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.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Poisoned by preconceived notions

If you needed something else to make you worry about our capacity to make decisions based on facts, go no further than a study that came out this week from the University of Texas at Austin.

Entitled "Fake News on Social Media: People Believe What They Want to Believe When it Makes No Sense At All," the study was conducted by Patricia L. Moravec, Randall K. Minas, and Alan R. Dennis of the McCombs School of Business.  And its results should be seriously disheartening for just about everyone.

What they did was a pair of experiments using students who were "social media literate" -- i.e., they should know social media's reputation for playing fast and loose with the truth -- first having them evaluate fifty headlines as true or false, and then giving them headlines with "Fake News" flags appended.  In each case, there was an even split -- in the first experiment, between true and false headlines, and in the second, between true and false headlines flagged as "Fake."

In both experiments, the subjects were hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine, to monitor their brain activity as they performed the task.

In the first experiment, it was found -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- that people are pretty bad at telling truth from lies when presented only with a headline.  But the second one is the most interesting, and also the most discouraging.  Because what the researchers found is that when a true headline is flagged as false, and a false headline is flagged as true, this causes a huge spike in activity of the prefrontal cortex -- a sign of cognitive dissonance as the subject tries desperately to figure out how this can be so -- but only if the labeling of the headline as such disagrees with what they already believed.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

So we're perfectly ready to believe the truth is a lie, or a lie is the truth, if it fits our preconceived notions.  And worse still, what the researchers saw is that in general, even though subjects had an uncomfortable amount of cognitive processing going on when they were confronted by something that was the opposite of what they thought was true, it didn't have much influence over what they thought was true after the experiment.

In other words, you can label the truth a lie, or a lie the truth, but it won't change people's minds if they already believed the opposite.  Our ability to discern fact from fiction, and use that information to craft our view of the world, is poisoned by our preconceived notions of what we'd like to be true.

Before you start pointing fingers, the researchers also found that there was no good predictor of how well subjects did on this test.  They were all bad -- Democrats and Republicans, higher IQ and lower IQ, male and female.

"When we’re on social media, we’re passively pursuing pleasure and entertainment," said Patricia Moravec, who was lead author of the study, in an interview with UT News.  "We’re avoiding something else...  The fact that social media perpetuates and feeds this bias complicates people’s ability to make evidence-based decisions.  But if the facts that you do have are polluted by fake news that you truly believe, then the decisions you make are going to be much worse."

This is insidious because even if we are just going on social media to be entertained, the people posting political advertisements on social media aren't.  They're trying to change our minds.  And what the Moravec et al. study shows is that we're not only lousy at telling fact from fiction, we're very likely to get suckered by a plausible-sounding lie (or, conversely, to disbelieve an inconvenient truth) if it fits with our preexisting political beliefs.

Which makes it even more incumbent on the people who run social media platforms (yeah, I'm lookin' at you, Mark Zuckerberg) to have on-staff fact checkers who are empowered to reject ads on both sides of the political aisle that are making false claims.  It's not enough to cite free speech rights as an excuse for abrogating your duty to protect people from immoral and ruthless politicians who will say or do anything to gain or retain power.  The people in charge of social media are under no obligation to run any ad someone's willing to pay for.  It's therefore their duty to establish criteria for which ads are going to show up -- and one of those criteria should surely be whether it's the truth.

The alternative is that our government will continue to be run by whoever has the cleverest, most attractive propaganda.  And as we've seen over the past three years, this is surely a recipe for disaster.


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun book about math.

Bet that's a phrase you've hardly ever heard uttered.

Jordan Ellenberg's amazing How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking looks at how critical it is for people to have a basic understanding and appreciation for math -- and how misunderstandings can lead to profound errors in decision-making.  Ellenberg takes us on a fantastic trip through dozens of disparate realms -- baseball, crime and punishment, politics, psychology, artificial languages, and social media, to name a few -- and how in each, a comprehension of math leads you to a deeper understanding of the world.

As he puts it: math is "an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength."  Which is certainly something that is drastically needed lately.

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

No comments:

Post a Comment