Most people believe you can win an argument with facts - but when "facts" are so often subject to doubt, are personal experiences trusted more?
- A new study has found that people are more likely to get respect from others in moral and political conversations when sharing personal experiences instead of facts.
- The research group conducted 15 separate experiments to test this theory in order to learn more about tolerance in specifically political arguments.
- The effectiveness of facts in these conversations (even when proven true) is unclear because facts themselves are now subject to doubt, especially surrounding controversial and polarizing topics such as gun control and political beliefs.
Researchers at the University of Koblenz-Landau, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and the Wharton School of Business have found that people are more likely to get respect from others in moral and political conversations when sharing personal experiences instead of facts. The research group conducted 15 separate experiments to test this theory and to learn more about tolerance in specifically political arguments.
Use personal experience, not facts, to gain respect in a disagreement
Do personal anecdotes mean more than facts in a world where facts can't be trusted?
Image by ngupakarti on Adobe Stock
According to the study, both liberals and conservatives believe that using facts in a political discussion will help foster mutual respect and understanding — however, all fifteen of these experiments (across multiple methodologies and issues) show that isn't quite true.
These studies were conducted using topics that have proved quite polarizing in the past, such as:
- Conversations about guns
- Discussion over comments from YouTube videos regarding abortion opinions
- An archive of 137 interview transcripts from Fox News and CNN
"What would make you respect their opinion on the subject"?
In the first study (n = 251), participants were asked to "imagine someone disagrees with you on moral issues" (abortion, for example). They were then asked, "What would make you respect their opinion on the subject"?
Responses were then categorized into themes with a majority of respondents (55.78 percent) stating that basing one's stance on facts and statistics would increase respect, followed by basing one's stance on personal experiences (21.12 percent), followed by an understanding of mutual respect (14.34 percent).
"When discussing political beliefs, who is more rational?"
Next, a sample of participants (n = 859) was asked to imagine interacting with two political opponents, one who based their beliefs on facts, and one who based their beliefs on personal experiences. Participants rated their imaginary fact-based opponent as more rational than the opponent who based their stance on personal experiences. They also voted that they respected them more and wanted to interact with them more.
A separate study from this experiment (study number four, n = 177) had participants weighing in on topics such as taxes, coal, and gun policies. They then were asked to read about individuals who disagreed with them on these subjects either due to personal experiences or factual knowledge. Participants in this study rated how rational their opponent seemed, and those who based their arguments on personal experience were perceived as more rational than those basing their opinions on factual knowledge.
How does this translate to real-world conversations?
This section of the experiment had 153 participants engaging in conversations on the street (with people they assumed were passersby but were actually members of the research team) about the topic of gun control. Analyses of these conversations revealed that strangers who based their stance on personal experiences were treated as more rational (and were more respected/interacted with more) by participants than those who based their stance on facts.
Confirming the theory that even when facts are true, personal experiences garner more respect and willingness to engage in conversation.
This experiment (n = 194) sought to reaffirm the theory that personal experiences garnered more respect while ruling out possible alternative explanations. The researchers contrasted concrete facts about gun control (taken from JustFacts.com) with personal experiences. For example, someone reading an annual report that mentions 73 percent of murders in the United States are committed with firearms (factual knowledge) versus "someone's young daughter was hit by a stray bullet" (experience-driven argument).
This study found that these facts were rated as higher in specificity and concreteness than the personal experience, however, personal experiences gained more respect and willingness to discuss the topic.
Facts, even when proven true, are often less respected than personal experiences.
When imagining these different kinds of arguments, everyday Americans believe that supporting their belief with facts will lead to respect. However, the effectiveness of facts (even when proven correct) is unclear. The problem is, in the past decades, American has seen a decentralization of news and information that has allowed people to gather their "own facts." Facts themselves are now subject to doubt, especially surrounding controversial and polarizing topics.
The platform experiments with letting users decide what content needs flagging.
- Birdwatch is a new effort by Twitter to crowdsource content moderation.
