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Where have all the skeptics gone?


A while back, Amanda Taub wrote a piece in the New York Times about the role of partisanship in the acceptance of fake news as fact. The key takeaway for me was that people are more likely to be accepting of fake (or even biased news) when it aligns with their own political beliefs. The more entrenched people are in identifying with a political party (regardless of the party), the more they would seem to succumb to this bias. Furthermore, they tend to view people who share their political views as being more credible (strictly due to party affiliation) than those who do not share those views.

Unfortunately, this is extremely problematic from an evidence-based decision making framework. It opens the door to a variety of flaws in our ability to think critically about arguments for and against something, and it can detract from productive decision-making processes.

For example, when considering social media and the ability to insulate oneself from uncomfortable information (i.e., information that contradicts existing belief), we create a phenomenon in which we are exposed primarily to stories, data, and other information that fits with our existing worldview. This can create an illusory truth effect wherein we believe something just because we have been exposed to it over and over.

Once we become wedded to some idea, concept, or truth, we tend to seek out only information that reinforces our beliefs (also known as confirmation bias). We tend to accept arguments in favor of our view with limited skepticism, while being more critical of opposing viewpoints, often pointing out reasons why those competing viewpoints are biased or that those who disagree with us must be uninformed or approaching the issue from an egocentric perspective. Yet, we fail to accept or even acknowledge that our own biases influence our perspective on a given situation. The result of all this is that we tend to engage in what is known as the group attribution error, in which we short-circuit critical thinking in favor of seeing the best in politicians from the party with which we identify and the worst in politicians with opposing viewpoints.

These are just some of the fundamental flaws that have made their way into modern discourse (if discourse even applies in some situations). Once we become so entrenched in one particular view, it is rather difficult to alter that view, as was pointed out by Aschwanden. This seems especially true when those views have strong emotions attached to them, as the infusion of emotion can affect judgment and reasoning (Blanchette & Richards, 2014).

This would not seem to leave us a very good predicament at the present time. We are allowing biases, logical fallacies, and emotion to replace critical thinking and evidence-based decision making. And yet, much of the general public (even the educated general public) may be unaware of this, as we tend not to recognize the biases we possess. To change the direction in which we seem to be heading, it will require a grassroots effort of those supporting more effective critical thinking and skepticism, or it will require a political movement led from those in power to truly espouse and practice less-biased, less-emotional, and less-fallacious decision making. However, there are obvious systemic barriers that will deter progress on either front, and time will tell whether we continue to move farther away from productive skepticism and closer to decision by groupthink.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/elnegro / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Matt Grawitch published on February 21, 2017 1:09 PM.

Making a difference: Why Julie says #ILoveMyJob was the previous entry in this blog.

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