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.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

An inoculation against nonsense

In my Critical Thinking classes, I always included an assignment that was a contest to see who could create the most convincing fake photo or video clip of a ghost, Bigfoot, UFO, or some other paranormal phenomenon.  The students loved it, but I had a very definite reason for assigning it; to show them how easy it is to do digital manipulation.  And some of the results were seriously creepy -- a few were so completely convincing that if I hadn't known better (and hadn't been a skeptic about such matters anyhow) I can easily see myself believing they were real.

My hope was that if they saw that high school students can generate plausible fakes, they should be on guard about believing photographic "evidence" they see online and in the news.  In fact, to mislead people you don't even have to manipulate photos, all you have to do is mislabel them -- look at the Oregon GOP's official site labeling a photograph of a protest by loggers as being a group of armed "militia" who were threatening the Democrats who had insisted that Republican congresspeople come back and vote on climate change legislation rather than skipping town so the measure would fail because of not reaching a quorum.

The result, of course, was like throwing gasoline on a fire -- which is almost certainly what the GOP wanted.

The ghost photo assignment, though, shows that you can inoculate people against being fooled by (oh, how I hate this phrase) "fake news."  And my anecdotal evidence of the success of such a strategy got a boost in a piece of research out of the University of Cambridge that appeared this week in Palgrave Communications, called "Fake News Game Confers Psychological Resistance Against Online Misinformation," by Jon Roozenbeek and Sander van der Linden.  In their study, they gave volunteers a game called "Bad News" to play, which challenges them to create the most convincing fake news article they can.  Players get points for how many people in the game are convinced, and lose "credibility points" if their stories get rejected.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons GDJ, FAKE NEWS, CC0 1.0]

What the researchers found was remarkable.  People who played the game showed a 21% decrease in their confidence levels toward fake news -- but no such drop in their belief in real news.  So it didn't turn them into cynics, thinking that everything they see is false, it simply made them aware of what kinds of features are woven into fake news to make it more attractive.

"Research suggests that fake news spreads faster and deeper than the truth, so combating disinformation after-the-fact can be like fighting a losing battle," said Sander van der Linden, Director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab and co-author of the study.  "We wanted to see if we could pre-emptively debunk, or ‘pre-bunk’, fake news by exposing people to a weak dose of the methods used to create and spread disinformation, so they have a better understanding of how they might be deceived.  This is a version of what psychologists call ‘inoculation theory’, with our game working like a psychological vaccination...  We find that just fifteen minutes of gameplay has a moderate effect, but a practically meaningful one when scaled across thousands of people worldwide, if we think in terms of building societal resistance to fake news."

"We are shifting the target from ideas to tactics," added co-author Jon Roozenbeek.  "By doing this, we are hoping to create what you might call a general ‘vaccine’ against fake news, rather than trying to counter each specific conspiracy or falsehood."

All of which is a cheering thought.  There's always the problem, when you teach people critical thinking skills, for them to slide from gullibility to cynicism, and not see that disbelieving everything out of hand is as lazy (and inaccurate) as believing everything out of hand.  What we have here is a strategy for giving people immunity to pseudoscience and conspiracy theories, which in today's world we sorely need.

Of course, there'll always be the ones who resist what you're trying to teach them -- the anti-vaxxers of critical thinking, so to speak.  But with luck, techniques like this might reduce their numbers to manageable proportions, and increase the likelihood of herd immunity for the rest of us.


Richard Dawkins is a name that often sets people's teeth on edge.  However, the combative evolutionary biologist, whose no-holds-barred approach to young-Earth creationists has given him a well-deserved reputation for being unequivocally devoted to evidence-based science and an almost-as-well-deserved reputation for being hostile to religion in general, has written a number of books that are must-reads for anyone interested in the history of life on Earth -- The Blind Watchmaker, Unweaving the Rainbow, Climbing Mount Improbable, and (most of all) The Ancestor's Tale.

I recently read a series of essays by Dawkins, collectively called A Devil's Chaplain, and it's well worth checking out, whatever you think of the author's forthrightness.  From the title, I expected a bunch of anti-religious screeds, and I was pleased to see that they were more about science and education, and written in Dawkins's signature lucid, readable style.  They're all good, but a few are sheer brilliance -- his piece, "The Joy of Living Dangerously," about the right way to approach teaching, should be required reading in every teacher-education program in the world, and "The Information Challenge" is an eloquent answer to one of the most persistent claims of creationists and intelligent-design advocates -- that there's no way to "generate new information" in a genome, and thus no way organisms can evolve from less complex forms.

It's an engaging read, and I recommend it even if you don't necessarily agree with Dawkins all the time.  He'll challenge your notions of how science works, and best of all -- he'll make you think.

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

No comments:

Post a Comment