- Still in testing, volunteers can comment on tweets they find problematic.
- Reactions to the new experiment are predictably colorful and bird-brained.
Twitter is experimenting with a new community-moderation system that puts users in the position of keeping other users honest. It's a system that's not completely different from the surprisingly successful manner in which Wikipedia vets posted content, and it functions similarly to Reddit's rating system as well.
Like everything else on Twitter, the response to the announcement of what the platform calls "Birdwatch" (get it?) has been over-the-top and riddled with untruths and conspiratorial paranoia. Also, some people think it's an idea worth exploring. Sounds about right.
For now, Birdwatch is being tested from its own site — it's not something Twitter users can currently see unless they volunteer to contribute to it. When someone signs up to test Birdwatch, a new option appears among the actions available for responding to a tweet on Twitter proper. Eventually, if it works out, Birdwatch labels and comments would appear publicly affixed to tweets.
Here's how Birdwatch works once you sign up:
- When you click on the three-dot menu to the right of a questionable tweet, a new option appears at the bottom of the actions presented: "Contribute to Birdwatch."
- If you choose this option, you're brought to a list of reasons you might have for feeling the tweet should be tagged as iffy — you check the box that reflects your opinion.
- Next, you tell Twitter the damage the tweet could potentially cause if it's left unflagged.
- You're asked for a comment about your objection to the tweet.
- Finally, you're asked to assess the current Birdwatch consensus regarding the tweet.
Twitter intends to develop an algorithmic approach to collating Birdwatch responses, and is also planning review sessions with subject-matter experts, since, as one Twitter user posted, "The plural of anecdote is not fact."
So far, the Twitter community's response to Birdwatch covers the whole spectrum, with some people hopeful and many more, this being the internet, skeptical. (We'll talk about politicians' response to Birdwatch below.)
How Donald Trump gave Twitter its wings
Birdwatch, um, flies in the face of what has made Twitter so central to the U.S. politics since around 2015. Prior to the entry of Donald Trump into the 2016 presidential race, Twitter seemed to many to be on its way out, yet another discarded novelty of the internet age.
Candidate Trump changed all that and continued to use his Twitter account as his primary platform throughout his presidency. In terms of the day-to-day drama that accompanied his time in office, the president's expulsion from Twitter felt more like the end of his term than did the official transfer of power on January 20.
That expulsion itself was apparently the end result of considerable turmoil and discord internally within Twitter. That's because Donald Trump's artful deployment of Twitter has been the primary driver behind its resurgence and the reason it continues to play a significant role in U.S. politics.
What @realDonaldTrump understood was that a deliberately outrageous tweet is an easy way to immediately grab the public's attention, either for sheer publicity value or as a means of distraction. Truth and accuracy matter far less than what social media calls "engagement." Post-Trump, other publicity-hungry politicians continue to follow the ex-president's playbook. Some of them are even doing so as they attack Birdwatch.
And herein lies Twitter's dilemma. When provocative content draws attention to a tweet poster, it also draws attention to Twitter, and that benefits the platform by increasing the size of the audience it can sell to advertisers. At the same time, there's growing political pressure on the company to control the dissemination of content that's harmful to the public and American political process.
Birdwatch may let Twitter off the hook: Truth would be crowdsourced and enforced without Twitter, or its advertisers, having to get its hands dirty with endless controversies.
The tweet that probably did it.
Politics and politicians
The pressure to do better largely comes in the form of threats to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This is the regulation that absolves a social media platform from legal liability for content its users post. Though the rule's purpose is to promote the use of unfettered expression on social media, there's an inherent problem — this kind of content tends to go viral and that increases audience size, which increases a platform's advertising sales and that means more profit.
Some of the loudest voices, ironically, are politicians who themselves use Twitter for spreading this very type of content. The former president, in fact, vetoed a defense bill because it didn't contain a repeal of Section 230 — it doesn't seem to have occurred to him that his own inflammatory tweets and posts wouldn't be published if platforms were concerned about being held responsible.
