The following is an excerpt from "Week Four" of my upcoming book, Chasing Glenn Beck.
Facts are unimportant these days. We live in a time of instant myth-making, a time when revisionist history happens almost before history occurs, a time when the new model for rhetoric is to treat everything like it’s a high school term paper.
It’s Saturday afternoon. The 750-word essay that Mr. Winston assigned for your eleventh-grade U.S. history class is due on Monday morning, third period. You find the subject—the role of the Supreme Court—deadly dull, and after slogging through eighteen pages of densely packed text you are no closer to getting started than before. Your older sister suggested that you just go to the library and find an article to copy, but a gnawing conscience eats away at you and won’t let you do it. The day’s drifting away and your friends, all of whom have either completed the assignment or were lucky enough to get Mrs. Carfulli instead, are off playing stickball.
Sitting in front of an annoyingly blank piece of notebook paper and with a Bic poised in your right hand, you think about it for a few minutes, hoping that something will spring to mind. You rescan the eighteen pages to make sure you have a basic understanding of the U.S. Supreme Court and its responsibilities, how justices are selected, and how decisions are made. If you concentrate, you can just barely remember seven of the nine current members and their appointing presidents, enough, probably, for a B+ should there be a pop quiz. Forcing your mind back to the task at hand, you refocus on getting this shitty little essay drafted so that you can get it behind you and salvage whatever’s left of the weekend.
So you decide what to believe. Your brain kicks in to get-this-over-with mode and you just go with your gut and believe something. You take no time to explore facts or alternatives, or to analyze what you’ve read. Your brain comes up with something like “members of the Supreme Court aren’t really objective when they decide cases,” then you roll the idea around a little to see how it tastes before deciding that it’s a reasonable mix of opinion and comprehension, just the kind of thing Mr. Winston likes. A quick review of the reading assignment reveals nothing that would disagree with your premise; the idea feels safe and solid. It sounds good and feels good, so you go with it.
You haven’t done any research to support the idea and you can’t verbalize where it came from. Most likely you’ve internalized opinions half-heard from your parents or the Huntley-Brinkley Re-port. It doesn’t matter, though; you’ve decided.
Welcome to the birth of content-free thinking.
There’s still the actual writing to do, but now it’ll be a breeze. You just need to cherry-pick a couple of supporting examples and a few references, then clothe them in a bit of intellectual underwear. Seven hundred and fifty words won’t even raise a sweat.
You head to the library where you find a couple of books that look like they’ll serve as useful references, then you dig up two quotes buried in a microfiched magazine article. Adding citations from two recent Supreme Court decisions fills nearly half of a notebook page. You fill up another half with your basic argument, taking care to use as many extra words as possible in order to meet the essay’s length requirement. Then you fit in the quotes you found where they seem to belong and log all your references in classic Strunk-and-White style. A final word count takes two minutes, then you spend another ten on a quick re-read. One subject-verb agreement error and a spelling mistake require correction, and you call it your second draft. Recopying the essay onto a fresh sheet of paper finishes things off.
An idea that began as thin air now seems breathable. You’ve finished the paper and have now spent a couple of hours working on a convincing argument. In order to feel good about your work you need to believe it, at least a little bit. And the more you believe it, the more you believe it more.
The change isn’t just in your imagination; it’s in your brain. Recent discoveries in the area of neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain’s neurons to change, weaken, and strengthen with time and practice—confirm that concentration on an idea can reinforce the strength of that idea in your brain. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, chief of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard University, uses the analogy of sledding down a snowy hill in winter. The first time down, he says, you create a bit of a track down the slope. The second time down it’s easier and faster to use the same track, so the track gets a little deeper. Each time you ride that sled, you’re reinforcing what has gone before. So, too, with the brain. Basically, the more you think about something you believe, the more that belief will strengthen over time.
Once you believe something, you’re also unlikely to let a little thing like facts get in the way, and that’s where things get scary. A series of studies conducted by the University of Michigan in 2005 and 2006 revealed that facts don’t change our beliefs—and can actually make our wrong beliefs even stronger. Our psyche doesn’t like to admit error. If someone believes that Planned Parenthood is an abortion factory, telling her that PP is prohibited from using federal funding for abortions won’t change her mind. She’ll just nestle more deeply into her belief, perhaps arguing that “money is money” and you can’t slice it up like that, or that no one can ever really be sure because they’re probably messing with the books anyway. Show an anti-death penalty advocate scientific studies that support the death penalty as a deterrent and he’ll respond by pointing you to a website like deathpenaltyinfo.org, which is filled with studies of the studies that prove all your points wrong. Then you dig in. You’re not immune; you demonstrate the same resistance to conversation, relying instead on broadcasting the same arguments and the same “truths,” as if—somehow—the fifth or sixth repetition will finally result in a changed opinion.
At heart we’re all Journey fans: we won’t stop believing.
 Today you just head to the internet, parked conveniently on your iPad or laptop and available while you munch on a Bacon Turkey Bravo at Panera. Back then it meant hopping on a green three-speed Stingray with an enormous sissy-bar and pedaling the four miles to the Gardner Park Library.
 From The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge. Full disclosure: I didn’t read it all. Mostly I went trolling through it in order to cherry-pick bits of data that would support what I already believed or was pretty sure I had read elsewhere.