09/30/2014 05:49 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

Political Values Are Dividing Us Over Basic Facts, Not Just Policy Choices

Shutterstock / Andrea Izzotti

You can't open a newspaper -- or pull up The Huffington Post -- these days without encountering evidence of our country's political disagreement. Everything from the best policy for solving a problem to the core values that should guide our nation seem to be hotly contested -- the grist for verbal smack-downs in Congress or cynical attack advertisements. Contention is to be expected in a democracy, since this is, after all, the airing of competing notions of the public good and how it should be pursued.

But most conceptions of democracy assume that these arguments will be over values and priorities -- that we observe the world around us, and apply our personal conscience (and, of course, self-interest) to the political choices we face.

Unfortunately, research is showing that it isn't this simple. Much of the time citizens hold different understandings of even the basic facts related to the topics we are debating. We started investigating this phenomenon after noticing some odd distortions in a survey of citizen knowledge on a ballot measure in Washington state, and we're now one team in a community of researchers looking at the problem.

What is becoming clear is that our political ideology shapes more than just our values and sense of right and wrong -- it can also lead us to believe or disbelieve "facts" about the world, regardless of whether they're real or not. This doesn't bode well for a vibrant democracy and good governance when opposing political groups can have their own sets of facts in line with their ideology. For example, many conservatives in opposition to Obamacare latched onto a false claim that the law would create "death panels" to decide if ailing patients would be allowed to die instead of getting life-saving care. Even worse, research on these shoddy facts has shown that trying to correct them with fact-checking claims doesn't help, and can even cause people to double down on their false beliefs.

In our most recent study, we set out to discover how this knowledge distortion occurs, and where the false "facts" that people believe come from. For many, the obvious answer is that media, and especially partisan media, must be to blame. Liberals see Fox News as a bogeyman brainwashing conservatives with false information. Conservatives claim that the mainstream media itself is so liberal that many citizens are continuously duped by it.

We also suspected that media messages played an important role in citizens' acceptance of false beliefs -- or rejections of true ones. So we conducted a study to test it. We looked at three ballot measures, which are good for studying misperceptions of facts because they are new issues that people have to learn about, and they often don't have obvious partisan leanings that people can over-rely on when deciding how to vote. We asked people several factual questions about each ballot initiative, then scored each person's answers: they got a 0 for getting a question correct, a +1 for getting a question wrong in a way that would predispose them to the conservative position on the initiative (for example, if they grossly overestimated the cost of switching to renewable energy sources, as would've been required by one of the ballot initiatives), and a -1 for getting a question wrong in a way that would predispose them to the liberal position (for example, if they grossly underestimated the cost of renewables).

We added up those answers and called this measure the knowledge distortion index -- an overall score indicating whether someone's factual beliefs on a ballot measure were distorted in a systematically partisan way. Then we compared people's knowledge distortion with other political characteristics, and found three important things. First, people's overall scores were highly correlated with their ideology. More conservative people tended to have misinformation scores tending upwards (or in a conservative direction), and liberal people tended to have misinformation scores in negative territory (a liberal direction).

Second, we found that for two of the ballot measures, people who knew more about the political system in general had misinformation scores that were even more highly correlated with ideology than people with less knowledge of politics. So it looks like general knowledge doesn't help people out of being misinformed -- in fact, it helps them get more misinformed.

All of this was interesting, but it still didn't tell us what role the media was playing. So we introduced further measures into our model to examine whether media use was connected with people holding misinformed beliefs. The answer, to our surprise, was no. People had distorted factual beliefs about the ballot measures despite reporting little or no exposure to the media coverage and campaign messages on those issues. In fact, whether you saw a lot, a little, or no campaign coverage made no difference in how distorted your beliefs about the issues were.

All of this doesn't bode well for democracy, even at the state level and in policy areas that aren't even explicitly partisan. If people are seemingly able to develop false factual beliefs without any help from ideologically driven media messages, and if efforts like news media fact-checking are failing to correct shoddy facts, then what hope do we have for a vibrant, meaningful public debate?

Ideas coming from a research program known as deliberative democracy are suggesting a startlingly simple answer: Bring together people to focus on an issue and talk about it. One of the innovations from this work is called the Citizens' Initiative Review. CIRs are panels of average citizens, invited from voter registration files to ensure diversity according to factors like political preference, location and occupation. They spend 2-3 days learning about and discussing proposed policies, hearing from experts and campaigns, and identifying trade-offs and likely outcomes. This is key: rather than making a snap judgment, these "citizen juries" are provided with time, resources -- and responsibility -- to make sound judgments. In the end, they communicate their findings and recommendations to their fellow citizens.

What we are seeing so far is that average citizens are willing and able to do this. Citizens and state legislators in Oregon were so pleased with their inaugural Citizens' Initiative Review in 2012 that it is now an institution mandated by state law. This year, Arizona and Colorado are pilot testing the CIR process. If we can bring together two dozen citizens who are Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, and have them respectfully and thoughtfully talk about contentious political issues, there's still hope for our polarized democracy.