21 thoughts on “The “Backfire Effect””

  1. I think this makes a lot of sense in the short term. Certainly, something which challenges your worldview can elicit strong emotional responses. But I wonder if this is true for everyone when considering the long term. Is it really possible that nobody ever changes their minds, even about things that are near and dear to their hearts? Do we not evolve in our beliefs over longer periods of time? Do we not incorporate new ideas into our thought processes?

  2. An interesting read. But am I wrong in thinking that the examples given (except for the saliva test) are anti-conservative?

  3. I’m not clear why a new term is warranted. Why “backfire”? Isn’t this just a subspecies of confirmation bias?

    And I had to chuckle at the irony:

    Geoffrey Munro at the University of California and Peter Ditto at Kent State University concocted a series of fake scientific studies in 1997. One set of studies said homosexuality was probably a mental illness. The other set suggested homosexuality was normal and natural. They then separated subjects into two groups; one group said they believed homosexuality was a mental illness and one did not. Each group then read the fake studies full of pretend facts and figures suggesting their worldview was wrong. On either side of the issue, after reading studies which did not support their beliefs, most people didn’t report an epiphany, a realization they’ve been wrong all these years. Instead, they said the issue was something science couldn’t understand. When asked about other topics later on, like spanking or astrology, these same people said they no longer trusted research to determine the truth. Rather than shed their belief and face facts, they rejected science altogether.

    In other words, when presented with fictitious data — when being flat-out lied to by researchers — people stubbornly and irrationally refused to accept the supremacy of science! The last sentence should begin “Rather than shed their belief and face fiction…”. If I were a participant in that study, I would be far less polite than those who merely said science doesn’t have the answer — I would have said, “If this study was done by anyone as incompetent and unethical as you, I sure as hell wouldn’t trust it!”

    Here’s my excuse for confirmation bias: real science is hard to do correctly. There is far too much “science” that passes peer review with faulty experimental design and shoddy statistics.

    And without any proof whatsoever, I’d guess that 90% of the reporting on science that hits the newspapers is crap. Partly that’s because there is a “reporting bias”: there is hardly any incentive to report stories that merely confirm what is already known. But when a study shows a previously unseen effect, press releases come out. Since many studies simply use alpha=0.05 to test significance, even without intellectual bias about 1 in 20 studies will be mistaken. What’s worse, some organizations seem to specialize in producing bad science for journalists — I have in mind the Harvard School of Public Health. I can’t count how many times some badly conceived student project has made it to the New York Times science pages because of a press release from HSPH.

    And, not to get too “meta” here, but doesn’t this article confirm someone’s worldview? I have noticed similar articles that (mostly left-wing) friends have posted, with the observation that if only those stupid right-wing idiots would give up their stupid irrational biases, we could all agree that Socialism is the answer and that Barack is our savior.

    And besides, on the Internet no one knows you’re a dog…. Do you actually trust that the studies cited by Mr. McRaney showed what he claims they showed? That they were performed competently and without bias? Why do you believe this? Does it fulfill some need to believe that people are idiots? Just sayin’….

  4. Great article, except for the BS about the welfare queen being fictitious. My brother’s best friend actually had a one night stand with her in Vegas. When he woke up, she was gone…but had written “Welcome to the world of AIDS” on the mirror in lipstick.

    Even Snopes says it’s true.

  5. It’s funny. I’m always looking for things that disagree with my thinking. Although I admit I enjoy things that confirm more. Titus, you crack me up.

    As far as welfare queens. Many of us could point them out. Details vary. The most common being identity fraud and food stamps for money.

  6. “For instance, one article suggested the United States found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The next said the U.S. never found them, which was the truth. Those opposed to the war or who had strong liberal leanings tended to disagree with the original article and accept the second. Those who supported the war and leaned more toward the conservative camp tended to agree with the first article and strongly disagree with the second. These reactions shouldn’t surprise you.”

    Contrast with this fake or real story from MSNBC.

    “The last major remnant of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program — a huge stockpile of concentrated natural uranium — reached a Canadian port Saturday to complete a secret U.S. operation that included a two-week airlift from Baghdad and a ship voyage crossing two oceans.

