The Backfire Effect

On 9/11 Truth Awakening I posted a blog about "The Backfire Effect" which I have seen referenced in a few other places.  Here are some excerpts.

There is an interesting article: “The Backfire Effect“, by David McRaney, cross-posted on OpEdNews with the subtitle: Why Showing People the Truth Sometimes Makes Them Believe BS Even More.  This is interesting not just because of the article, but the reaction in comments that follow.

It starts out well enough, citing a recent study previously mentioned in this blog, conveniently summarized:

The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking.

The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.

In 2006, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler at The University of Michigan and Georgia State University created fake newspaper articles about polarizing political issues. The articles were written in a way which would confirm a widespread misconception about certain ideas in American politics. As soon as a person read a fake article, researchers then handed over a true article which corrected the first. For instance, one article suggested the United States found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The next said the U.S. never found them, which was the truth. Those opposed to the war or who had strong liberal leanings tended to disagree with the original article and accept the second. Those who supported the war and leaned more toward the conservative camp tended to agree with the first article and strongly disagree with the second. These reactions shouldn’t surprise you. What should give you pause though is how conservatives felt about the correction. After reading that there were no WMDs, they reported being even more certain than before there actually were WMDs and their original beliefs were correct.

Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do it instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens them instead. Over time, the backfire effect helps make you less skeptical of those things which allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper.

Backfire or Forward Progress?

What this article lacks is any way out of this dilemma.  How are we to decide who is really right?  Not to mention, how do we avoid assuming we are right? It is almost as if the author believes there is no hope.  The title of the associated book, “You Are Not So Smart” and the blog’s tagline: “A Celebration of Self Delusion” says it quite plainly.  The page about the book says “After reading You Are Not So Smart you’ll see your just as deluded as the rest of us, and that’s just fine because it keeps you sane.”  So, we should be happy about this?

But there is another way.  David Chandler, a physics teacher, added one of the best comments on the OpEdNews posting.


The problem with this article is it leaves the problem of determining the truth completely up in the air.  Certain positions are declared, a priori, to be the truth and others error, or misconception, or conspiracy theory.  Not very useful.  This article is essentially self referential because apart from anything substantive, its assertions will tend to bolster the beliefs of readers.

And a very reasonable question by Jonathan Allen:

Backfire Effect versus scientific training

Do we all suffer from the “backfire effect” to the same extent?  Does education make a difference?

More specifically, has anyone determined whether the “backfire effect” is any weaker or stronger among test subjects who are professional scientists or at least have scientific training?  I am wondering whether such training and practice can overcome what the article implies is an innate weakness of the human mind.

which led to my indirect response:

Rational thinking should override beliefs

If anyone can overcome this backfire effect, it would be those educated in rational scientific thinking, where the basis for truth is what we should all agree on, careful measurements and observations of the world, correct use of logic and statistics.

This is not to say that scientists are always right, and they will admit they are not always right.  But to claim that scientific thinking is the wrong way to determine what is true – that cannot be rational.

A few comments gave the contrary view, that science is not the way, and that scientists are chief among the deluded. Dante DeNavarre replied to my comment with:


All the rationality, all the rigor, all the certainty wrought by the scientific method is dependent on repeatable experimental results. Absent repeatabilty, scientists are no more open minded than literal creationists. They should have an advantage due to their knowledge and practice of critical thought, but they become so invested in certainty of the latest truth that they attack new ideas that challenge the edifice they wrote textbooks about. If they don’t, they lose their paycheck.

I take that as a back-handed attack on science, though he is right that scientists can also be invested in what they have come to believe.  What he misses is that while individual scientists, being human, may be flawed, science as a whole moves on and self-corrects, eventually.

9/11 Truth vs Denial vs Pseudo-truths and Other Lies

The first comment by David Watts pushed a lot of the discussion in the direction of taking on the official story about 9/11.  I’ll quote the whole thing because of his very relevant quotes of others:

Perfect example
“The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.”

9/11 is a perfect example.  Despite the mountain of contradictory evidence of the official story, most people’s belief that what they are being told by the authorities and media becomes even stronger.  If people were able to assimilate the contradictory evidence, they would understand that 9/11 was a false flag operation.

“The great masses of the people… will more easily fall victims to a big lie than to a small one.” — Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

“The individual is handicapped by coming face to face with a conspiracy so monstrous he cannot believe it exists.” — J. Edgar Hoover, former FBI director

“Only the small secrets need to be protected. The big ones are kept secret by public incredulity.” — Marshall McLuhan, Canadian educator, philosopher, and scholar–a professor of English literature, a literary critic, a rhetorician, and a communication theorist.

What is interesting about the comments that follow is the disproportionately strong support by about four people for pseudo-science nonsense about vaporized steel and energy pulse weapons, all supporting each other and pretending to be more scientific while being critical of the official story.  All nonsense, I assure you, but not because I am falling back on beliefs.  I have looked into this enough to know that they have no rational basis for their beliefs.  It’s all pretense. And as such, it constitutes a subversive attack on rationality, and on 9/11 truth.  But don’t believe me either – please look into it yourself.