The unemployment rate is not more than 40 percent. The Chinese are not in Syria. The federal tax code is not 73,000 pages long. And Capitol Hill’s investigation of the Benghazi incident is not the longest-running congressional inquiry ever.
All of those wrong assertions were made by people running for president. All of them have been debunked by teams of fact-checkers at newspapers, broadcast outlets and independent, non-partisan fact monitors. And none of them has demonstrably done anything to slow the candidacies of people seeking the job that requires a herculean level of trust from the American people.
In the battle for the hearts, minds and votes of the American public, do facts matter? Not really, experts say. With the country so deeply divided along partisan lines, no broad consensus on who or what will serve as an independent arbiter of truth and an overload of information of varying accuracy, facts themselves take a backseat to the narrative. And when facts interfere with an individual’s worldview, it’s the facts that are seen with suspicion, specialists say.
Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College, has examined this phenomenon, most recently with a study in which he presented to parents factual evidence from medical authorities that vaccines do not cause autism. While the evidence did successfully lower misconceptions about the connection between vaccines and autism, the research did nothing to convince vaccine-skeptical parents that they should vaccinate their children. In fact, such parents were even less likely to change their minds about the issue, even after being presented with medical evidence, said the study, which Nyhan conducted with Jason Reifler, Sean Richey, and Gary Freed.