People believe the craziest things — despite being proven wrong. Science can explain why people are stupid.
Reading time: 10 minutes
15 years in PR has taught me a thing or two about spin.
Unfortunately, people tend to believe in whatever version of a story that benefits themselves the most — or the version that’s coherent with their existing view of the world (they are often one and the same). Evidence and facts tend to have little effect on those who have made up their minds. It’s often enough to sway people by casting enough doubt on the truth. Especially if the truth is somehow inconvenient.
It’s often enough to sway people by casting enough doubt on the truth — especially if the truth is somehow inconvenient.
The Science Behind What People Believe
Studies have shown that people tend to absorb facts that support their view of the world, while at the same time disregarding or dismissing facts that threaten their held beliefs. This is what’s known as cognitive dissonance1.
“We cannot fully understand the acts of other people, until we know what they think they know, then in order to do justice we have to appraise not only the information which has been at their disposal, but the minds through which they have filtered it.”
― Walter Lippmann,
Which is closely related to…
Confirmation Bias (or Confirmatory Bias)
Studies have shown that people will be more “successful” when seeking out information and perspectives supporting their already held beliefs2.
The Hostile Media Effect
Studies have shown that people with strong opinions on a specific issue tend to believe that the media is biased towards their opposition. The effect will be even stronger if the individual believes that there is a silent majority out there who are particularly susceptible to erroneous or misleading media coverage.
Interestingly, individuals with opposite beliefs will often think that the same article is favoring the opposition3.
Media logic isn’t a single theory, but rather a concept with several science-backed theories on how the contents of the media are affected by external and internal factors. Professor Marshall McLuhan went so far as to conclude that “the media is the message” — meaning that any medium’s inherent media logic is affecting us more than any single message ever could.
One such problem is how news organizations, in an attempt to report the news in a balanced way while at the same time highlight conflict, they offer airtime and editorial space to both sides of the spectrum. Here, climate change is a typical example; climate deniers (despite being vastly outnumbered) will get an unreasonable amount of media coverage, thus adding to the notion that an overwhelming majority of climate scientists could be wrong.
Cherry Picking (or the Fallacy of Incomplete Evidence)
Studies have shown that we are susceptible to information presented in fragments that seem to support one specific position, while at the same time leaving out contradictory evidence4.
The French author Rupert Furneaux demonstrated how to cast doubt on the existence of Napoleon Buonaparte, one of the most famous characters in history:
1. The name Napoleon is just a variation of Apoleon or Apollo, and as God of the Sun, he was named Buonaparte, which means “the good part of the day” (when the sun shines).
2. Just as Apollo was born on the Mediterranean island Delos, Napoleon was born on the Mediterranean island Corsica.
3. Napoleon’s mother Letitia can be identified as Leto, Apollo’s mother. Both names mean joy and happiness, signaling the sun keeping the night at bay.
4. Letitia had three daughters — as did Leto, Apollo’s mother.
5. Napoleon’s four brothers represent the four seasons. Three of his brothers became kings, except for one brother who became Prince of Canino (derived from ‘cani,’ white, winter, aging).
6. Napoleon was driven out of France by Northern armies, as Appolo, the Sun God, was driven away by the North Wind.
7. Napoleon had two wives, as did Apollo. They represent the Earth and the Moon. Apollo never had any children with the Moon, but the Earth gave him a son, representing the fertilization of all green plants on Earth. Napoleon’s son was allegedly born on the 21st of March, the equinox in which the plane of Earth’s equator passes through the center of the Sun (the Summer Solstice).
8. Apollo saved Greece from the dragon Python, and Napoleon saved France from the horrors of revolution (derived from ‘revolvo,’ something that crawls).
9. Napoleon’s twelve generals are symbols for the twelve creatures of the zodiac, and his four generals represent North, West, South, and East.
10. Napoleon, the Sun Myth, always conquered in the South but was always defeated by the cold winds of the North. Like the Sun, Napoleon rose in the East — he was born on Corsica) — and dawned in the West — he died on St. Helena.
Now, don’t get any ideas; Napoleon Buonaparte is one of the most documented figures in history. There are numerous accounts of him throughout Europe. Napoleon is not a mythical figure.
The Challenge of First Principle Thinking
Make no mistake about it; interpreting facts is surprisingly difficult.
In 1907, the horse industry was booming in the Unites States. At this time, most experts would reasonably believe that horses were a growth business. But with the disruptive introduction of the car by Henry Ford in 1908, it wasn’t.
The assumption that the demand for horses would increase was simply not a correct analysis based on the facts. The correct analysis was that the demand for personal transportation would continue to increase.
And few human beings are capable of this kind of sophisticated extrapolation.
Why is this kind of thinking so difficult?
Elon Musk, one of the boldest entrepreneurs around, explained his use of first principles in a great interview with Kevin Rose:
“I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. We are doing this because it’s like something else that was done or it is like what other people are doing — slight iterations on a theme.
‘First principles’ is kind of a physics way of looking at the world. You boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, “What are we sure is true?” … and then reason up from there.
Somebody could say, “Battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be. Historically, it has cost $600 per kilowatt hour. It’s not going to be much better than that in the future.”
With first principles, you say, “What are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the stock market value of the material constituents?”
It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, some polymers for separation and a seal can. Break that down on a material basis and say, “If we bought that on the London Metal Exchange what would each of those things cost?”
It’s like $80 per kilowatt hour. So, clearly you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell, and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.”
How to Protect Yourself from ‘Alternative Facts’
1. Respect the Facts
There are no such thing as ‘alternative facts.’
Either something’s a fact — or it isn’t. There are different versions, different perspectives, different explanatory models, different frameworks, different philosophies. But facts are just facts.
2. Beware of Opinions
Most of what you hear authority figures say in the media are just their opinions.
Everyone’s entitled to their opinions, but that doesn’t mean that everyone knows what they’re talking about. It doesn’t matter if the opinion belongs to an expert — it’s still just an opinion.
3. Never Assume Causality
Correlation (A happens, and B happens) is not the same thing as causality (A makes B happen).
For instance, if there’s a decrease in local crime rates, it might not have anything to do with the latest legislative measures taken by your politicians; it might just be the result of more liberal abortion laws implemented 15-20 years ago (see Freakonomics).
4. Learn About Theory
A theory is a description of reality supported by scientific evidence — and not yet falsified.
Isaac Newton’s theories of physics were supported by overwhelming scientific evidence, but never fully. Later, Albert Einstein managed to present the theories of relativity, explaining the specific instances where Newton’s theories tested false. Today, quantum physicists are hard at work trying to develop theories that explain the particular situations where Einstein’s theories might not apply.
These leaps are not to be seen as science weaknesses!
5. Think for Yourself
Listen to the news media. Listen to experts. Listen to opinions and arguments. But don’t just listen.
When push comes to shove, it’s always up to the individual to apply critical thinking. In poker, there’s a fitting saying: “If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half-hour at the table, you are the sucker.”
Bonus tip: Make sure to check out Wikipedia’s editorial venture — Wikitribune.
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