Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

Can Facts Change Minds?


John Maynard Keynes (1st Lord Keynes, 1883-1946) was far, far more than a brilliant macro economist for whom an entire academic theory was named; he was also a giant among intellectuals. Once, when asked how he dealt with radical changes in economic theory, he responded somewhat archly, “When facts change, I change my mind - what do you do sir?” Lord Keynes’s response - although perfectly understandable in its time and place - would be all but incomprehensible in the age of Trump. For today, the presentation of facts is terribly skewed; for many, that which they believe to be true is a fact, while that which they disagree with is a malevolent lie - or, in contemporary parlance, “fake news.”

“Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth” is the first law of propaganda and perverse, take-no-prisoners politics. The quote, often attributed to Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels (when in fact it may well have been first said by Lenin) has long undergirded that which is worst in political strategy. As far back as the 1840’s an entire political party - the so-called “Know Nothings” - was birthed on the false conspiratorial fear that Irish Catholics were streaming across (and for some, under) the Atlantic in order to take over the United States. The liar-in-chief behind this xenophobic, nativist canard was one Lewis Charles Levin, a 3-term member of Congress from Pennsylvania’s First District. He would eventually be voted out of office, suffered a total mental collapse, and spent his last months as a resident of the Philadelphia Hospital for the Insane. From all indications, Levin never really believed his lies; nonetheless he continued telling them to his gullible, fearful constituents. No amount of facts could change the minds of his fellow “Know Nothings.”

So too, no amount of facts could dissuade the followers of Senator Joseph McCarthy from firmly believing that there were Communists controlling the State Department, as well as writing, directing and starring in Hollywood movies. In those days, McCarthy and his young assistant, Roy Cohn, seemed to be everywhere repeating again and again the scurrilous charge that America was under attack from within.  A lie told often enough becomes the truth . . .

Then again, no amount of facts could dissuade “true believers” that the U.S. Destroyer Turner Joy had been attacked by the North Vietnamese, thus necessitating passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and a prolonged, deadly war in Southeast Asia. Today, there are still many, many people who know for a fact that Barack Obama was:

  • Born in Kenya;

  • Is a practicing Muslim, and

  • Was brought to Hawaii as an infant in order to one day make him POTUS, thus bringing Sharia law to America.

And although he has (kinda, sorta) disavowed these asinine lies, ‘45, the “birther-in-chief,” is still looked upon by many of his acolytes as the keeper of absolute truth. Here too, as with the “Know-Nothing” conspiracy, McCarthyism, and the Gulf of Tonkin - to name but 3 - no amount of fact gathering can change the minds of true believers. The more lies, the more truth; the more objective facts disproving ‘the truth,” the stronger, more obdurate the “true believers” become. Were the Trumpeteers to be presented with Lord Keynes’ question about what they would do when facts change, they would likely respond “Nothing! We would know that these new ‘facts’ were nothing more than FAKE NEWS!”

Mind you, I’m not making this up out of thin air. As a blogger with a fairly obvious political bias - and an addiction to facts - I am frequently the recipient of comments from the other side of the aisle. Many of these Tweets inform me just how very little I know about politics, history, economics or a dozen-and-one other areas of knowledge. I have learned over the years not to respond with facts . . . no matter how reputable or solidly researched they may be. I simply do not have the time or the stomach to get into cyber shouting matches . . . nor do I have a particular love of banging my head against a wall. An awful lot of these communiqués repeat - and almost verbatim - the same words, arguments and attacks; as if they had all garnered “knowledge” from the same source. As but one example: should I happen to mention the number of provable untruths and outright lies the POTUS tells or tweets per day, I will be reminded that President Obama (frequently called “Obummer” by these folks) frequently proclaimed that “Under Obamacare, those who are happy with their healthcare plan can keep it.” Truth to tell, this was not Obama’s finest moment; it was as much a political ploy as an untruth. But to keep bringing it up again and again, means not only that Obama spoke an untruth, but that his enemies cannot come up with any other lies with which to tarnish him.

Occasionally, I will receive mentions of Solyndra, Loretta Lynch (which actually goes back to Bill Clinton), Benghazi and “Pizzagate” (both of which involved accusations against Hillary Clinton). All of these have been debunked by responsible fact checkers (known to conservatives as members of the “Fake News” world). And yet, if one responds with an up-to-date list of ‘45’s lies and misstatements (which as of the end of April; 2019 numbered 10,111) his core base will merely shake their heads and proclaim that the numbers research was underwritten by none other than George Soros . . . case closed.

Without getting into the myriad psychological reasons why facts generally do not change minds, let us instead ask: how in the world can or should one talk or reason with that friend, coworker or family member who is a staunch ‘45 supporter? Or someone who does not believe that there is such a thing as climate change . . . or utterly dismisses Darwin? If facts aren’t going to change their minds, how does one proceed? And more importantly, what do candidates running for POTUS say (or not say) out on the campaign trail in their quest of getting voters to change their minds?

The publication of the Mueller Report is a perfect example of how facts can fall by the wayside and fail to change minds. (It should be noted that one hell of a lot of people who have denied or derided the report’s findings have not even read it; they rely on A.G. Barr’s - and the president’s - conclusion that “there was no collusion, no obstruction of justice . . . the POTUS has been exonerated.” I am currently knee deep in the report’s second volume and can tell you that there is plenty of guilt etched on its pages. But those who firmly believed that the POTUS and his administration were/are as pure as the driven snow before the report’s publication, still hold fast to their beliefs. Likewise, those who firmly believed that the POTUS and his administration are/were as guilty of sin before the report’s publication, still hold fast to their beliefs.

Partisan politics contain a large measure of tribalism - of self-identification. It’s sort of like glorying in your love and support of the Dodgers while reviling anything having to do with the Giants or Yankees. In politics, sharing fake news stories on social media that denigrate the candidate you oppose is a way to show public support for one’s partisan team—roughly the equivalent of painting your face with team colors on game day. To a great extent, even facts or information can have a tribalistic component. In many cases, intelligence, education and literacy have little to do with beliefs; identifying as a Christian or Jew; a conservative or progressive; a Democrat or Republican has a far greater allure. Facts which go counter to one’s tribal identity are, therefore, most frequently rejected.

The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy once boldly stated “The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.” In our current social, cultural and especially political climate (which by no means began with ‘45) Tolstoy’s insight is a particularly bitter pill to swallow.

If facts cannot change political thoughts or alliances, then what are all those Democrats and one, perhaps two Republicans seeking the presidency to do? How are they to proceed? How are they to convince people that there are many bad ideas (backed by lies) out there that aren’t helping our economy, our future and our standing in the world? Not by attacking all those ideas all the time. Attacking things like The Wall, tariffs, huge tax cuts for the wealthy, immigration, guns, abortions etc., means continuing to speak about them. Each time a politician attacks a bad idea, he/she winds up feeding the very monster they are trying to destroy.  Their campaign time is better spent championing good ideas than tearing down bad ones. From where I sit, they shouldn’t be wasting time explaining why bad ideas are bad. To do so is simply fanning the flame of ignorance and stupidity.

The best thing that can happen to a bad idea is to let it fall by the wayside. The best thing that can happen to a good idea is that it is shared and discussed. A suggestion to all those seeking the position of president: Feed the good ideas and let bad ideas die of starvation.

In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary chose “post-truth” as its word of the year, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” And while it’s a far cry from Lord Keynes’ wisdom quoted at the beginning of this post, it says a great deal about the obstacles we face going in to 2020. And so, we return to Keynes for a closing thought:

“It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong."

523 days until the next election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone