Civilized life is all about denying compulsions. I think Tiger Woods said something like that when he was apologizing for serial philandering.
In my case, the compulsion I pledged myself to fight this year had nothing to do with hitting on waitresses; my wife's handiness with a kitchen knife helps keeps that in check.
No, the compulsion with which I wrestle was the reflex to immediately respond to e-mail messages that spread falsehoods. Recent examples include the claim that a general shut down a radio interview by making a quip to a reporter, and the excited revelation that the remarkably preserved bones of Biblical giants had been found in the Mideast.
While much of my debunking effort started simply to identify urban legends, in this era of instant communication I had allowed it to morph into the brain-itching need to drown sputtering fires of ignorance with the waters of truth.
OK, nothing quite so noble as that. I guess it's just that from the perspective of someone working in a business that is supposed to value accuracy, I feel an obligation to correct guerilla mass communicators who receive and pass along false information with scarcely a critical pause to consider its veracity.
The decision to fight that compulsion didn't require anything like Tiger's sex therapy, though that sure sounds like fun. It just meant using the "delete" button instead of "reply all." Consistently doing so has not only helped me focus on things that matter, but also avoided the inevitable anger from recipients who don't like having pins poked in their ignorance.
As a wiser man once told me: You won't get anyone to agree with you by calling them stupid.
But it was a professor at my alma mater who finally put some perspective on the obstinate resistance to truth some people seem to display.
University of Georgia Journalism Professor Barry Hollander recently published the results of his study of the false belief that President Obama is a Muslim.
Hollander's main focus was examining the inability of the media to correct that misperception, which 20 percent of the population apparently still carries. (I'm often reminded at such times of a poll in which nearly a third of the respondents expressed their belief that women are at risk for prostate cancer.)
"With most forms of political knowledge, media should theoretically make you more accurate," Hollander said. "In this case, media exposure had no effect. Ultimately, the message here is that people believe what they want to believe."
That's it: People believe what they want to believe. But there's more, and it gets at the heart of the phenomena of refusal, despite all evidence, to even consider the truth. The news release on Hollander's study says this:
"His findings are consistent with psychological studies on selective memory that show that people tend to discount facts that are inconsistent with their preexisting beliefs. People are also less likely to remember information that conflicts with their beliefs."
See that? People tend to discount facts that are inconsistent with their preexisting beliefs. And, people are less likely to remember information that conflicts with their beliefs.
Is there any better encapsulation of why talk radio is so popular, or why politics is so ugly?
But I digress. What this all tells me is that debunking fascinating yet false information - for example, current messages claiming the bones of giant humans referenced in the Bible have been found in Afghanistan - is likely a lost cause. People often believe things not because the evidence is compelling, but because they want to believe it.
I want to believe Tiger is going to come to Augusta this year. But wanting it won't make it happen, any more than wanting to believe Obama is a Nigerian-born Muslim is going to make that true, either.
But hey: If that's what you want to believe, go for it. I won't stand in the way.
Oh, and happy St. Patrick's Day to all. Celebrate responsibly, please.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail email@example.com. Follow at twitter.com/barrypaschal.)
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