I’m sitting in the train with a group of football fans. They are in good spirits — their team certainly won and took all the empty seats around me. One of them picks up a discarded newspaper and laughing, voicing the latest “alternative facts”, which said Donald trump. Very soon all the others start to Express their thoughts about love of the American President to the conspiracy theories. This talk quickly moves to conspiracy theories, and I enjoy how football fans cruelly mock supporters of a flat Earth, a meme about chemtrails and so on.
So begins the story of chemistry Professor mark Lorch on The Conversation.
And suddenly in the conversation lull, and someone chimes with a new message: “Perhaps, all this nonsense, but don’t tell me you believe everything the tabloids feed us. Take, for example, landing on the moon — this is an obvious falsification, and not a very good one. I read in a blog that none of the pictures even the stars are not visible!”.
To my surprise, she throw up new “evidence” in favor of the hoax moon landing: inconsistent shadows in the photos, the flag waving when the moon is not even a light breeze, who filmed Neil Armstrong coming to the surface when there was no one even hold a candle.
A moment ago they seemed like rational people, able to evaluate the evidence and come to a logical conclusion. But now everything went upside down. So I take a deep breath and decide to join in the conversation.
“Actually, all this can be easily explained.”
They look at me with horror: the stranger dared to interfere in their conversation. I continue without stopping, tumbling them the facts and a rational explanation.
“The flag is not waving in the wind, he just moved as it set in motion buzz Aldrin. The pictures were taken during the lunar day is obviously the day stars are not visible. Strange shadows is due to wide angle lenses, which they then used, they distorted the pictures. And nobody filmed Neil coming down the stairs. On the outside of the lunar module was a camera that filmed his giant leap. If that’s not enough then the final nail in the coffin of the evidence provided of the Lunar reconnaissance Orbiter, or rather its images of the landing, where you can clearly see the tracks left by the astronauts since they roamed the surface.
“Done!” I thought to myself. But it turned out that my listeners I’m not convinced. They pounced on me, giving more and more ridiculous evidence. The Director was Stanley Kubrick, the main character died under mysterious circumstances… and so on.
The train stopped, although the stop was not mine, I took the opportunity and fled. And while I slowly walked along the platform, my head swarming thoughts about why the facts are so bad change my opinion misguided people.
The simple answer is that facts and rational arguments are not particularly good change people’s beliefs. Because our rational brains sewn throughout evolution along and across. One of the reasons why conspiracy theories pop up with surprising regularity is our desire to provide the world with structure and incredible ability to recognize patterns. One recent study showed a correlation between the desire to see the structure and the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories.
Take, for example, this sequence of zeros and ones:
0 0 1 1 0 0 1 0 0 1 0 0 1 1
See the pattern? It is possible — and you are not alone. A quick survey on Twitter, reminiscent of another, more serious research shows that you will agree 56% of people — even if this sequence was created by me during the coin toss.
It seems that our need for structures and our skills of pattern recognition can be hyperactive and lead to the fact that we notice patterns — the constellations, the clouds, like dogs, and vaccines causing autism, where they simply do not.
The ability to see patterns was probably a useful trait for the survival of our ancestors — it is better to mistakenly get scared of a predator, than to lose sight of this big hungry cat. But throw the same trend in our information-rich world and see non-existent connection between cause and consequence, conspiracy theories are everywhere.
Another reason we tend to believe conspiracy theories, that we are still social animals, and our status in society is much more important (from an evolutionary point of view) than the right. Therefore, we constantly compare our actions and beliefs with them from their peers, and then, changing, adjusting. If our social group believes in something, most likely, we’ll follow the herd.
This effect of social influence on behavior has been well demonstrated in 1961 in the experiment to the crossing conducted by American social psychologist Stanley Milgram and his colleagues. The experiment was a simple (and fun) is so that you can spend it themselves. Just find a busy intersection and look at the sky for 60 seconds.
Most likely, few people stop and examine what you see — in this situation, Milgram found that was joined by only 4% of passers-by. Now ask your friends to join you and your observations of the sky. As soon as the group grows, more and more strangers stop and look up. By that time, as a group, scored 15 gawking into the sky, about 40% of onlookers stayed and thrown back head. You must have seen the same effect in action in the markets when you find yourself at the stand, around which a crowd had gathered.
This principle is equally applicable to ideas. The more people believe in the information, the more likely we will accept it as the truth. And if, thanks to our social group, we are strongly influenced by specific ideas, it is embedded in our worldview. In short, social proof is a much more effective method of persuasion than proof, based on facts. So this kind of proof and popular in the advertising (“80% of moms recommend”).
Social proof is just one of the many logical fallacies that cause us to ignore the facts and evidence. Related problem — bias, the tendency of people to seek and accept on faith the data that supports their point of view, ignoring all others. We all suffer from it. Just remember when the last time you listened to debate on radio or television. How convincing you find the argument that disagreed with your point of view, compared to others?
