Social. Political. Economic. Career| Seyed Ibrahim

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Dangers of Customized News and Feeds. Conspiracy Theories. Confirmation Bias. Online Echo Chambers

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The following is an edited excerpt from the edX Course “Think101x The Science of Everyday Thinking”

Conversation with Stephan Lewandowsky

Q: People tend to believe some pretty weird things, from NASA faking the moon landing to pharmaceutical companies conspiring with government departments to keep people sick, and climate change obviously. Why does that happen? Why do people believe strange things like that?

A: People tend to focus selectively on what they consider to be “the evidence”. They may focus on one data point in the case of climate change, one thermometer somewhere that has been showing cooling for the last ten years. it is only one of about a billion different measurements that tell us that the climate is changing. Yet by focusing on just this one convenient piece of evidence that is protecting people’s worldview, they can be absolutely convinced that they’re right: “Look here, there is this one thermometer. It’s cooling,” and they’re ignoring absolutely everything else. It is difficult to get people to go beyond that one piece of evidence because doing so would imply that they have to change their opinion, and that’s a very difficult thing for people to do.

Q: One of the major drivers in the maintenance of people’s beliefs and the formation of their beliefs is the role of the media. The media clearly plays a large role. You encountered that yourself?

A: There’s an abundance of evidence to suggest that certain segments of the media have done a very poor job informing the public about a number of issues, from the mythical weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to climate change. The media are culpable to some extent. That is a serious problem, especially now that we have the ability to choose their own media by focusing on certain sources on the Internet. People have become more immersed in their own bubble of information they like, and that is what they are consuming to the exclusion of everything else.

So climate-change deniers don’t read “Green Left Weekly” or the scientific literature. the scientific literature isn’t being reported accurately by certain media organizations. It’s a serious political problem.

Q: People seem to have an anti-establishment bias, in that sense that the government, the scientists are trying to further their own interests at the expense of the public. You encountered that before?

A: A common element of conspiracy theories is that the official version is always wrong, whether the official version is something that a government is putting out, or a scientific body, or in the case of vaccinations, the pharmaceutical industry. It’s just one way for people to reject a fact—is by making up a conspiracy surrounding it. If you do not want to believe that tobacco is bad for you because you’re a chain smoker, then what are going to do? Say that all the medical scientists are conspiring because they want to deny you this fun, so they’re making up all the stuff. citing their grandfather who has smoked every day of his life and lived to 100. That is the purpose of conspiracy theories. They’re cherry-picking one piece of supporting evidence while they’re ignoring absolutely everything else. That’s also a characteristic of conspiratorial thinking.

Belief in conspiracy theories / Online Echo Chambers

Steve has been looking at the nature of conspiracy theories and how they’re operating, and he mentioned a couple of the psychological mechanisms that are operating. One is related to the confirmation bias when you’re only looking at the evidence that supports what you want to believe. climate-change deniers actually only cite the evidence that doesn’t support the fact that the climate is changing due to human involvement – Paying attention to that one thermometer and ignoring the others. That’s the confirmation bias in a sense and cherry-picking the evidence that you’re looking for.

This is related to a really nice paper by Hastorf and Cantril in 1954. There’s a football match that was happening, fans watching the same football game, and you ask fans about their perceptions of dirty play during this football game. Each team reported that the other team was playing dirtier than their own. Yes, they’re watching exactly the same game, but they have completely different perceptions.

The news that you get is always based on a subset of news in some respects. People who read Facebook are only exposed to information from their friends on Facebook, very like-minded individuals. In fact, things like Facebook and Google only show you the things that you like and therefore probably agree with, which is going to bias you even further. When you do a Google search, the information that it pops up is not the information that I would get when I do the same search. We’re suffering from false consensus. You have this perception that other people think the same way that you do.

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Written by S Ibrahim

2015-12-16 at 10:30 PM

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