In 2006, scholars Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler presented a paper to the American Political Science Association about the “backfire effect” – presenting evidence from a series of studies to show that “when your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your feelings get stronger.” In short, rather than change your views when presented with incontrovertible evidence that you are wrong, you just charge ahead with your preconceived ideas regardless of the truth.
A small group of our most ardent political opponents in state legislatures aligned with animal abuse industries – most recently in Michigan and in Indiana – are making themselves into poster boys for the ‘backfire effect.” They are rushing to state attorneys general and demanding that they issue “consumer warnings” because, these legislators claim, The HSUS is raising funds by representing itself as the umbrella group for all animal shelters. They have not a scintilla of evidence to support their arguments, but they keep saying it because they WANT to believe it, regardless of the facts.
Again and again, they claim that we raise money by telling people we run animal shelters. Now, I’ve written several thousand blogs since I started A Humane Nation in 2007, and I can guarantee you I’ve never said we run the nation’s animal shelters. Nor will you find that sequence of words on our website, in our mailings, in our TV ads, or in our magazine, which is, for them, inconveniently titled All Animals.
I have said that The HSUS provides education and training to countless animal shelters, which we do. I’ve said that we have a campaign with the Ad Council and Maddie’s Fund that has generated nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in advertising to promote adoption of animals from shelters. I’ve said we run a great Animal Rescue Team program that helps animals when local groups don’t have the capacity to respond to large-scale animal crisis situations, like a hoarding case or a puppy mill. I’ve said that we have a veterinary affiliate that helps pets on Native American reservations where there typically are no shelters at all. I’ve said that our Pets for Life program is helping pets and the people who care about them in underserved communities throughout the United States and changing the way shelters think about such communities. And I’ve said that we are leading the fight against puppy mills and dogfighting. And lots more.
Together these legislators are a collective case study of the backfire effect in action in the political domain. These lawmakers don’t like our hard-hitting campaigns to protect all animals from cruelty. They want so much to believe we are corrupt, perhaps to justify their defense of extreme forms of animal exploitation. They have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that millions of Americans support the work of The HSUS and our agenda to pull out animal cruelty by its roots.
Recently, Michigan State Senator Tom Casperson wrote to his state attorney general demanding redress under this theory. He provided no evidence to support it. But this is the same Tom Casperson who fought to pass two wolf-hunting bills in the legislature, only to have both of them overturned by voters after The HSUS and our coalition partners qualified ballot measures on the subject. We won both measures by overwhelming majorities, with our second ballot measure on wolf hunting winning in 69 of Michigan’s 83 counties. And, yes, this is the same Tom Casperson who went to the floor of the Michigan senate and was forced to apologize after he made up a story out of whole cloth about wolves stalking kids at a day care center. No such incident ever happened, and he was exposed by the press for lying. Given that things didn’t quite go his way, I can understand his frustration with The HSUS.
The latest members of the backfire gang come from Indiana, where six Republican lawmakers who had been together pushing a raft of anti-animal welfare measures, wrote to the attorney general there. This group of lawmakers has been working to legalize captive hunting facilities, enact an ag-gag measure, and push right to farm and right to hunt measures throughout the legislature, on behalf of industrial factory farming and deer breeding interests. They didn’t succeed on their captive hunting, right to farm, or ag-gag measures, coming up short on each of these issues.
Angry about their losses, they lash out at The HSUS, and offer up their tripe, which comes from the playbook of Rick Berman, a Washington, D.C. operative who is paid by factory farmers, puppy millers, and other animal abusers to attack The HSUS. Berman has shilled for tobacco and alcohol companies, and his own son is publicly on the record calling him “a despicable man….an exploiter….a scoundrel.”
I get it that some lawmakers don’t like The HSUS. But the great thing about our political system is that it can tolerate dissent and disagreement. When lawmakers, though, try to abuse the power of the state government to suppress the speech of their political adversaries, then they go too far. They are not despicable for doing so. Nor are they scoundrels. But they are un-American.