    The removal of 550 metric tons of “yellowcake” — the seed material for higher-grade nuclear enrichment — was a significant step toward closing the books on Saddam’s nuclear legacy. It also brought relief to U.S. and Iraqi authorities who had worried the cache would reach insurgents or smugglers crossing to Iran to aid its nuclear ambitions.”


  7. I’m not sure as to your point Wodun, before the 90/91 war Iraq had a nuclear program, yellowcake is the raw material of a nuclear program, when that nuclear program was abandoned the yellow cake was left in storage. Are you suggesting that the yellowcake is evidence of a WMD program between the 90/91 and 2003 Gulf wars? It certainly isn’t.

  8. @Andrew W: Are you suggesting that the yellowcake is evidence of a WMD program between the 90/91 and 2003 Gulf wars? It certainly isn’t.

    Hmm, what would you call 550 tons of yellowcake? An oversight? Maybe Saddam had a sentimental attachment to it? “Gosh, those were the days! Too bad you can’t go home again!” Or, maybe he planned to process it someday, you know, after peak oil and all that, because Iraq would need nuclear power….

    Or maybe it’s just as the Iraq Survey Group concluded, that Saddam intended to restart his nuclear program as soon as he could get UN sanctions lifted.

    The problem with the complexities of the situation is that they don’t lend themselves to yes/no questionnaires. Did Saddam have a WMD program in 2002? We know he didn’t have nuclear weapons, but was there a program? Apparently the meaning of this depends on the listener. For some, the absence of an org chart and a corps of workers means there was no program. For others, the continued presence in Iraq of enough raw materials for 100 nuclear weapons, and the documented strategic intent to restart processing, means there was. Potato, potato….

  9. “Hmm, what would you call 550 tons of yellowcake? An oversight? Maybe Saddam had a sentimental attachment to it?”

    It looks like it probably was either an oversight by UN inspectors or it was simply regarded as not important, I see no suggestion that it was being hidden by the Iraq regime between the wars, or by the US forces controlling the country after 2003.

    Your link is full of claims that there was no evidence of that Saddam intended to restart his nuclear program. Just a conclusion that the ISG believed that that was his intent

    On a slightly different point, while nuclear and biological warfare are and maybe cost effective, chemical warfare is only cost effective in terms of it psychological impact, it’s cheaper to kill and maim people with bullets and bombs than with sarin, chlorine or VX.

  10. Apparently Saddam’s Jedi mind trick still works on some people: “This is not the yellowcake you’re looking for.” 😉

    I think relying on Saddam’s good intentions while leaving him in control of this material is naive at best.

    Your link is full of claims that there was no evidence of that Saddam intended to restart his nuclear program. Just a conclusion that the ISG believed that that was his intent

    You have to read the report carefully to understand what is being asserted. For example,

    Saddam Husayn ended the nuclear program in 1991 following the Gulf war. ISG found no evidence to suggest concerted efforts to restart the program.

    If that’s as far as you read, you might forget the meaning of “concerted” and imagine that ISG meant there was no nuclear threat. But if you read down to the next paragraph,

    Senior Iraqis—several of them from the Regime’s inner circle—told ISG they assumed Saddam would restart a nuclear program once UN sanctions ended.

    • Saddam indicated that he would develop the weapons necessary to counter any Iranian threat.


    In the wake of Desert Storm, Iraq took steps to conceal key elements of its program and to preserve what it could of the professional capabilities of its nuclear scientific community.

    • Baghdad undertook a variety of measures to conceal key elements of its nuclear program from successive UN inspectors, including specific direction by Saddam Husayn to hide and preserve documentation associated with Iraq’s nuclear program.

    • ISG, for example, uncovered two specific instances in which scientists involved in uranium enrichment kept documents and technology. Although apparently acting on their own, they did so with the belief and anticipation of resuming uranium enrichment efforts in the future.

    • Starting around 1992, in a bid to retain the intellectual core of the former weapons program, Baghdad transferred many nuclear scientists to related jobs in the Military Industrial Commission (MIC). The work undertaken by these scientists at the MIC helped them maintain their weapons knowledge base.

