Robert Meyer
Ideology influences the perception of facts
By Robert Meyer
April 3, 2017

The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan is famous for suggesting, "You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts."

Moynihan's assertion seems less self-evident in the present era where the distinction between fact and opinion is convoluted, yet indiscernible to many of us.

Let's present a classic example that is a staple in many internet discussion forums. Everyone "knows" that theistic belief is largely responsible for most of history's wars and bloodshed. This claim is frequently made without serious challenge. Yet when this assertion is placed under the spotlight of statistical fact, we get a different proposition.

Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod, in their published historical reference work, "Encyclopedia of Wars," document the history of recorded warfare. According to their research, of 1,763 recognized wars, only 123 have been classified to involve a religious cause, which accounts for fewer than 7 percent of all wars. In addition, the world's two greatest mass murderers, Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin, were motivated by secular objectives. Add to that the fact that these crimes were committed in the enlightened 20th century and not during the Dark Ages.

These facts do not exonerate the undeniable atrocities of theistic traditions, but introduce a missing sense of proportionality to the issue.

There are various reasons one might offer to explain the persistence of this false notion. One is that since so many people have had a nominal theistic affiliation throughout history, and wars are fought by people with differing beliefs, their affinities are misconstrued as the primary motivations. However, I tend to believe the claim persists because people who have no use for theism use the "theism causes wars" assertion as justification for dismissing theism.

That brings us to consider whether facts determine opinions and ideologies, or whether ideological predispositions control how evidence and facts are distilled. I believe we vastly underestimate the role ideology has in the interpretation of evidence. That has a host of implications for the cultural and political landscape.

A recent cover of Time Magazine asked the question "Is truth dead?" The problem is not an absence of absolute truth, but rather that in contemporary times it's become more important to perpetuate a given narrative.

The task of challenging, much less refuting concepts to which people have made an emotional and psychological investment is a hazardous enterprise. People don't easily let go of their ideological commitments. That is why commenting in internet forums has at times become a toxic playground for the lesser angels of human nature.

Various phraseology, such as "Pro-choice/Pro-life," "Equal rights," "Tax cuts for the rich," " You're a fascist," "The one percent," are terms that carry on a narrative, but often disguise or ignore facts that would show the narrative itself is deceptive, if not a false notion.

Take the term "Pro-choice." Without attaching it to the abortion issue, one might suppose that it connotes a libertarian commitment to personal empowerment and selection. However, many of the same people who identify with that label often oppose personal autonomy when it comes to gun control, educational venues, health care and in some cases, speech itself.

People have made assertions about both Barack Obama and Donald Trump that are accepted as true because they despise one or the other. It's easy to believe pejoratives about people we dislike whether factual or not. Again, the narrative tends to emerge, superseding facts, because opinions are more convenient.

I continue to hear people say that "We need to come together as a nation." But the narrative is responsible for the country's polarization as well, making it impossible to see eye to eye. In revisiting Moynihan's bromide, it's as if opinions have become the new facts.

© Robert Meyer


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Robert Meyer

Robert Meyer is a hardy soul who hails from the Cheesehead country of the upper midwest... (more)


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