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Lies, damn lies, and facts

This is about a Boston Globe article I read about a month ago. It's pretty stale by internet standards, but I know it's going to stick in my craw until I write about it.

The article is called How Facts Backfire by Joe Keohane.  The subtitle ,"Researchers discover a surprising threat to democracy: our brains", made me wary right off the bat. It's been trendy in the past few years to talk about how our brains don't work as well as we think they do, and easily deceive us. Maybe I shouldn't trust my own brain. But if the brain is so inadequate, why should I trust the brain of the person telling me my own brain is defective?

The premise is that strong opinions become internalized, and are not easily altered by learning new facts. A fair enough charge, and one that is true of many people. Keohane cites a study done by the journal Political Behavior. (Another disturbing title...it suggests a political system run according to the principles of B.F. Skinner). The subjects were given fake news stories containing misinformation, along with a correction of the misinformation. The study concluded that most peoples beliefs were not changed by the correction.

According to Keohane, the pieces of misinformation were

  "that there were WMDs found in Iraq (there weren’t), that the Bush tax cuts increased government revenues (revenues actually fell), and that the Bush administration imposed a total ban on stem cell research (only certain federal funding was restricted)".

(emphasis mine)

The one about taxes took me aback. I had believed that revenues went up after the Bush tax cuts. I became concerned that maybe those pop neurologists were  right about my brain after all. Or that I was an ignorant hidebound conservative, impervious to facts. 

I didn't want to accept this without doing a little research first. I did some googling to find out exactly what effect the tax cuts had on revenues. It was more difficult  to find hard information than I would have thought. I saw lots of news articles with qualitative statements, but they weren't much help. Finally I found a table of tax revenues by year at the Tax Policy Center's website. I'll excerpt the relevant years below:

Fiscal YearReceipts

(Receipts are in billions of dollars).

Tax revenues did indeed go down in 2003, the year the second round of tax cuts took effect. But the next 6 years after that show revenues going up. Maybe the correction  meant that tax revenues only went down the tax year it was passed. If so, that's true but misleading.

Given these figures, I'll stand by my belief that revenues went up after the tax cuts. And contrary to Joe Keohane and the folks at Political Behavior, it's because I have looked at the facts, not because I have chosen to disregard them.

Jim Goad at Taki Magazine wrote another article about this study that I felt was a lot fairer to conservatives than the Boston Globe article.
While I don't agree with all of his points, it's worth reading, which you can do by clicking here.