03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

MTSU Survey Documents Entrenching Of Falsehoods

Over at the Atlantic, Marc Ambinder digs into a recent survey conducted by Middle Tennessee State University, which demonstrates the extent to which "evidence and facts aren't enough to deter the perseverance of false beliefs." According to the survey, "34% of adults believe that President Obama was born in another country. 47% of Republicans hold that belief. About a third -- 30% -- say Obama is a Muslim. 46% -- and this includes many Democrats and independents -- say he's a socialist."

This is where my wife typically bemoans the way so many children become adults without successfully achieving Piaget's formal operational stage of cognitive development. Ambinder cites a new book by Cass Sunstein, the Obama administration's chief regulation officer, in which he takes on the issue. To Sunstein, phony information thrives in a media ecosystem where polarization breeds bias and reinforces falsehoods. As a corrective, Sunstein proposes that we "increase the social penalties that accrue to a source of information that is regularly or repeatedly inaccurate," and do a better job at teaching people "how to think critically." Naturally, the primary obstacle that Sunstein faces is the very one he's sought to surmount:

Sunstein has become a victim of his own observations. Search for information about the book on Google and you'll be returned a slew of references to how Sunstein wants to censor the Internet, how he wants to fine people who print false things on the Net, how he wants to chill the speech of conservatives. All of these statements are false. Sunstein proposes one modification to existing law -- he wants to make websites more responsible for the information that others add to the website -- now, website proprietors aren't responsible for comments and pass-through content. This is a mildly controversial proposal, but it's one that many others have made, and it's not something his colleagues in the Obama administration have any interest in signing into law.

Of course, the media could afford to clean its own house in this regard, and learn to love objective truths over the sexy geek show that the Orly Taitzes of the world offer the ratings-starved. Right now, the media has fixed on an overwrought methodology of fact-checking that reinforces as many rumors as it debunks and makes it look as if the typical news organization needs outside help in order to know things. Were you to say to me that the square root of sixteen was eight, I would not reply: "Wait, I can debunk this, with fact-y facts." I would just tell you that you were wrong. But, the way the media views the matter, as long as someone claims the answer was eight, then "some say the square root of 16 is eight," and it's a debate. And right now, all the incentives where filling 24 hours with news is concerned run in the direction of having these debates, even where none is warranted.

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