• How politics became our identity

    Dinner parties used to be where you avoided politics. Now talking about politics at dinner parties is the norm.

    Years ago, we avoided politics because we assumed the people at our table had diverse political identities, and we didn't want to introduce a topic that might lead to an argument. Today, we assume our guests share a single identity, after all, why else would we have invited them?

    Something has changed in the United States, and for many of us, it's only at Thanksgiving dinner, a gathering where we don't get to sort ourselves by political tribe, that we must face people who see the world differently than ourselves.

    In this episode, we spend time with political scientist Lilliana Mason who discusses this in her new book, Uncivil Agreement, in which she says we actually agree about most things, and strangely, "our conflicts are over who we think we are, rather than reasoned differences of opinion."

    As Mason explains, "Our opinions can be very fluid, so fluid that if we wanted to come to a compromise we could, if there were not these pesky identities in the way. We can't come to a compromise because our identities are making us want to take positions as far away from the other side as possible. What that means is that we are trying to look like we disagree in order to defend our identity and our sense of difference from other people."

    As an example, Mason says that six months ago 99 percent of Americans would have said that, of course, children should not be separated from their parents. Now that the issue is politicized, people claim to feel differently, but in reality, it's only tribal signaling at play. If their party were to ask them to express their true feelings, they would. They've become trapped by tribe.

    "Our actual opinions, our levels of agreement, are different than what we are willing to accept our government to do because we don't want to feel like our party is losing," explains Mason in the show.

    Lilliana Mason is professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland where she researches partisan identity, partisan bias, social sorting, and American social polarization. She is the author of Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, and her work has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and National Public Radio.

    Her book outlines how we've moved away from issue-based polarization and entered a new realm of identity-based polarization. As long as the identity divide is maintained, we will behave more like warring tribes than a unified nation of people who have different values and ideas about what policies should be enacted.

    According to Mason, "Right now, we're telling ourselves a story about a war that's going on in our country, and it's only making the war worse."

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  • How to fix the mistakes that celebrity scientists and charismatic doctors make

    The facts don't speak for themselves. Someone always speaks for them.

    From the opioid crisis to vaccines, vitamin and health supplements to climate change — even the widespread use of lobotomies to quiet problem mental patients — celebrity scientists and charismatic doctors have made tremendous mistakes. Thanks to their fame, they escaped the corrective mechanisms of science itself and spread their wrongness far and wide. Science always deals the problem. The truth wins. But before it does, many people can be harmed, and society can suffer.

    In this episode, we sit down with Dr. Paul Offit to discuss how we can get better at catching those mistakes before they happen, and mitigating the harm once Pandora's Lab has been opened.

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  • How debate changes minds, no matter who wins

    Parker Wiseman ran for student office in high school with photocopied flyers. He debated the public school system in social studies class. In college he took the courses and shook the hands that would help him join that peculiar Southern subculture of the embattled Mississippi Democrat, a pugnacious sort who plays darts and drinks whiskey while wearing penny loafers and forces smiles meant to fool no one. People close to Parker Wiseman were not surprised when, at the age of 28, he became the youngest mayor in Starkville history.

    When I met him, he was deep into his second term, 34-years-old with bright blue eyes neatly obscured by thin-framed spectacles hugging a cleanly shaved head. I had to wait for the person before me to finish a meeting before I could take up time in his schedule, but when the door opened he traded off quickly and was all laughs and smirks as I unpacked my bag. In conversation, he moved between two poses, leaning forward with shoulders high and elbows planted wide so he could clasp his hands and focus when I was talking, and reclined in an unwound ease when he was answering, one arm propping him up so he could lean into the back the chair with his rear scooted to the forward edge of the seat and his feet as far apart as could be achieved with manners in dress slacks.

    I wanted to meet Wiseman because he had concluded a long, difficult battle to bring social change to a city in the Deep South, to Mississippi, one that made national headlines.

    In January of 2013, under Wiseman's leadership, the Starkville Board of Alderman proposed a 208-word "Resolution Supporting Equality." It stated the city would henceforth make it public policy to prevent discrimination in Starkville.

