Did You Know?

Believe it or not: Partisan news sites have an unhappy reinforcing effect

What are you going to believe: yourself or the facts?

According to a 2016 study, you might believe your existing notions — even when you know that the facts disagree. 

The study opens with this (jaw-dropping) context: 1 in 4 Americans — 25% — believe that the sun orbits the earth.

Now focus on two major portions of that group: 

  • Almost 37% admit that they don’t know the science. 
  • About 26% know that scientists say the Earth circles the sun — yet still think the opposite.*

In their study, the authors — all communication scholars — sought to learn how partisan outlets influence news consumers’ political beliefs to the point that they can stick by their convictions even while knowing the facts

Respondents to surveys conducted in the weeks before and immediately after the 2012 presidential election were asked about their knowledge of and beliefs in four common misperceptions — two held by liberal-leaning citizens, and two by conservative-leaning citizens. The researchers concluded that “individuals sometimes hold beliefs that contradict their own knowledge of the evidence.” 

Why? It appears that the very existence of partisan media plays the biggest role. 

That’s why R. Kelly Garrett, an associate professor of communication at Ohio State University, titled the study Driving a Wedge Between Evidence and Beliefs: How Online Ideological News Exposure Promotes Political Misperceptions.” 

It’s not that we all live in online echo chambers, which the study disputes, and it’s not that news sites peddle completely wrong information. Rather, Garrett said in a press release accompanying publication of the study, “The more people use these [partisan] sources, the more likely they are to embrace false claims, regardless of what they know about the evidence.”

He continued: “It is a crisis of critical thinking. Examining the evidence for ourselves too often means allowing our own biases to influence how we evaluate claims. And ideological news sources encourage us to do that.”

*Of the others who believe that the sun revolves around Earth, 25% mistakenly think that scientists believe that, too, and 12% say scientists are split on the matter.