Brendan Nyhan on Political Myth, Reality, and Human Nature

Photo by Rob Strong ’04


By Joni Cole

This Focus on Faculty Q&A is one in a ongoing series of interviews exploring what keeps Dartmouth professors busy inside—and outside—the classroom.

Political scandal, misperceptions, conspiracy theories—they’re all in a day’s work for Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor of government. Nyhan received his PhD in political science from Duke University and joined the faculty at Dartmouth in 2011. An author and blogger on politics and policy for “The New York Times,” Nyhan talks about political myths and why facts don’t always matter in the face of human nature.

Describe your Dartmouth class “Political Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories.”

We’re covering the entire field of misinformation, which is an emerging area of research. What’s cool is that, by the end of the class, the students will know more about misinformation than all but about 15 or 20 scholars in the world. We spend a lot of time studying political knowledge and communication in political science, but this class focuses specifically not on what people do or don’t know, but on what they think they know that isn’t true.

Weapons of mass destruction, the birther myth, death panels—all disproven. So why do these beliefs persist?

We’re all motivated reasoners. We all have a tendency to believe what we want to believe, and not believe what we want to not believe. So let’s assume you’re in favor of the war in Iraq and I tell you, “Actually, there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the U.S. invasion.” If that’s something you don’t want to hear, you’re going to resist that information even if it’s almost inescapable.

But seriously, what type of person ignores hard evidence?

We often think misperceptions occur because people are dumb or lazy, but the truth is, people who are more politically sophisticated or knowledgeable are sometimes more vulnerable to misinformation. Why? Because they’re more likely to get that information from the political system in the first place, and they’re better able to match it with their preexisting views. What we’ve found again and again is that you’re less critical or skeptical about information when it’s consistent with what you already believe. It’s what’s called “confirmation bias.”

So facts don’t fix misperceptions?

Corrective information is often ineffective about those issues we care about the most. And in some cases giving people corrective information can actually make them double down and believe more in the misperceptions. So the puzzle in studying misinformation is: Why don’t facts matter in changing people’s minds?

You have three children, ages 8, 5, and 2. If we’re all motivated reasoners by nature, can you already see this tendency in your kids?

They certainly have lots of mistaken beliefs, and they don’t want to hear that they’re wrong. (Laughs.) “I’m not tired. I don’t need to go to sleep.” We hear a lot of that.

Until recently you were a media critic for Columbia Journalism Review. How does the media feed misperception?

Typically, the big misperceptions are being either created or disseminated by the elites—the media and politicians. That’s part of how they become so big. Let me give you an example. If a death panel story says Republicans believe in them and Democrats don’t, what does that tell you as a reader? It tells you if I’m a Republican, I should believe in death panels. That’s terrible framing. A much more effective story, which was written by ABC News, said doctors and health care experts agree that death panels are not real. So there are experts, people outside of the political context, even people who have an incentive to say Obama’s plan is bad, telling you, “Look, this is not real.”

Do social media fuel the problem?

There’s certainly reason for concern. For instance, after the Boston Marathon bombings, all sorts of rumors and conspiracy theories circulated on the Internet. After Malaysia Flight 370 disappeared, same thing. That’s probably unavoidable, but it increases the burden of responsibility on the mainstream media to be very careful about what they report on and to contextualize their stories very carefully if they do. The risk is that in some cases media coverage can turn fringe or obscure sorts of rumors or conspiracies into big stories.

Talk about the website Spinsanity—a watchdog of political spin—that you co-founded in 2001.

It was important to us that the site be nonpartisan and focused on exposing misleading rhetoric of various kinds, including facts, factual deceptions, but also the ways people use rhetoric and language to inflame or mislead people.

Spinsanity logged more than 400 articles before closing in 2005. It also inspired you and your two co-creators to write All the President’s Spin: George W. Bush, the Media and the Truth, a 2004 New York Times bestseller.Why this subject?

We felt the most important thing going on at that time was the way the Bush Administration was using misleading rhetoric, especially in the aftermath of 9/11. The book was a nonpartisan take on that, and I think it holds up really well.

Can you foresee the next political whopper? I

mmigration is such a hot button right now. You can imagine that being a breeding ground. One of the things we want to get better at is catching these myths on social media early to head them off. It’s better to intercede before people hear false claims and come to believe them than after.



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