Note: If you're outraged at some politician's disingenuous behavior and tweet or retweet about their hypocrisy, that's perfectly fine with them since you'd only be helping them get more attention.
It may not surprise you that some politicians who want social media to step up are up in arms over Birdwatch, accusing Silicon Valley of making a power grab that will place Truth under their control and of violating their own First Amendment right to free speech. This last charge is a Constitutional canard, even though some of these folks have a law degree — legal experts agree that Free Speech is about public speech and not about the ability to say whatever you want through a private company's platform.
No one knows if Birdwatch will work in the end, but if it does, let's hope that unscrupulous politicians find it more difficult to post outrageous tweets that draw them eyeballs and campaign contributions, the country's well-being be damned. Truth is always a slippery worm. Let's hope Birdwatch bites down.
A new look at existing data by LSU researchers refutes the Trump administration's claims.
- The United States Department of Defense gifts surplus military equipment and clothing to local police departments.
- The militarization of police coincides with a significant loss of trust in law enforcement from the American public.
- Militarized police departments are more likely to interact violently with their communities.
Watching coverage of protests in American streets, many of us have been shocked to witness what modern policing often looks like. Even putting aside the reason for many of these demonstrations in the first place—allegations of police brutality—what we see onscreen marching towards protestors is chilling. We witness police garbed in helmets, flak jackets, tactical dress, and carrying assault rifles, backed by weaponry designed for the battlefield, not the nation's thoroughfares.
The primary source of this equipment and clothing is the Federal government's 1033 program, which has been described as "Uncle Sam's Goodwill Store." This surplus military equipment (SME)—or "reutilized" gear as the Department of Defense (DOD) calls it—is granted, for free, to local law enforcement agencies, or "LEAs." WIRED estimates the Pentagon has gifted to local police some $7.3 billion worth of military equipment and clothing.
Concerned about the manner in which this militarization has affected policing, and following 2014's Ferguson protests, President Obama curtailed the program. The Trump administration removed these limits in 2017, claiming research had proved militarization reduces crime.
A new study from Louisiana State University (LSU) revisits that research, finding it incomplete and inconsistent. The researchers, led by LSU political scientist Anna Gunderson, collected their own more comprehensive and accurate data and concluded that militarizing local police does not actually reduce crime.
A wide lack of support
Credit: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images
It's no wonder that more than half of the American public no longer trusts the police. It's hard not to get the impression that for many police departments, the mission has changed from one of support for its communities to an attempt to intimidate and dominate its members.
Studies back this up. Police whose departments use military equipment are more often violent with community members and are more likely to kill them. Neither is this a small problem at the margins of policing: Over 1,000 people are killed by police annually.
In spite of the Trump administration's faith in the soundness of the 1033 program, others from across the political spectrum disagree. On the right, the Charles Koch Foundation asserts, "This erosion of public confidence in law enforcement and low support for militarization impedes law enforcement's ability to effectively secure public safety." From the left, the American Civil Liberties Union says, "We advocate for a return to a less dangerous, more collaborative style of policing. We should not be able to mistake our officers for soldiers."
Credit: JeremyAdobe Stock
Gunderson explains to LSU Media Center that, "scholars rely on accurate data to track and analyze the true effect of police militarization on crime. Policymakers also need accurate data to base their decisions upon. However, to-date, we do not have reliable data on SME transfers to local police and sheriffs through the federal government."
The research cited by the Trump administration was a study done by the American Economic Association based on SME data collected through a 2014 Freedom of Information Act request. Having a look at that data themselves, along with other FOIA 2014 data released by National Public Radio and newer data from 2018, the LSU researchers found that things didn't quite line up. Where FOIA suggests certain counties received SME, NPR's data showed no such transfer. Similarly, NPR reported departments receiving items such as weapons, grants that were not reflected in the 2018 data as expected.
"When we looked at the data and ran the replications, nothing looked like the results being cited by the Trump Administration," Gunderson recalls. "We spent a year trying to diagnose the problem."
