Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, August 26, 2013

New studies show that the author of Skeptophilia is brilliant!

I would love it if some psychologist who studies the effect of media on people's beliefs would do a specific experiment, and then let me know the results.

The experiment I'd like done is to have a series of fake news articles that test subjects would read.  There would be two different kinds of articles -- ones in which the headline basically summarized what the text of the article said (as it should be), and ones in which the headline made a statement that was at odds with what the text of the article actually claimed.  Then, subjects would answer some questions, and see which had a greater impact in their memory -- the contents of the headline, or the contents of the article text.

I strongly suspect that when the text of an article and the headline conflict, it's the headline that will have the biggest effect on what readers remember.  It's the first thing they see; it's in bold print; and it gives a catchy, terse summary of what the story supposedly is about.  All of the details in the text, I think, are much more likely to be lost, misremembered, or ignored outright.

This comes up because of an article sent to me by a friend, which was entitled "New studies: ‘Conspiracy theorists’ sane, while government dupes are crazy and hostile."  The story, which appeared in 21st Century Wire, is making a pretty bold claim -- that what the conspiracy theorists have been claiming all along is correct.  All of us skeptics, who have scoffed at the chemtrails and Illuminati and mind control and RFID chip implants and evil Satanic Masonic rituals, are not only wrong, we are the crazy ones.

Naturally, I was pretty interested to read about this.

The first paragraph basically mirrored the headline, stating that "those labeled 'conspiracy theorists' appear to be saner than those who accept the official version of contested events."  Then, we hear about the first study:
The most recent study was published on July 8th by psychologists Michael J. Wood and Karen M. Douglas of the University of Kent (UK). Entitled “What about Building 7? A social psychological study of online discussion of 9/11 conspiracy theories,” the study compared “conspiracist” (pro-conspiracy theory) and “conventionalist” (anti-conspiracy) comments at news websites.

The authors were surprised to discover that it is now more conventional to leave so-called conspiracist comments than conventionalist ones: “Of the 2174 comments collected, 1459 were coded as conspiracist and 715 as conventionalist.” In other words, among people who comment on news articles, those who disbelieve government accounts of such events as 9/11 and the JFK assassination outnumber believers by more than two to one. That means it is the pro-conspiracy commenters who are expressing what is now the conventional wisdom, while the anti-conspiracy commenters are becoming a small, beleaguered minority.
By this time, I was already bouncing up and down in my chair, yelling, "Just wait a moment!  That doesn't support what the headline said at all!" at my computer.  So we have double the number of conspiracist comments as conventional ones posted on news websites -- we're supposed to conclude from this that the conspiracists are more likely to be right?  Or sane?  All it means is that conspiracist comments are common, which is hardly the same thing.

I don't even think that the we can even conclude from this that the conspiracists themselves outnumber the "conventionalists."  For that, we'd need to make the further assumption that people of all beliefs are equally likely to post, which seems like a leap, considering what a rabid lot some of the conspiracy theorists seem to be.

Then, we hear about the second "study:"
(T)hese findings are amplified in the new book Conspiracy Theory in America by political scientist Lance deHaven-Smith, published earlier this year by the University of Texas Press. Professor deHaven-Smith explains why people don’t like being called “conspiracy theorists”: The term was invented and put into wide circulation by the CIA to smear and defame people questioning the JFK assassination! “The CIA’s campaign to popularize the term ‘conspiracy theory’ and make conspiracy belief a target of ridicule and hostility must be credited, unfortunately, with being one of the most successful propaganda initiatives of all time.”

In other words, people who use the terms “conspiracy theory” and “conspiracy theorist” as an insult are doing so as the result of a well-documented, undisputed, historically-real conspiracy by the CIA to cover up the JFK assassination. That campaign, by the way, was completely illegal, and the CIA officers involved were criminals; the CIA is barred from all domestic activities, yet routinely breaks the law to conduct domestic operations ranging from propaganda to assassinations.
Ah.  So because (1) conspiracy theorists don't like being called conspiracy theorists, and (2) the CIA engaged in some nasty business surrounding the JFK assassination, the conspiracy theorists are actually sane when they babble about chemtrails and the Bilderberg Group.  Got it.

Then, we have an alleged conclusion from psychologist Laurie Manwell, of the University of Guelph, summarized as follows:
Psychologist Laurie Manwell of the University of Guelph agrees that the CIA-designed “conspiracy theory” label impedes cognitive function. She points out, in an article published in American Behavioral Scientist (2010), that anti-conspiracy people are unable to think clearly about such apparent state crimes against democracy as 9/11 due to their inability to process information that conflicts with pre-existing belief.
So, I did a little digging on Manwell -- and as you might already be anticipating, the author of the article in 21st Century Wire is misrepresenting her, too.  Turns out Manwell thinks that laypeople of all stripes tend to ignore factual information, and pay more attention to claims that support what they already believed.  Take a look at what she wrote in a June 2007 paper, "Faulty Towers of Belief:"
Most laypersons would agree with research showing that attitudes influence a person's evaluation of a subject -- whether it be an idea or another person -- and that the stronger the attitude, the greater influence it will have in evoking a positive or a negative evaluation.  However, the types of reasoning processes that laypersons believe they use when evaluating information are not necessarily the processes that they actually use.  Research repeatedly shows that what people say they are doing, and what they are actually doing, are often two very different things... Thus, in evaluating the events of 9/11, we need to keep in mind that there are many factors that influence our judgments, including previously formed attitudes and beliefs, many of which are resistant to change, and some of which we may not even be aware of at the time of evaluation.
So, the bottom line is that Manwell's contention is that we're all prone to confirmation bias, which is hardly the same thing as claiming that the conspiracy theorists are clear-eyed exponents of the truth, and the skeptics are dim-witted obstructionists.  And as far as who is entering the argument with more "previously formed attitudes and beliefs," might I just ask you to consider that question from the standpoint of contrasting Alex Jones with, say, Michael Shermer?

Oh, but don't let that stand in the way of your drawing the conclusion you'd already settled on.  Here's the last line of the article in 21st Century Wire:
No wonder the anti-conspiracy people are sounding more and more like a bunch of hostile, paranoid cranks.
So, there you have it.  Take some actual research, claim it supports the contentions you already had, then turn around and accuse your opponents of doing what you just did.  Craft a nice, inflammatory headline that basically says, "You Should Believe Me Because the People Who Disagree With Me Are Big Fat Liars," and call it good.

Chances are, the most your readers are going to remember about what you wrote is the headline, anyway, which gives me an idea.  Maybe I should start giving my posts headlines like "New Studies Show That You'll Have Good Luck If You Send Gordon Money."  It's worth a try, because attempting to become independently wealthy as a writer seems to be a losing proposition any other way.


  1. Bonnet is clearly a shill for Big Government cover-ups. Or brilliant.

  2. Headline: 100% of first-commenters agree Bonnet has at least 50% chance of being brilliant!

  3. Now that I am writing a comment, I feel saner.