    So what does all this mean? Look, this is just one report of several that documented Saddam’s intent. We could argue quite awhile about the meaning of the various patterns of evidence provided, the credibility and motivation of the witnesses interviewed, the significance of the hardware and raw materials still in Iraq in 2003, and so on. But the reason wodun linked the news story and I linked the ISG report is that they provide a rational basis for believing that Saddam continued to present a nuclear threat in 2003. It’s why a yes/no poll on “Iraq WMD?” is simplistic and naive. People who argue in soundbites “no WMDs in Iraq” either don’t understand what the real situation was or have another agenda. To suggest, as McRaney does, “the U.S. never found [WMDs], which was the truth” is exactly this kind of simplistic propaganda.

    But if you want to play word games, consider the meaning of this story:

    Sarin, Mustard Gas Discovered Separately in Iraq

    Now, I’m perfectly willing to stipulate that these shells were likely from old supplies and were not evidence of a new manufacturing program. I think they have miniscule significance compared to the testimony of regime officials about Saddam’s strategy and actions regarding his nuclear weapons program. But (a) they were chemical WMDs, and (b) they were found in Iraq. Therefore they falsify the statement “there were no WMDs found in Iraq”. It’s a leap to say someone who believes WMDs were found in Iraq is being irrational… because the statement “no WMDs were found in Iraq” is demonstrably false.

  11. “Jedi mind trick”

    I see the confirmation bias is strong in this one.

    ” “This is not the yellowcake you’re looking for.” ”

    Who said that, and what’s the relevance?

    I never said Hussein wouldn’t restart his WMD program given the opportunity, I doubt it because it was bloody expensive and it surely brought more trouble than it was worth, but unlike you and ISG I don’t base my conclusions on reading his mind.

    “no WMDs were found in Iraq” what are you no about? I never said that “no WMDs were found in Iraq” Strawman.

  12. I think you mean to paraphrase, “Strong in this one, the confirmation bias is”. And obviously it was Obi-Wan who said “this is not the yellowcake you’re looking for”. It was something like that, anyway. Apart from how it would make us feel about our intelligence services, do you think it would have mattered to Saddam if the yellowcake was stored in Iraq since Gulf War I, or whether it had arrived via FedEx from Niger in 2002? Yellowcake is yellowcake. And 550 tons, well, that’s a big Twinkie, as another pop culture icon would say.

    McRaney, who authored the piece that triggered this thread, wrote “the U.S. never found them [WMDs], which was that the truth”. Wodun pointed to the yellocake story, and you disputed the significance of that, and I demurred. I’m sorry if in my haste I implied you had said that.

    ISG did no mind reading; they were reporting what Saddam’s inner circle told them, which is that Saddam intended to restart his program once the UN sanctions regime was lifted. I am just passing along what ISG learned. You keep implying this information is imaginary, and it’s not.

  13. Issue’s like this involving lots of people and lots of elements, present lots of opportunities for confirmation bias, so if you or the ISG cherry pick what a few people say or believe, you’ll have the “evidence” to believe whatever you want to believe.

    You seem to think that I’m arguing that given the opportunity Saddam didn’t intend to restart his WMD program, I don’t know what his intent was, but given the trouble WMD’s had caused him, I’m skeptical.

    You seem to be arguing that the Yellow cake was evidence of a nuclear program after the first war, it isn’t.

    Unless there’s evidence that it was concealed from UN weapons inspectors over the ten years they were in the country I’ll assume the yellow cake was not considered important by the inspectors.

    It’s was known that Niger and Portugal sold yellow cake to Iraq between 1980 and 1982, other countries sold uranium to Iraq that had had higher levels of processing.

  14. Oh, and I’m pretty sure Darth Vader said “the force is strong in this one” (referring to Luke), in the 1977 Star Wars movie, that quote of yours sounds like something that mixed up terrorist leader Yoda would say.

  15. Hi Andrew,

    You’re so right about not mind reading intent. If the 250 lead lined tons of yellowcake I have in my basement were found by the ATF or DOE they’d have absolutely no proof that is was there for nefarious uses.

  16. There can hardly be any doubt that Saddam intended to restart his WMD programs once the sanctions era was well and truly gone, and that end was imminent at the time we went in. The entire program was utterly corrupted and evasion was rampant and increasing exponentially.

    Additionally, vast shipments of materials which may have been WMD related were sent to Syria before the war began.

    Had he forestalled the invasion, Saddam may well have broken the seals, and used the yellowcake under discussion in a rejuvenated nuclear arms program.

    However… it was under seal by the UN weapons inspectors and was known about years before the war. It was not, in fact, the WMD we were looking for.

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