Most likely, regardless of the rationality of any of the parties, you pretty much rejected the arguments of the opposition and applauding those that agree. The confirmation bias also manifests itself in the tendency to choose information from sources that already agree with your point of view. Consequently, your politics will certainly determine your favorite news channels.
Of course, there is a belief system that detects logical errors like the above, and trying to flatten them. Science, by repetition of observations, transforms the anecdote into data, reduces error due to bias and agrees that the theory can be updated in the face of evidence. This means that you can edit the core. But the bias in the validation of the data is our common beach. The famous physicist Richard Feynman described a funny example that was born in one of the most rigorous area of study, particle physics:
“Millikan measured the electron charge in an experiment with falling oil drops, and got an answer which we now know is not entirely true. It is not quite true, because he had the wrong value of the viscosity of air. Interesting to see the history of measurements of the electron charge after Millikan. If you build them a function of time, you will find that this here is a little more than Millikan, and the next a little more than the previous, and the next still more, until finally, they reach a number that is above.”
“Why didn’t they just understand that the new number was higher? This is what the scientists behind this story, and ashamed. Because obviously, they did the following: when they got a number that was much higher milyanovskii, they thought something went wrong and tried to find the cause of the error. When I got the number close to milyanovskii size, they put up with it”.
Error that destroys the myths
You may choose to approach popular media and will take to sort out misconceptions and conspiracy theories, acting as the destroyer of myths. Matching myth with reality seems like a good way to compare the fact and the lie side by side, to somewhere between born the truth. But this approach, again, is a failure and produces exactly the opposite effect, in which myth becomes more memorable than fact.
One of the most striking examples of this were seen in the study evaluating the booklet “Myths and facts” on the topic of vaccines against influenza. Immediately after reading the booklet, participants accurately remembered the facts as facts and myths as myths. But after only 30 minutes they have in the minds of all turned upside down, and remembered the myths as “facts”.
It is believed that the mere mention of the myths helps to strengthen them. And over time you forget the context in which you heard the myth — in this case, while debunking — and left only with the fact of this myth.
What’s worse, the presentation of corrective information to the group with strong beliefs can actually reinforce her point of view, despite new information that it needs to undermine. New facts may create gaps in our beliefs and involve emotional discomfort. But instead of having to change their beliefs, we tend to make excuses and hate the opposite theory, which may undermine our system of values. This so-called “boomerang effect” — and this is a huge problem if you decide to “treat” people from misconceptions.
For example, studies have shown that public information designed to reduce the level of Smoking, consumption of alcohol and drugs, has the opposite effect.
To make friends and to expose
So, if you can’t rely on facts, how to get people to abandon their conspiracy theories, or other irrational ideas?
Scientific literacy will probably help in the long run. By this I do not mean acquaintance with scientific facts, figures and techniques. Instead, literacy is needed in scientific method, for example, as analytical thinking. Studies show that a drop of conspiracy theories associated with analytical thinking. Most people will never study science, but we are faced with it daily and use on a daily basis, so citizens need skills in critical evaluation of scientific judgments.
Of course, the change of curriculum of the nation will not help with my reasoning in the train. For quick response, it is important to realize that it is extremely useful to be part of the tribe. Before you begin, find a common language.
Meanwhile, to avoid the effect of the reverse reaction, ignore the myths. Don’t even mention and do not confirm them. Just know: vaccines are safe and reduce the likelihood of getting the flu by 50-60%, that’s all. Not to mention delusions, as they are usually better remembered.
In addition, do not force opponents to close by challenging their worldview. Instead, offer explanations that will resonate with their previous beliefs. For example, the conservative deniers of climate change are much more inclined to change their views, if they also provide opportunities for business development in the interests of the environment.
And one more suggestion. Reinforce your point with stories. People engage in narrative much stronger than in argumentation or narrative dialogues. History connect cause and effect, and make the conclusions you want to draw is almost inevitable.
All this does not mean that facts and scientific consensus don’t matter. Have very important, even crucial. But awareness of shortcomings in our thinking will allow you to submit your idea is much more convincing. You need to speak in his own language, the language of a friend, not an enemy.
Instead of having to link unrelated points and come up with a conspiracy theory, we need to demand proof from those making critical decisions. Ask for data that might support their point of view. Partly also need to recognize our own biases, limitations, and logic errors.
How was my conversation on the train, if I’d listened to my own advice? Let’s go back to the time when I noticed that everything was upside down. This time I took a deep breath and leaned.
“Hey, good game. Sorry I didn’t get a ticket”.
And here we are discussing the team’s chances this season. After a few minutes of small talk I turn to the lunar conspiracy theorist: “Hey, I’ve been thinking about the topic that you told me about the moon landings. In some photos there were no stars?”.
“So, maybe on the moon was the day after the day on Earth we see no stars?”.
“Never thought about it. It may be so. It turns out, all the note was phony.”