Why the facts don’t work

From “How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion” by David McRaney

The first lesson of The Dress is that our disagreements begin at the level of perceptual assumptions, because all reality is virtual; but it doesn’t stop at perceptual disagreement. As Pascal said, since the world inside a person’s head is a collection of their experiences in the world so far, a hierarchy of increasingly illusory abstractions we call beliefs, attitudes, and values, “the same principles that govern perception are those that underlie conceptual disagreement.” 

It was here that one of the central mysteries began to seem much less mysterious, why the facts that worked on Charlie Veitch didn’t work on the other truthers – or the conspiratorial community that eventually excommunicated him. It would become even more clear when, as you will see in coming pages, I began to understand how cultural forces and motivated cognition are at play when people with different models meet and try to disambiguate something they both find ambiguous.

When faced with uncertainty, we often don’t notice we are uncertain, and when we attempt to resolve that uncertainty, we don’t just fall back on are different perceptual priors; we reach for them, motivated by identity and belonging needs, social costs, issues of trust and reputation, and so on. 

Psychologists call this a frame contest when the facts are agreed upon (mass shootings are a problem) but the interpretation of those facts is not (it’s because of X / no, it’s because of Y).

As SURFPAD predicts, this is why we so often disagree on matters that, on both sides, seem obvious. Unaware of the processing that leads to such disagreement, it will feel like a battle over reality itself, over the truth of our own eyes. Disagreements like these often turn into disagreements between groups because people with broadly similar experiences and motivations tend to disambiguate in broadly similar ways, and whether they find one another online or in person, the fact that trusted peers see things their way can feel like all the proof they need: they are right and the other side is wrong factually, morally, or otherwise.

“Introducing challenging evidence does not change their beliefs. If anything, it strengthens them,” explained Pascal. “This might appear puzzling, but makes complete sense in a SURFPAD framework.” He said to imagine a trusted news source continuously paints a political figure in a bad light. If another news source paints them in a positive light, the brain doesn’t update. Instead, it would do just as it did with his white socks. It will assume the lighting is off and delete it, and subjectively it will feel like objectivity.

That leads us to the second lesson. Since subjectivity feels like objectivity, naive realism makes it seem as though the way to change people’s minds is to show them the facts that support your view, because anyone else who has read the things you have read or seen the things you have seen will naturally see things your way, given that they’ve pondered the matter as thoughtfully as you have. Therefore, you assume that anyone who disagrees with your conclusions probably just doesn’t have all the facts yet, if they did, they’d already be seeing the world like you do. This is why you continue to ineffectually copy and paste links from all our most trusted sources when arguing your points with those who seem misguided, crazy, uninformed, and just plain wrong. The problem is that this is exactly what the other side thinks will work on you.

The truth is that we are always reaching our conclusions through disambiguation, but all of that work is done in our different brains without us knowing it. We just experience, in consciousness, the result. You think you are experiencing the world as it truly is, and when a lot of people are sure their version of reality is the really real version at the same time that a lot of other people are sure that no, in fact, their version is, you get arguments that break the internet (like The Dress), but also the Inquisition, the Hundred Years’ War, QAnon, and anti-mask protests during the pandemics.