brendan nyhan

Wed, 2012-03-07 06:35Chris Mooney
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Can Geeks Defeat Lies? Thoughts on a Fresh New Approach to Dealing With Online Errors, Misrepresentations, and Quackery

This afternoon, I’ll be at MIT for this conference, sponsored by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and the MIT Center for Civic Media and entitled “Truthiness in Digital Media: A symposium that seeks to address propaganda and misinformation in the new media ecosystem.” Yesterday was the scholarly and intellectual part of the conference, where a variety of presenters (including yours truly) discussed the problem of online misinformation on topics ranging from climate change to healthcare—and learned about some whizzbang potential solutions that some tech folks have already come up with. And now today is the “hack day” where, as MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman put it, the programmers and designers will try to think of ways to “tackle tractable problems with small experiments.”

In his talk yesterday, Zuckerman quoted a helpful—if frankly, somewhat jarring—analogy for thinking about political and scientific misinformation. It’s one that has been used before in this context: You can think of the dissemination of misinformation as someone akin to someone being shot. Once the bullet has been fired and the victim hit, you can try to run to the rescue and stanch the bleeding—by correcting the “facts,” usually several days later. But, psychology tells us that that approach has limited use–and to continue the analogy, it might be a lot better to try to secure a flak jacket for future victims.

Or, better still, stop people from shooting. (I’m paraphrasing Zuckerman here; I did not take exact notes.)

From an MIT engineer’s perspective, Zuckerman noted, the key question is: Where is the “tractable problem” in this, uh, shootout, and what kind of “small experiments” might help us to address it? Do we reach the victim sooner? Is a flak jacket feasible? And so on.

The experimenters have already begun attacking this design problem: I was fascinated yesterday by a number of canny widgets and technologies that folks have come up with to try to defeat all manner of truthiness.

Wed, 2011-09-14 06:32Chris Mooney
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Want to Sway Climate Change Skeptics? Ask About Their Personal Strengths (And Show Pictures!)

Readers of my posts over the last half year will be familiar with the phenomenon of motivated reasoning, in which people’s subconscious emotional impulses lead them to respond, in a biased way, to information that challenges their deeply held beliefs and worldviews. We’ve been focusing on this so much because I believe it explains a great deal of what we here call climate change denial, and the resistance to inconvenient science (and inconvenient facts) in general.

One important researcher on motivated reasoning is Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan. In Mother Jones, I described one of his previous studies, demonstrating how motivated reasoning can lead to a “backfire effect” when people are confronted with politically inconvenient information:

Take, for instance, the question of whether Saddam Hussein possessed hidden weapons of mass destruction just before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. When political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler showed subjects fake newspaper articles (PDF) in which this was first suggested (in a 2004 quote from President Bush) and then refuted (with the findings of the Bush-commissioned Iraq Survey Group report, which found no evidence of active WMD programs in pre-invasion Iraq), they found that conservatives were more likely than before to believe the claim. (The researchers also tested how liberals responded when shown that Bush did not actually “ban” embryonic stem-cell research. Liberals weren't particularly amenable to persuasion, either, but no backfire effect was observed.)

So how do you persuade people, if not with factual corrections of the sort run by newspapers? That’s what a new paper by Nyhan and Reifler has undertaken to study.

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