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4 reasons why people ignore facts and believe fake news

March 18,2017 23:35

Climate deniers don't dispute the data from tree rings, ice cores, and the rapid increase of greenhouse gases out of scientific curiosity – but because they're afraid that if it's true it might mean more restrictive government regulations on business ...


Dr. Michael Shermer is the author of "Why People Believe Weird Things." He is
the publisher of Skeptic Magazine and the Presidential Fellow
at Chapman University, where he teaches Skepticism 101.

The new year has brought us the apparently new phenomena of fake
news and alternative facts, in which black is white, up is down,
and reality is up for grabs. 

The inauguration crowds were the largest ever. No, that was
not a “falsehood,” proclaimed by Kellyanne Conway as she defended
Sean Spicer’s inauguration attendance numbers: “our press
secretary…gave alternative facts to that.”

George Orwell, in fact, was the first to identify this problem in
his classic Politics and the English
Language (1946). In the essay, Orwell explained
that political language “is designed to make lies sound
truthful” and consists largely of “euphemism,
question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” 


But if fake news and alternative facts is not a new phenomenon,
and popular writers like Orwell identified the problem long ago,
why do people still believe them? Well, there are several factors
at work.

Cognitive simplicity

In general, when our brains process information belief
comes quickly and naturally, skepticism is slow and unnatural,
and most people have a low tolerance for ambiguity. Research
shows that when we process and comprehend a statement
our brain automatically accepts it as true, whereas the
subsequent skepticism of the statement requires an extra
cognitive step, which is a heavier load to lift. It is easier to
just believe it and move on. 

fMRI brain scan research shows that when we understand a
statement we get a hit of dopamine in the reward areas of our
brain, in which comprehension is positively rewarded and feels
good. By contrast, the brain appears to process false or
uncertain statements in regions linked to pain and disgust,
especially in judging tastes and odors, giving new meaning to a
claim “passing the taste test” or “passing the smell test.”

Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable tension that comes from
holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time. It’s easier to
dispute the facts than to alter one’s deepest beliefs.
Creationists, for example, challenge the evidence for evolution
not for scientific reasons but because they fear that if the
theory is true they have to give up their religion. Climate
deniers don’t dispute the data from tree rings, ice cores, and
the rapid increase of greenhouse gases out of scientific
curiosity – but because they’re afraid that if it’s true it might
mean more restrictive government regulations on business and

Backfire Effect

Cognitive simplicity and dissonance leads to a peculiar phenomena
in which people seem to double down on their beliefs in the teeth
of overwhelming evidence against them. This is
called the backfire effect. In a series of
experiments by the Dartmouth College, subjects were given fake newspaper articles that
confirmed widespread misconceptions, such as the existence of
WMDs in Iraq.

When subjects were then given a corrective article that WMDs were
never found, liberals who opposed the war accepted the new
article and rejected the old, whereas conservatives who supported
the war did the opposite. And more: they reported being
even more convinced there were WMDs after the
correction, arguing that this only proved that Saddam Hussein hid
or destroyed them. In the real world, when WMDs were not found,
liberals who supported the war declared that they had never
supported the war, and conservatives who supported the war
insisted there were WMDs. 

Tribal unity

We are a social primate species and we want to signal to others
that we can be trusted as a reliable group member.

This means being consistent in agreeing with our other group
members—whether that group is our political party or our
religious faith—that we will not stray too far from our group’s
core beliefs.

Thus, cognitive simplicity and cognitive dissonance may have an
evolutionary adaptive purpose, as the social
psychologist Carol Tavris outlined it in an email to

“When you find any cognitive mechanism that appears to be
universal—such as the ease of creating ‘us-them’ dichotomies,
ethnocentrism (‘my group is best’), or prejudice—it seems likely
that it has an adaptive purpose; in these examples, binding us to
our tribe would be the biggest benefit.In the case of cognitive
dissonance, the benefit is functional: the ability to reduce
dissonance is what lets us sleep at night and maintain our
behavior, secure that our beliefs, decisions, and actions are the
right ones. The fact that people
who cannot reduce dissonance usually suffer
mightily (whether over a small but dumb decision or because of
serious harm inflicted on others) is itself evidence of how
important the ability to reduce it is.”

Ultimately we are all responsible for what we believe and it is
incumbent on us to be our own skeptics of fake news and
alternative facts. When in doubt, doubt.

Ask “how do you know that’s true?” “What’s the source of that
claim?” “Who said it and what is their motivation?” We must
always be careful not to deceive ourselves, and we are the
easiest people to deceive. As George Orwell wrote in a
poignantly titled 1946 essay In Front of Your

“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.
… The point is we are all capable of believing things which we
know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong,
impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right.
Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an
indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a
false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a

Other books by Dr. Michael Shermer include "Why Darwin Matters," "The Science of Good and Evil,"
and "The Moral Arc." His upcoming book
is "Heavens on Earth: The Quest for Immortality and
Perfectibility." Follow him on Twitter @michaelshermer.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

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