Perspective: When facts don’t matter

Sep 12 2017
Posted by: Staff
Perspective: When facts don’t matter

By: Jay Sisson

When we run into disagreements with others, we oftentimes come up against seemingly one of the most difficult walls to having open discussions: our tendency to want to change the minds of others and the difficulty of actually making that happen. Although personal bias has always been a part of human nature, the structure of our modern world is making surrounding ourselves with our own personal bias more simple than ever. Due to this, minds may be more difficult to change now than ever before.

During World War II from 1942 to 1945, anywhere from 110,000 and 120,000 Japanese Americans were relocated to internment prison camps out of fear that these citizens would be sympathetic to the Japanese cause. Records of conditions within these camps show that food and medicine were often in short supply, building construction was unsafe and often left residents exposed to the elements and families often found themselves separated or crammed into tight spaces. Seven-year-old Jeanne Wakatsuki described this in detail in her memoir on her own experience as a prisoner within the Manzanar internment camp, called Farewell to Manzanar:

After dinner we were taken to Block 16, a cluster of 15 barracks that had just been finished a day or so earlier, although finished was hardly the word for it. The shacks were built of one thickness of pine planking covered with tarpaper. They sat on concrete footings, with about two feet of open space between the floorboards and the ground. Gaps showed between the planks, and as the weeks passed and the green wood dried out, the gaps widened. Knotholes gaped in the uncovered floor.  Each barracks was divided into six units, 16 by 20 feet, about the size of a living room, with one bare bulb hanging from the ceiling and an oil stove for heat. We were assigned two of these for the 12 people in our family group; and our official family number was enlarged by three digits - 16 plus the number of this barracks. We were issued steel army cots, two brown army blankets each, and some mattress covers, which my brothers stuffed with straw.

Thousands of writings exist to corroborate Jeanne’s story. Photographs of Manzanar and other camps show the poorly constructed, tightly packed shelters and miles of barbed wire fences. Due to this, it seems bizarre that in April of 1942, Harry Ferguson of the San Francisco News published an article titled “Manzanar Nice Place – It Better Than Hollywood.” Drawing from his personal visit to the Manzanar prison camp, he tells a much different story than Wakatsuki did:

This is the youngest, strangest city in the world – inhabited by Japanese who hoist American flags, put up pictures of George Washington and pray to the Christian God for the defeat of Japan’s armed forces. … Today it is a city of 3303 population with a fire department, a hospital, a police force, an English-language newspaper, baseball teams and community recreation centers. It probably is the fastest growing town in the world because soon its population will be doubled and eventually quadrupled. Most of the inhabitants are Japanese who have tasted American democracy and found it good. Probably 95 percent at least of the Japanese here are loyal to the United States. … Many of the loyal ones came here with fear and doubt in their hearts, expecting a Nazi-type concentration camp. Instead they found comfortable wooden buildings, bathhouses and showers and plenty of wholesome food. 

There is no fence around Manzanar now and while U.S. soldiers guard the main gate, there is nothing to prevent a Japanese from slipping away at night except the knowledge that he undoubtedly would be caught. Nobody has tried it … 

Democracy is at work among them. An election has been held to choose block leaders … The lives of the inhabitants have fallen quickly into the normal pattern of living. The Japanese firemen play solitaire while waiting for an alarm … Some volunteered to evacuate their homes and come here.

So what are we supposed to do with this? The account clearly has several inconsistencies with eyewitness accounts such as Wakatsuki’s. Are we to conclude from this that Ferguson is just a liar?

I have students read both of these articles when I cover Japanese internment in my history classes. They are always interested in how two accounts about the same place can be so wildly different. Although students are quick to call Ferguson a liar, I honestly do not believe he is in the truest sense of the word – that he seeks to intentionally deceive his readers. I don’t believe that it is that simple. If Ferguson truly believed that his government was making a habit of imprisoning innocent people in deplorable conditions, how can one reconcile that cognitive dissonance in the brain as a proud American citizen? What if instead, Ferguson unconsciously chose to miss seeing the barbed wire fence, the poorly constructed floors and the feelings of despair because in his narrative, how could these things exist? One smile from a Japanese American was filed into his brain as evidence that “people here must be happy.” One American flag hanging in a shack was filed away to support the conclusion that “these people must want to be here out of patriotic duty.” Ferguson’s probably genuine view of Manzanar was decided before he ever came through the gate and his time there was spent as a fact gathering mission to prop this narrative up. Scientists have long had a name for this: confirmation bias, which is our scientifically proven disposition as humans to only choose to internalize facts and narratives that fit our already held beliefs.

Jonas Kaplan, a psychologist at the University of Southern California, recently conducted a fascinating study in which he took 40 subjects that reported having deeply held political convictions, put them into an MRI brain scanner and started challenging their political beliefs. As subjects felt the pressure of their deeply held beliefs being challenged, a region of the brain called the amygdala lit up, which is responsible for our fear and aggression. Interestingly enough, this region is not as charged when factual information we believe to be correct is challenged in the same way. This means that essentially, it is not a big deal to adapt our factual information to challenging new information, but when our deeply held political beliefs are challenged, it feels as though, at least from our brain’s perspective, that we are under assault. This is because our political and religious beliefs tend to be tied more to emotional regions of our brain than factual information is. Under emotional pressure, the brain immediately goes into its self-protective state.

Leon Festinger wrote of this belief perseverance in his 1956 book, When Prophecy Fails, in which he joined a cult that believed that the world would end on Dec. 21, 1954. When the prophecy did not come true, most of the cult members still clung tight to their beliefs. Craig Anderson, Mark Lepper and Lee Ross explored this idea further in a study in which participants were given false data and asked to determine if that information established a link between risk taking behavior and success as a firefighter. The data was tailored so that participants would come to this result. Amazingly, even after being told that the information was false, the participants continued to believe their original conclusions. When asked to explain their belief on paper, those participants that provided more intricate explanations held onto their beliefs more firmly.

Studies like this have profound things to say about how we communicate with those that we disagree with and the questions that we should ask ourselves about how we get our information and where from. Consider how simple it is to surround ourselves within a cocoon of our own bias today. Our social media feeds can easily become echo chambers – full of news sources, reporters, authors and friends that, for the most part, hold similar views to our own. We can simply press a block or unfollow button when information we reject makes its way into our space. With the widespread dissemination of fake news during our last election cycle, selecting information that fits our narratives is as simple as ordering from a fast food menu. How are we supposed to have intelligent, open discussions in a world such as this in which we fill our heads with contradicting information that we all hold as authoritatively factual?

It starts with us. It starts with our ability to recognize our own biases, be honest with ourselves about when and how we are guilty of confirmation bias or belief perseverance and being humble enough to listen to others, recognizing that we are all human and guilty of the same brain processes. Although the primal reaction to a challenge to our political beliefs is that of fear and aggression, we do not have to be controlled by our amygdala. Being accountable for one’s own biases and allowing that to open you up to listen and learn is not only freeing, but it is also contagious. When we feel challenged, instead of going on ferocious defense, go on a persistent offense to understand more information and let well-researched facts exclusively drive your conclusions. As Confucius once said, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”


Jay Sisson is an educator currently living in Huntington, W.Va. He can be reached at  

Cover photo: “Manzanar Nice Place – It Better Than Hollywood.” 

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