The Myth of Fact

Despite all the evidence, many still believe Obama wasn't born in the U.S. Maybe the truth isn't what it used to be

  • Illustration by Francisco Caceres for TIME

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    The effect may go to the very wiring of our brains. Studies at the University of Michigan and Yale found that partisans, when confronted with facts that disproved their preheld beliefs (e.g., that WMD were found in Iraq or that Chief Justice John Roberts was associated with a violent antiabortion group), actually held on to their misbeliefs more strongly. One theory is that this is the brain's way of resolving cognitive dissonance.

    Then again, maybe you think the researchers were biased--the Michigan study, for one, found a stronger "backfire" effect among conservatives--and so can disregard their findings. See how easy it is?

    All this suggests that we could be looking at myths the wrong way: as an illness that can be cured by a dose of fact. For starters, conspiracists are all about facts, or at least data--torrents of detail, whether false data or actual facts arranged to imply a bigger falsehood.

    This doesn't mean the truth is impotent. There is value in attempting to knock down myths, or in catching falsehoods by public figures in major forums--the idea behind PolitiFact's fact-checking partnership with ABC's This Week.

    But sadly, facts may just have their limits. Mark Twain is reputed to have said (or is it only a rumor?) that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is tying its shoes. For the lie, transportation has only improved since Twain's day. Whereas the truth now finds that, before departing, the lie has tied its shoelaces together.

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