The LSU researchers' conclusion was the the previously released SME data from the DOD was too inconsistent to produce reliable insights. They conducted their own analysis, aligning newer data with country-level LEA data, to derive a cohesive, accurate picture that allowed them to more definitively assess who got SME transfers and who didn't, and what effect it had on local crime statistics.
They found no indication that SME transfers led to a reduction in crime. The study concludes, "we find no evidence that federal distributions of SME to local LEAs across the United States reduce crime rates, neither violent nor nonviolent crime rates, in the jurisdictions that receive it."
"This is a cautionary tale about the importance of oversight. The most important thing for policymakers and the public to know is that you can't justify giving surplus military equipment to police departments on the grounds it will lead to a reduction in crime. There is no evidence for that. You can't claim this program is important because it reduces crime."
What's more says, the report, "because of serious data problems and debatable methodological choices in prior studies, the empirical foundations on which social scientists, along with policymakers and the public, stand when making causal claims about the effects of the transfers of SME may be no firmer than quicksand."
New documents confirm that the government agency—one of many—has been using a tracking company.
- Documents reveal that the Secret Service used Locate X as part of a social media tracking package.
- The service "allows investigators to draw a digital fence around an address or area, pinpoint mobile devices that were within that area, and see where else those devices have traveled, going back months."
- Other agencies that have used this service include the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Customs and Border Protection, the Coast Guard, and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
A popular, recurrent conspiracy theory: all humans will soon be microchipped so the government can track our every movement. This year, that idea was briefly attached to a potential COVID-19 vaccine, though the fear has long been present.
The irony, of course, is that we're already chipped. We just call them phones.
We probably shouldn't be surprised that the U.S. Secret Service contracted with a company to use the service, Locate X, in order to track Americans via social media. But they did, and once again we're forced to distinguish between baseless conspiracies and the real-world consequences of government surveillance.
According to internal Secret Service documents, obtained from a Freedom of Information Act request, the agency paid the Virginia-based company, Babel Street, roughly $36,000 to include Locate X in a social media monitoring package that ultimately cost $2 million.
According to the trademark, Locate X provides:
"online, non-downloadable software used to collect, analyze, filter, store, track, manage, convert, interpret, categorize, index, extrapolate, compare, prioritize and produce databases, images, emails, files, documents, information, and data from online sources, websites and social media sites and to create reports in the fields of client-driven commercial, legal and governmental inquiries and investigations."
And that's only the first one-third of Locate X's goods and services.
As early as March, Protocol reported on the dangers of Locate X. The deal with Babel Street "allows investigators to draw a digital fence around an address or area, pinpoint mobile devices that were within that area, and see where else those devices have traveled, going back months."
Young players walk through the city centre of Hanover while holding their smartphones and playing "Pokemon Go" on July 15, 2016 in Hanover, Germany.
Photo by Alexander Koerner/Getty Images
Besides, the Secret Service is not Babel Street's only client. Others include the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Customs and Border Protection, the Coast Guard, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and others.
The Secret Service has apparently used Locate X to identify credit card skimming thieves. According to former employees of location-based companies that provide data to Babel Street, "the sale of personal location data from commercial firms to the government is more widespread and has been going on longer than previously known."
In 1985, Neil Postman wrote about Orwell's "1984" prophecy coming and going. In "Amusing Ourselves to Death," the cultural critic noted that Orwell got a lot right, but with "Brave New World," Aldous Huxley may have been the real winner when it comes to understanding the future.
"What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture."
There's no need for a secret government plot to microchip us. Tech companies sold chips that we willingly bought; governments are simply purchasing the rights to locate them. That's not a conspiracy. We're staring straight into the truth every single day.
The year 2020 will go down in history as one that shook our inner and outer worlds.
Which social, personal, and governmental illusions have been shattered this year, and how (and what) should we rebuild? Jillette, one half the world's most famous magic duo with Teller, will also give tips on how to foster long-term business partnerships and sustain creativity, and how he maintains a clear, rational mind in the noisiest era to date.
Moderated by Victoria Montgomery-Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think.