Facts Backfire

“In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information.”

— Joe Keohane in How facts backfire. Hat tip: Ramit Sethi’s psychology bookmarks.

20 thoughts on “Facts Backfire

    1. You should always watch for yourself what you perceive in others. With regards to the GPL, however, my mind hasn’t been changed.

      1. Okay. Whew. I was starting to get worried.

        After researching the issue, I support you guys completely simply due to Game Theory.

        Basically, for the GPL to work as intended, it has to be followed by EVERYONE. Once one Pearson/company gets away with it, it then opens up the door for others to go against it as well, thus causing harm to the community.

        Based on Game Theory, the desired outcome is mutual cooperation by everyone. Once you have a defector, then your only conceivable action is a lawsuit to bring the dilemma back to the most beneficial situation for the community.

        For the defector, it could be a gain or a loss depending on your decision. It becomes a gain if you do not react (as they are the sole defector), but if you react with successful legal action, it becomes a loss.

        In this situation, the WORST thing that could happen is a legal action that loses, thus interprets the GPL in a way that harms the community.

        With that, all I can say is good luck!

      2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc

        My wife just said to me last night on a long walk, “If I judge others it’s because I see something in them that I want to correct in me.”

        I guess we’re all on the same path to better ourselves and in hopes, the world.

        We ended the walk with her beautifully simple answer, “If I’m not feeling positive or good I’m not helping others. Negative energy is just bad and better to keep it away unless you have enough positive energy to change it.”

        Lastly, I enjoyed a movie called “Happy Accidents” where if you change how you perceive in a positive light, you can change the world. Then of course Inception happens…

        I should do I cartoon about GPL one day.


      3. And you shouldn’t change your mind actually. Your opinion about GPL is absolutely correct.

        Keep it up, Matt!

      4. It suggests an interesting question, though: since the GPL is a legal document, which “facts” should be determinative in our interpretation of it?

        It seems like the GPL suggests that a typical WordPress theme like Thesis is a derivative work, and you’ve gotten a lawyer’s opinion to that effect (and just to be clear, I agree, non-lawyer that I am).

        But the ultimate test of a law in the U.S. is how it holds up in court. So if WordPress sues Pearson for violating the GPL, and the court determines that Pearson’s theme is not a derivative work, would that change your mind?

  1. Indeed. There’s an old Voltaire quote about this psychological phenomenon that has stuck with me. Something like: “Doubt is uncomfortable. Certainty is ridiculous.”

  2. Very interesting. My understanding is, fact in itself is a believe. For example, if I’m saying that Microsoft is a company, that is a fact. But that fact is simply another way to say that everyone believe Microsoft is a company.

    1. Not quite.

      Fact is something that can be demonstrably proven, and is outside of a subjective observer.

      For example, there is indeed a quantity called Pi, and we can define what that is. Everyone agreeing to the same falsehood (like Pi = 3) does not make it a truth.

      It may be perceived as “fact,” but those with questionable facts end up with circular reasoning, that in this case can’t even draw a circle.

  3. Ironically there is a similar problem with facts shaping beliefs:

    Early zoologists classified as mammals those that suckle their young and as reptiles those that lay eggs … then a duck-billed platypus was discovered in Australia laying eggs like a perfect reptile and then, when they hatched, suckling the infant … The discovery created quite a sensation. What a mystery! What a marvel of nature! … Even today you still see occasional articles in nature magazines asking ‘Why does this paradox of nature exist?’.

    The answer is: it doesn’t. Platypi have been laying eggs and suckling their young for millions of years before zoologists declared it illegal. The real mystery is how mature, objective, trained scientific observers can blame their own goof on a poor innocent platypus.

    More here: http://www.iamronen.com/2010/05/reading-lila-platypus/

    I believe(!) that beliefs pave the way to new facts. For example – creativity can lead into unknowns, where there are no “known facts” to guide you.

    There is room for both fact & belief and both can be used or abused – depending on how you use them.

    1. Regarding the platypus. It doesn’t have a bill like a duck. Unlike a duck’s beak (in which the upper and lower parts separate to reveal the mouth), the snout of the Platypus is a sensory organ with the mouth on the underside.
      Also, Platypi is not the plural.
      Scientists generally use “platypuses” or simply “platypus”. Colloquially the term “platypi” is used for the plural, but this is technically incorrect and a form of pseudo-Latin; the correct Greek plural would be “platypodes”.
      I like to use playpus as the plural (I do the same with koala)

  4. Nassim Taleb in the Black Swan hits the nail on the head

    “we are explanation-seeking animals who tend to think that everything has an identifiable cause and grab the most apparent as THE explanation.”

  5. This quote is perfect also for those who attack smartphone users or companies who make smartphones because for some reason they personally don’t prefer the phone or brand.

    I find that many people “accept bad information just because it reinforces” their beliefs versus actually trying the product or service personally first.