Mon, Jan 07, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Intelligent people might be more likely to fall for fake news

By Faye Flam  /  Bloomberg Opinion

One might suspect scientists of belaboring the obvious with a recent study called Belief in Fake News is Associated With Delusionality, Dogmatism, Religious Fundamentalism and Reduced Analytical Thinking.

The conclusion that some people are more gullible than others is the understanding in popular culture — but in the scientific world it is pitted against another widely believed paradigm, shaped by several counterintuitive studies indicating that we are all equally biased, irrational and likely to fall for propaganda, sales pitches and general nonsense.

Experts have told us that consistent irrationality is a universal human trait. A columnist in the Washington Post recently reminded readers of Jonathan Haidt’s “cogent and persuasive account” of how bad humans are at evidence-based reasoning. The article also cited the Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow to argue that we are ruled more by tribes, affiliations and instincts than by evidence.

However, is it not possible that this applies to some people more than others? Is it reasonable to believe that we are all equally bad at reasoning? Luckily, some scientists appear to think that they are capable of evidence-based reasoning and they have investigated the questions.

Canadian psychologist Gordon Pennycook, an author on the delusionality paper and a leader in the camp promoting the idea that some are more gullible than others, concedes that it is a little weird that one can get published demonstrating that “smarter people are better at not believing stupid things.”

That is essentially the conclusion in a newer paper not yet officially published, Rethinking the Link Between Cognitive Sophistication and Identity-Protective Bias in Political Belief Formation, which he cowrote with Ben Tappan and David Rand.

They question the idea that smarter people are, if anything, more likely to believe false things, because their mental agility helps them rationalize.

It is a school of thought that became popular partly because it is a bit loopy and partly because views that lump us all together have a ring of political correctness.

The roots of it trace back, in part, to Yale researcher Dan Kahan, who has conducted widely respected experiments showing that people’s views on technical subjects such as climate change and nuclear power depended almost entirely on political affiliation.

I wrote about Kahan’s work, citing a study that “showed that the better people are at math and reasoning, the more likely they are to align their views with ideology, even if those views included creationism or other unscientific stances.”

Pennycook said he agrees with Kahan on this to an extent; it is not incompatible with his findings, but it applies only in special cases, such as climate change, where the subject matter is technical and complex. On TV, complete charlatans who know the right buzzwords can sound as erudite to the lay public as the world’s true experts would.

However, Pennycook and his colleagues questioned whether this counterintuitive finding applied more generally. To put it to the test, they showed subjects a mix of fake and real news stories and asked them to rate their plausibility. They found that some people were bad at this and some were good, and that the best predictor of news discernment was something called the cognitive reflection test.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top