    In the text, the Resolution established that the City, as a whole, believed diversity was critical to the success of its community. It deepened the bonds between neighbors, they said, in addition to stimulating job growth. Despite this, the Resolution continued, the city realized that discrimination on the basis of "race, color, religion, national origin, sex, gender identity and expression, age, marital status, sexual orientation, familial status, veteran's status, disability, and source of income" persisted, not just in Starkville, but across the world, and with that in mind, the City declared such behavior was "anathema to the public policy of the City."

    Wiseman recalled it seemed like a simple and uncontroversial idea at the time, and it passed without much discussion. The Board didn't linger on its implications and soon moved on the tedium of sewer lines and traffic lights and the usual business required to keep a small city running and its residents happy.

    No city in Mississippi had ever included sexual orientation or gender identity in such a resolution, a fact that the Human Rights Campaign pointed out in its blitz of publicity after the measure passed. In one release, they wrote, "This is the first time any municipality in Mississippi has recognized the dignity of its LGBT residents," and the president of the HRC, Chad Griffin, personally thanked the city.

    A flurry of media attention followed with TV stations, newspapers, and LGBT organizations producing state and national headlines, some entertaining the notion that Mississippi might be changing its mind faster than other parts of the country usually thought of as being considerably more progressive, and others expressing awe at a declaration of tolerance within a state synonymous with bigotry. Within a month, a town to the south, Hattiesburg, passed a similar resolution, and seven more cities would follow. Each time, Wiseman recalled, Starkville was mentioned.

    "Of course," Wiseman told me, "things went sideways later in the year."

    The pushback started with one of the more conservative aldermen who proposed repealing the resolution once the glow of the publicity began to fade. At first, the alderman couldn't get get any traction, and the backlash may have ended there, but Wiseman decided he wanted to push for more change by proposing a measure that would allow employees of the city to extend their insurance coverage to domestic partners, including partners of the same sex. For many in the community, especially those who had bit their tongues concerning the anti-discrimination resolution, this crossed the line. Wiseman told me that when the HRC publicized the fact that this would potentially allow insurance coverage for gay couples within the city it became an explosive political event.

    "I wish I could tell you exactly why that's when everything exploded," said Wiseman. "I can't. We could probably spend the next couple of hours analyzing all the different reasons, but that was the point that I would say communication in the public square about LGBT issues began in earnest."

    In this episode, you'll hear that debate unfold as we spend time in Starkville exploring the value of argumentation and conversation in the process of change, progress, and understanding our basic humanity.

    (more…)

  • Why we are prone to optimism and hope over realism and the skepticism of experience

    When you think about your future health, career, finances, and even longevity — you imagine a rosy, hopeful future. For everyone else, though, you tend to be far more realistic.

    In other words, if you are a smoker, everyone else is going to get cancer. You'll probably be in the that lucky portion who smokes into your 90s, or so you think. Similarly, the odds of success for a new restaurant change depending on who starts that venture. If its you, the odds are pretty good. If it is someone else, you see the odds as pretty bad.


    For about 80 percent of people, the brain overestimates the likelihood of future good events and underestimates the odds of future bad events. This, guest Tali Sharot says, is our built-in optimism bias.

    Sharot is the director of the Affective Brain Lab and teaches cognitive neuroscience in the department of Experimental Psychology at University College London. In this episode, she explains why we are prone to optimism and hope over realism and the skepticism of experience. She also details how we can use our knowledge of this mental quirk to our advantage both personally and institutionally.

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  • When future desires and past beliefs are incongruent, desire usually wins out

    Confirmation bias is our tendency to seek evidence that supports our beliefs and that confirms our assumptions — when we could just as well seek disconfirmation of those beliefs and assumptions instead.

    It feels like we are doing the hard work — doing the research required to build good beliefs — but since we can so easily find that confirmation, when we stop searching at those moments when we think we have made sense of the world, we can grow ever more wrong over time.

