Sunday, October 13, 2013

Misinformation, Lies and Ignorance

By Gary Berg-Cross

At a recent meeting I attended the topic of American decline came up somewhat as an obvious assertion as fact with the subsequent search for why this was happening.  After the usual suspects of ineffective government and various stresses such the wealth gap and declining resources it was suggested that an additional reason was “ignorance.” This was elaborated a bit as people not understanding they are being fooled, lied to and manipulated.  For a number of reasons people are just misinformed. We can blame Fox unNews and others parts of conservative media for misinformation on the Affordable Care Act - see What Epic Propaganda Looks Like Obamacare And Permanent Right-Wing Misinformation which includes the sensational rumor mongering ideas of “death panels” and fact-free claims that:

These are the type of unbalanced, sensational, emotion-generating stories that abuse common sense but appeal to some bias and thus spawns meme waves.  The more boring reality of a neutral story can't compete. 

How do we handle this? One idea is to simply ask, "what is the source or these claims?"  Challenging the source is one way to fight misinformation (MI) in a person, but it may not stem a tide of MIs.  Media and political machines provide an easy way to spread these oversimplified memes which are not sourced back to facts, but are just myths.

 As Mark Twain wrote:
It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble.
 It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.

Yes, and Psychology tells us a bit about why people hold on this this Foxian misinformation. You can read a bit about it in Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing by Australian Stephan Lewandowsky and others.  

Novelty, emotional capability and over simplicity making misinformation memetic is part of it.  Having a megaphone to get the meme out is another, but it is also important that we live an nonintellectual climate that
accepts a naive idea of binary balance or what I called binary thinking.  You see in arguments about evolution vs. creationism.  There are 2 sides and so it is balanced to give them equal discussion.  No, this is not the way to balance fact and opinion, although Fox news seems to place the asymmetry in the other direction – more opinion than facts.  People will believe something if it comes from a well-positioned source.  Should I believe in creationism?  Well if it is good enough for my moral leaders (Rabbis, priests, ministers etc.) than it is good enough for me.

 The internet and the social web makes this easier than ever to get a preponderance of opinion and advocacy out there as opposed to literal fact. And of course people believe internet misinformation because it sounds literal like an authoritative source.

“A survey of the first 50 Web sites matching the search term “weight loss diets” revealed that only 3 delivered sound dietary advice.” Why People Believe Weird Things and 8 Ways to Change Their Minds by Jeremy Dean

I once had a conversation with a person who thought the facts were against climate change.  His source was a site with some authoritative  definitive name like Climate Facts I don’t remember the actual name, but I looked it up and found it was funded by Exxon. That gave me something to use aside from different climate change facts. With my confused friend I could show why the site he found might be misinforming him – they had hidden motives.

The lesson here is that people are partly ignorant because it is hard to keep up with the flow of information, and not critical thinking or skeptical enough. But there is also responsibility on the part or the 4th Estate to inform.  As Carl Bernstein noted:

The lowest form of popular culture - lack of information, misinformation, disinformation and a contempt for the truth or the reality of most people's lives - has overrun real journalism. 

Psychologist Jeremy Dean proposes a few other ways to unstick folks from misinformation.  These include keeping the rebuttal short and sweet. By sweet one means not attacking the person and being affirmative and not just negative. Don’t overload a misinformed person but dose things out as they may be able to assimilate it and do it in an exchange
An interesting idea which I haven’t tried systematically is to, as Dean calls it “affirm identity.” The idea is to mitigate people’s natural resistance to new, countering, unpleasant facts by getting them to affirm their identity. So if people think of themselves as generous or open or having Christian values they may be better able to accept the value of funding food for hungry people while thinking of those identities. Research suggests this helps people deal with inconsistencies between their beliefs and the new information that is conflicting with it.

In this informative process there are some things to avoid.  After you have noted a topic you are addressing, don’t keep repeating a myth associated with it, such as “death panels”. It just activates emotions, so re-frame the discussion and repeat your main points, which should include facts to give

them a chance to replace unfacts. Think of it as dismantling a structure in stages, but providing a new, sturdy structure to replace it.  I had that experience in that same meeting where we discussed ignorance.  One person supported the idea that our society was declining because it was, yes, too complex, but that this was driven by the government making things too complex in order to be “fair.”  Step by step people in the group offered simple examples of how things like the tax code or laws are complex due to greed and interest on the part of power groups able to influence the construction of tax exemptions etc.  By the end we had a group understanding and the myth of government imposition of fairness was dismantled.

Lewandowsky and colleagues conclude their article with a mixed note of caution and information consumer advice:
“Correcting misinformation is cognitively indistinguishable from misinforming people to replace their preexisting correct beliefs. It follows that it is important for the general public to have a basic understanding of misinformation effects… Widespread awareness of the fact that people may “throw mud” because they know it will “stick”…will contribute to a well-informed populace.”

 Yes, we are all information consumers and know how to move other’s opinions.  It is the task of ethical information agents to pursue the true and educate our fellow citizens.



mralstoner said...

Have to agree with the pessimists on this one. Much of the Western world seems on track for economic, demographic, cultural, and military suicide. China can't contain its laughter. In evolutionary terms, the Western world is failing miserably at group fitness i.e. protecting its interests in a competitive world. Dreamy pollyannas will talk about the dawn of a new global open-borders humanity. But the West has all the signs of the end stages of civilisation. A betting man would look at which countries have retained their group fitness, and its China all the way. The USA will balkanise into ethnic and cultural and econimic strife and will be at the mercy of the new superpower: China. Lights out for freedom. I hope the West can repair itself but it doesn't look likely to happen.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

You may also agree with the discussion we had over Joseph Tainter ideas about the “Collapse of Complex Societies"...There is a recent blog on this.