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.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Lying to our faces

Why are humans so prone to falling for complete bunk?

I ask this question because of two rather distressing studies that I ran into a while back, but which (understandably, when you see what they're about) didn't get much press.  Both of them should make all of us sit up and take notice.

In the first, a group of medical researchers led by Christina Korownyk of the University of Alberta studied over 400 recommendations (each) made on The Dr. Oz Show and The Doctors, medical talk shows in which advice is liberally dispensed to listeners on various health issues.  The recommendations came from forty episodes from each show, and both the episodes and the recommendations were chosen at random.

The recommendations were then evaluated by a team of medical scientists, who looked at the quality of actual research evidence that supported each. It was found that under half of Dr. Oz's claims had evidential support -- and 15% were contradicted outright by the research.  The Doctors did a little better, but still only had a 63% support from the available evidence.

In the second study, an independent non-partisan group called PunditFact evaluated statements on Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN for veracity, placing them in the categories of "True," "Mostly True," "Half True," "Mostly False," "False," and "Pants On Fire."  The latter category was reserved for statements that were so completely out of skew with the facts that they would have put Pinocchio to shame.

Fox News scored the worst, with only 18% of statements in the "True" or "Mostly True" categories.   60% of the statements on Fox were in the lowest three categories.  But before my readers who are on the liberal side of things start crowing with delight, allow me to point out that MSNBC doesn't win any awards for truth-telling, either.  They scored only 31% in the top two categories, and 48% in the lowest three.

Even CNN, which had the best scores, still only had 60% of their statements in the "True" or "Mostly True" categories!

Pretty discouraging stuff. Because far too many people take as gospel the statements heard on these sad examples of media, unquestioningly accepting what they hear as fact.

I think the reason is that so many of us are uncomfortable questioning our baseline assumptions.  If we already believe that liberals are going to lead the United States into ruination, then (1) we'll naturally gravitate toward Fox News, and (2) we'll hear lots of what we already thought was true, and have the lovely experience of feeling like we're right about everything.  Likewise the liberals who think that the Republicans are evil incarnate, and who therefore land right in happy MSNBC fantasy land.

And as the first study shows, this isn't confined to politics.  When Dr. Oz says, "Carb-load your plate at breakfast because it's heart-healthy" (a claim roundly contradicted by the evidence), the listeners who love waffles with lots of maple syrup are likely to say, "Hell yeah!"

What's worse is that when we're shown statements contradictory to our preconceived beliefs, we're likely not even to remember them.  About ten years ago, two of my students did a project in my class where they had subjects self-identify as liberal, conservative, or moderate, and then presented them with an article they'd written containing statistics on the petroleum industry.  The article was carefully written so that half of the data supported a conservative viewpoint (things like "government subsidies for oil companies keep gasoline prices low, encouraging business") and half supported more liberal stances (such as "the increasing reliance on fossil fuels has been shown to be linked with climate change").  After reading the article, each test subject was given a test to see which facts they remembered from it.

Conservatives were more likely to remember the conservative claims, liberals the liberal claims.  It's almost as if we don't just disagree with the opposite viewpoint; on some level we can't even quite bring ourselves to believe it exists.

It's a troubling finding.  This blind spot seems to be firmly wired into our brain, again bringing up the reluctance that all of us have in considering that we might be wrong about something.

The only way out, of course, is through training our brains to suspend judgment until we've found out the facts.  The rush to come to a conclusion -- especially when the conclusion is in line with what we already believed -- is a dangerous path.  All the more highlighting that we need to be teaching critical thinking and smart media literacy in public schools.

And we need to turn off the mainstream media.  It's not that one side or the other is skewed; it's all bad.


Monday's post, about the institutionalized sexism in scientific research, prompted me to decide that this week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is Evelyn Fox Keller's brilliant biography of Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Barbara McClintock, A Feeling for the Organism.

McClintock worked for years to prove her claim that bits of genetic material that she called transposons or transposable elements could move around in the genome, with the result of switching on or switching off genes.  Her research was largely ignored, mostly because of the attitudes toward female scientists back in the 1940s and 1950s, the decades during which she discovered transposition.  Her male colleagues laughingly labeled her claim "jumping genes" and forthwith forgot all about it.

Undeterred, McClintock kept at it, finally amassing such a mountain of evidence that she couldn't be ignored.  Other scientists, some willingly and some begrudgingly, replicated her experiments, and support finally fell in line behind her.  She was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine -- and remains to this day the only woman who has received an unshared Nobel in that category.

Her biography is simultaneously infuriating and uplifting, but in the end, the uplift wins -- her work demonstrates the power of perseverance and the delightful outcome of the protagonist winning in the end.  Keller's look at McClintock's life and personal struggles, and ultimate triumph, is a must-read for anyone interested in science -- or the role that sexism has played in scientific research.

[Note: If you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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