Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 9 – Evidence First

In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan tells the story of the fire-breathing dragon living in his garage.

Spoiler alert: there’s no dragon. There is, however, an amusing anecdote that demonstrates some very weird things that can happen when you ignore evidence (or the lack thereof). As Sagan tells it, a friend comes by to see the dragon, and Sagan explains that it’s invisible. The friend asks him to spread some flour on the floor so they can at least see its footprints. Sagan says it’s a flying dragon. The friend suggests an infrared camera to detect its flames. Sagan explains that it breathes heatless fire, and so on, and so on, and so on.

In the end, Sagan asks the reader what the difference is between an invisible, flying, incorporeal dragon and no dragon at all. The answer is: none, unless you choose to ignore the complete lack of evidence for any dragon.

Another great example of what happens when you ignore evidence (and a good example of cognitive bias) is contained in When Prophecy Fails, a classic work of psychology from 1956. It examines the activities of a Chicago cult which believed an apocalyptic flood was about to hit the earth, and only by following a specific set of procedures could members be saved by a flying saucer that would whisk them to safety.

Spoiler alert: there was no flood and no saucer. But curiously, after the magical craft failed to appear, the most strident cult members didn’t reassess the new evidence (no flood, no saucer) and adjust their actions and beliefs. Instead, they ignored the evidence and doubled down on their emotional investment in the cult.

When people turn off their critical faculties and make evidence take a back seat to what they want to be true, dangerous things can happen:

  • There was no wave of communists infiltrating America during the 1950s, but that didn’t stop Joseph McCarthy from destroying lives in an effort to smoke them out.
  • Jews weren’t responsible for Germany’s post-WWI woes, but that didn’t stop Hitler from scapegoating them.
  • There was no child sex trafficking ring run by Hillary Clinton and others, operating out of the basement of a Washington pizza parlour, yet QAnon is a viable conspiracy theory to this day.

When we adopt an evidence-first approach to information, we put a powerful shield on our arm that protects us from a ton of disinformation.

  • Remember to ask, “What’s the evidence?” It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about flying saucers or who makes the best spaghetti in town: our decisions need to be guided by evidence, and not what we want to be true.
  • Look at the source of the evidence. Is it credible? Is it believable? How do you know? Nobody wants to critically examine every single piece of information they come across in life, but the more we look at the underlying evidence, the better decisions we make.
  • Who’s got the best track record with evidence? Since we can’t evaluate every piece of information in life in detail, we need to take the shortcut of identifying trusted sources. Even then, we don’t turn off our critical faculties, but we recognize that these are the sources more likely to be worthy of our trust.

Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 8 – Talking To People You Disagree With

This is part eight of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. For part seven, visit What You Want To Hear.

We talk with people we disagree with almost daily, people who hold views diametrically opposed to us, people we’re certain are operating under the influence of disinformation.

You need to know how to talk to them. Sometimes that’s because they’re related to you: your cousin may be convinced that fluoride in drinking water is a government plot or your sister may believe aliens have landed. It could be a colleague, your boss, a friend… anyone.

The most important thing to remember when talking with someone labouring under the influence of disinformation, is that trying to prove them wrong is useless. Thanks to a number of cognitive biases that kick in to protect our ego, humans will perform elaborate mental contortions to avoid admitting they’re wrong. In fact, trying to prove someone wrong is more likely to make them double down on their beliefs and dig in.

Psychologists recognize that getting someone to change their mind means creating a safe space for them to consider alternate points of view. That means you need to abandon confrontation and find common ground. For example, with the vaccine hesitant, it’s important to find out why they’re hesitant.

  • Are they worried about their health? Who isn’t? We all want to stay healthy.
  • Are they mistrustful of the government? That’s not unreasonable: every government in history has been less than truthful at some point in their tenure.
  • Did they read something that made them concerned? Reading to inform yourself about important issues is good, even if you don’t agree with the source in this instance.

Recognize that there’s a reason why these people are acting the way they are, even if you think it’s not a good reason, and start from there. Treat any attempt to get people to change their mind as an exercise in negotiation. As with any negotiation, there are a number of tools you can use:

  • Active listening: let the person know you hear them, and try to feed back what you’re hearing.
  • Stay curious: as soon as you’ve convinced yourself you’re right and they’re wrong, or they’re stupid and you’re smart, the conversation is over. Staying curious doesn’t mean you agree with them, just that you’re trying to understand them.
  • Ask questions: why do they think the things they do? Where did they get their information from? Who did they hear it from?
  • Give them a golden bridge: make it easy for them to change their mind by giving them an “out,” a way for them to start a shift their opinion while saving face and without threatening their ego.

We all want to change someone’s mind at some point, or at least get them to consider alternatives. Treating it like a debate never works; treating it like a conversation can.

Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 7 – What You Want To Hear

This is part seven of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. For part six, visit Cognitive Bias.

The best politicians and salespeople take advantage of a universal truth: tell ’em what they want to hear, and they’re yours.

“The art of propaganda is not telling lies, but rather selecting the truth you require and giving it mixed up with some truths the audience wants to hear.”

It’s insidious enough in a sales pitch, but when a politician does it, it’s infinitely more dangerous. History’s rife with examples.

The obligatory Donald Trump anecdote

A key plank in Donald Trump’s platform was reducing immigration, and he claimed “They’re taking our jobs. They’re taking our manufacturing jobs. They’re taking our money. They’re killing us.” That message got traction, especially in Rust Belt towns hard hit by the death of manufacturing: people are never more vulnerable than when their way of life is endangered. Trump knew that and told them what they wanted to hear: unemployment wasn’t their fault; it was the fault of the immigrants taking their work.

Unfortunately, immigrants don’t steal jobs. They’re actually a net gain for the economy. But simple narratives often win out over subtler ones, especially when we’re vulnerable and they tell us something that makes us feel good.

Hitler knew this and used it to convince large parts of the German populace that they didn’t lose WW I, but were stabbed in the back by Marxists, Jews, Bolsheviks and even their own government. To a nation living with defeat, crippled by a decade of reparation payments, the idea that they didn’t actually lose the war was a siren song millions readily accepted, even if it was demonstrably false.

Of course, telling people what they want to hear doesn’t have to be as grandiose or earth-shattering as all that. Every day we’re subjected to sales pitches, and every marketer and salesperson worth their weight knows to compliment the person they’re selling to. The trick is to take a moment to recognize when you’re being targeted.

It’s about ego

We love hearing what we want to hear, because of our ego. Whether it’s a compliment or a balm to soothe an emotional hurt, it just feels good. That feeling is your warning call.

When someone inside your trusted circle tells you something that makes you feel good, that’s one thing. But when someone outside that circle tells you something that tickles a part of you deep inside, stop and ask yourself, “Why do I like that so much? I don’t even know them.”

Taking that moment to stop and think can make the difference between being complimented and being taken advantage of.