October 06, 2008

Why education is difficult

A series of psychological experiments has troubling implications for those of us trying to educate people about Native stereotypes. People tend to believe false information even when you retract or refute it.

The Power of Political MisinformationBullock found a similar effect when it came to misinformation about abuses at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Volunteers were shown a Newsweek report that suggested a Koran had been flushed down a toilet, followed by a retraction by the magazine. Where 56 percent of Democrats had disapproved of detainee treatment before they were misinformed about the Koran incident, 78 percent disapproved afterward. Upon hearing the refutation, Democratic disapproval dropped back only to 68 percent--showing that misinformation continued to affect the attitudes of Democrats even after they knew the information was false.

Bullock and others have also shown that some refutations can strengthen misinformation, especially among conservatives.

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.
Comment:  Alas, there's a huge overlap between conservatives who refuse to think and people who believe stereotypes about minorities.

Aversive racism is also a factor here. If people aren't unconsciously bolstering their racist beliefs, they're unconsciously racist, period. Either way there's a huge obstacle of ignorance to overcome.

These postings confirm my impression that it's difficult to educate adults in general and almost impossible to change an individual's mind. That's one reason I don't bother trying to contact people and inform them of their mistakes. They'll just respond defensively because they're unwilling or unable to process new information.

That's also why I'm an advocate for the Native arts, especially movies, TV shows, books, and comic books. These works exemplify the slogan "Show, don't tell." If you show people that Indians aren't primitive savages in "leathers and feathers," they may get the message by osmosis. If they think you're entertaining them rather than educating them, they may listen and learn.

For more on the subject, see the Stereotype of the Month Contest.

Below:  A stereotypical Indian chief.

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