Feb 10, 2017
In a recent New Scientist article* Dan Jones makes the observation that “… reasoning often starts with established conclusions and works back to find “facts” that support what we already believe. And if we’re presented with facts that contradict our beliefs, we find clever ways to dismiss them.” And there’s the rub. I’m fairly sure many of us believe that we follow the facts where they lead us and then draw conclusions because, after all, we are rational beings!
It would appear that making the facts fit our beliefs has nothing to do with IQ either; rather, it seems to be a problem of how facts are presented. Jones maintains that if one considers the Trump election, and that Facebook was the news provider for approximately two-thirds of the US population, and what they were reading reflected their already held beliefs, it’s not hard to see how distortion of facts and reasoning could occur. “These days, it’s easy to drift into the echo chambers reverberating not only with news and views that confirm your biases, but also falsehoods, rumours and conspiracy theories jostling with stories from reputable sources.” It becomes hard to distinguish fact from fiction, in other words.
The problem seems to be that we don’t respond well to “facts, facts, and facts”. I can think of the anti-smoking campaign as an example, where the facts (statistics) seemed to have little impact on reducing the number of smokers. Possibly it’s because the connection of those facts to the individual is not directly perceived.
So how do we get closer to REAL?
- When those facts are presented graphically - pictures, graphs and so on – there seems to be wider uptake. Unpublished work by Nyhan and Reifler certainly seems to support this notion and they have found that people form more accurate beliefs with graphics, than by reading the same information in text format.
- Another aid to more accurate reasoning, is to boost people’s self-esteem. Nyhan and Reifler believe that our views and beliefs define our world view and identity, and anything that threatens that may make us reject or manipulate the facts. We generally struggle to update our beliefs in line with new evidence perhaps for this reason.
- Another researcher, Kahan found was that those people who are “scientifically curious” i.e. people who seek out and consume scientific information for personal pleasure” seem to hold views that are closer to the facts. This seems to be a trait that only some people possess, but perhaps discourse and critical thinking skills can help people to discriminate fact from fiction more easily.
I endorse Jones’ conclusion where he points out that while modern technology has a decided impact on the speed, availability and quality of information that is disseminated, it’s not as though circulation of misinformation, or manipulation of facts, or personal biases has not always existed. “We have survived nonetheless” yet we should be mindful of, and question, our filters and blinkers as they relate to the construction of our reality.
Jones, D. 2016 New Scientist, Seeing Reason. Reed Business Information, Chatswood, Australia, pp 29 - 32
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