Dueling Facts, Reinforcing Values

Blog Post
Monday, June 03, 2019

“A lot of people now think that alternative facts had to do with the Trump campaign … we think it started way before that,” said Morgan Marietta. “It’s not about Trump, and it’s not going away when Trump goes away.”

On the latest Facing the Future, Marietta, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, joined me to discuss dueling fact perceptions and how they can impact national policy on fiscal matters and other issues.

He shared some interesting findings about how people perceive the national debt.

In fact, the national debt seems safe from this dueling perception phenomenon for now. Marietta said that surveys in 2013 and 2017 revealed that the national debt is not an issue with dueling fact perceptions among the broader population. In the latest survey, 85 percent agreed that large amounts of debt can cause harm to the nation’s economy.

Marietta’s research and findings on the causes of divided perceptions on key issues can be found in a book he co-authored, “One Nation, Two Realities.”

Marietta said that one of the big issues in our nation’s politics, contributing to duelling perceptions of fact on various issues, is that trust in institutions and traditional sources of information has fallen significantly. And he is struck by how easily and quickly people discount sources like universities or the government.

Around 2010, Marietta and a fellow colleague started discussing and researching a new phenomenon -- there seemed to be more public disputes over facts on issues like climate change, the national debt, racism, crime rates and more.

“We started to think that this was a new form of polarization … polarized perceptions of reality,” he said. “We started doing national surveys in 2013, and we started to see that there were these divided perceptions.” He added that this became a more popular issue for scholars after the 2016 presidential election.

They first examined partisanship and then misinformation, but the issues went deeper than political party cheerleading or needing access to accurate information. He said that the drivers are core values, which reach beyond party lines and media influence.

“People are looking at the world, and they are not just asking themselves what’s true, they’re asking themselves what they want to be the case,” Marietta said. “And it turns out that they are projecting their values into their perceptions.”

Marietta added that many people do not want to acknowledge that because they want to think that they view issues rationally.

But entrenched views are the most difficult to influence, and the more extreme a person’s value system, the more certain they are of factual perceptions, he said.

The challenge is figuring out how to correct dueling perceptions of fact.

Studies have shown that fact-checking may help keep politicians more honest, but it does not have strong effects in terms of changing someone’s perception of reality.

“The people who could benefit from fact-checking don’t read them, and the people who do read them discount them because of the lack of trust we have discussed,” Marietta said.

Jamie Burnett, a policy and political strategy consultant who has worked on U.S. Senate and presidential campaigns, also joined the show and shared what it was like to work in Washington and on the campaign trail. He encouraged young people to get involved in the political process.

Burnett models his consulting practice partially after his experiences in Washington.

“When I worked on the Hill and was being lobbied, the lobbyists that I respected the most and liked the most were the ones where I could sit across the table and … have a real honest conversation … I try to do the same thing.”  

On campaigns and as a staff member on Capitol Hill, he said, the hours were difficult and long, but the work was exciting and fun.

“It’s a pretty good training ground,” Burnett added. “You are exposed to a very wide range of people and personalities and issues and geography and, generally, just different constituencies.”

He said the current political environment, with its hostility and dysfunction, can drive people away from running for office or otherwise engage, but he said that environment is the very reason why it is so important for people to get involved.

“Whether you’re running for office or you just want to work in government and politics, what we need more of and what we want are people who are honest, decent and smart,” he said.

Hear more on “Facing the Future.” I host the program each week on WKXL, NHTalkRadio.com (N.H.), and it is also available via podcast. Join me and my guests as we discuss issues relating to national fiscal policy with budget experts, industry leaders, elected officials and candidates for public office. Past broadcasts are available here. You can now subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play or through RSS.