So, I see the oil moguls over at BP (British Petroleum) have finally gotten their asses nailed to the wall for their deceptive and incredibly underhanded mismanagement of the horrendous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a few years back. They are officially on the hook for 4.5 billion dollars in fines, and at least three of their employees are facing jail time in what some are calling the worst environmental cover-up in history.
It’s hard to believe that anyone— even a massive petroleum corporation— would behave so irresponsibly. Then again, maybe not. When enough money is on the line, too often common decency tends to go right out the window. There’s no question that BP will pay up, and it will be business as usual. There’s such a thing as being “too big to bail.” What’s a few billion more or less to a company that earns 25 billion a year in net profits alone?
Meanwhile, there are still a lot of upset conservative voters muttering about secession and the like. Eight years ago when Bush stomped Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, thousands of progressive Americans loudly began planning their supposed exodus to Canada. But when the post-election hoopla died down, pretty much all those would-be expatriates just shut up and braced themselves to endure four years of mild, protracted disgruntlement. The same thing happened with McCain voters in 2008, so it’s no big surprise it’s happening again. Relax. Rush Limbaugh swears mighty oaths that he’s moving to Costa Rica every time some liberal says or does something with which he disagrees. But the truth is, no one’s really going anywhere.
Yet the rhetoric refuses to die down. Loudmouths on both sides simply can’t let things go— if anything, they now seem as firmly committed to their beliefs as ever, beliefs which in some cases include a nonsensical insistence that factual information be ignored if it defies the party line of their personal punditry. Psychologists call this reaction Belief Perseverance: maintaining your original opinions in the face of overwhelming data that contradicts your beliefs. We are all susceptible to it, but we’re especially vulnerable when we build our life and worldview around such beliefs… even if they are later invalidated. Researchers have found that stereotypes, political assumption, religious faiths and even our own self-image are especially vulnerable to belief perseverance. A 2008 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that people are more likely to continue believing incorrect information if it makes them look good (enhancing their self-image); and such misinformation now travels at light speed and is amplified by the plethora of news sources and our rapid news cycle. Publishing “news” nowadays is simply a matter of clicking “send.” This, combined with people’s tendency to seek out information that confirms their belief (Confirmation Bias Syndrome), magnifies the effects of misinformation in an ever-widening cycle.
Correcting misinformation, however, isn’t as simple as presenting people with the facts. When confronted with rational facts from the other side, the most vehement zealots will create ever-more intricate and fabulous counterarguments supporting their initial viewpoint, bolstering their belief of the misinformation, ad infinitum.
Still, as the conspirators at BP discovered, even the most ornate tissue of lies will disintegrate if bombarded by enough truth. In the immortal words of Winston Churchill: “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end… there it is.”