his claims. For some, the evidence was minimal; for others, it was overwhelming. In fact, the evidence barely mattered. Eighty-four percent of the time, we could predict whether people believed the evidence was sufficient to subpoena Donald Rumsfeld based on just three things: the extent to which they liked Republicans, the extent to which they liked the US military, and the extent to which they liked human rights groups like Amnesty International. Adding the evidence into the equation allowed us to increase the prediction from 84 percent to 85 percent."

The point of Westen's piece is that TV journalists need to be more careful to "distinguish what's debatable from what's not."  I certainly agree with him, but I doubt that better reporting will make a difference.  The facts about the administration's miserable performance have been available for anyone who was interested in facts.  Most people aren't.


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