    This is such a prevalent feature of human cognition, that until recently a second phenomenon has been hidden in plain sight. Recent research suggests that something called desirability bias may be just as prevalent in our thinking.

    Since our past beliefs and future desires usually match up, the desirability of an outcome is often twisted into our pursuit of confirmation like a single psychological braid — and here's the thing: When future desires and past beliefs are incongruent, desire usually wins out.

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    Last year, psychologist Ben Tappin and his team were in hot pursuit of this new psychological beast, and they are about to publish a new study detailing their work.

    In most psychological research in confirmation, desire isn't measured at all. For instance, people who believe that capital punishment is a strong deterrent to crime tend to give more weight to information that matches their preconceived notions. The result is that when such people are presented with an equal amount of confirmatory and disconfirmatory evidence (capital punishment works versus capital punishment does not), they don't balance out their beliefs. They instead become more entrenched in their original positions because they disregard the disconfirmatory info, leaving behind the confirmation, which they then use to reinforce their priors.

    Ben and his team hypothesized that there may be more at play than pure confirmation in situations like this. People who believe that capital punishment is a strong deterrent to crime also want to believe that capital punishment is a strong deterrent to crime. Their raw factual assumptions and their emotional investment are congruent.

    Most of the time our beliefs and desires match up like this. You believe that your favorite fast food restaurant won't give you food poisoning, and you want that to be true. Your past experiences have reinforced one aspect of your belief, and your future desire reinforces the other.

    Tappin wanted to create a study in which the subjects' beliefs and desires didn't match up, and since the Trump vs. Clinton election was just getting started in the USA, they thought it would be a perfect opportunity. In this episode, you'll learn what they discovered.

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    Less Wrong: Adaptive Bias

    Why We Are Poles Apart on Climate Change

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    You're Not Going to Change Your Mind

    The heart trumps the head : Desirability bias in political belief revision

  • Science is wrong about everything, but you can trust it more than anything

    Psychology is working on the hardest problems in all of science. Physics, astronomy, geology — those are easy, by comparison. Understanding consciousness, willpower, ideology, social change – there's a larger-than-Large-Hadron-Collider level of difficulty to each one of these, but since these are more relatable ideas than quarks and bosons and mass coronal ejections — this a science about our minds and selves — it's easier to create eye-catching headlines and, well, to make podcasts about them.

    This is the problem. Because the system for distributing the findings of science is based on publication within journals, which themselves are often depend on the interest of the general media, all the biases that come with that system and media consumption in general are now causing the sciences that are most interesting to the public to get tainted by that interest.

    As you will hear in this episode, one of the most famous and most talked-about phenomena in recent psychological history, ego depletion, hasn't been doing so well in replication attempts.

    In the show, journalist Daniel Engber who wrote an article for Slate about the failure to replicate many of the famous ego depletion experiments will detail what this means for the science and the scientists involved.

    Also, you'll hear from psychologist Brain Nosek, who says, "Science is wrong about everything, but you can trust it more than anything."

    Nosek is director of the Center for Open Science, an organization working to correct what they see as the temporarily wayward path of psychology.

    Nosek recently lead a project in which 270 scientists sought to replicate 100 different studies in psychology, all published in 2008 — 97 of which claimed to have found significant results — and in the end, two-thirds failed to replicate.

    Clearly, some sort of course correction is in order. There is now a massive effort underway sort out what is being called the replication crisis. Much of the most headline-producing research in the last 20 years isn't standing up to attempts to reproduce its findings. Nosek wants to clean up the processes that have lead to this situation, and in this episode, you'll learn how he and others plan to do so.

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    Great Courses PlusThis episode is sponsored by The Great Courses Plus. Get unlimited access to a huge library of The Great Courses lecture series on many fascinating subjects. Start FOR FREE with Your Deceptive Mind taught by neurologist Steven Novella. Learn about how your mind makes sense of the world by lying to itself and others. Click here for a FREE TRIAL.

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    Psychology's reproducibility problem is exaggerated – say psychologists

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    Everything is Crumbling (Engber's Article)

    How much of the psychology literature is wrong?

    The Open Science Framework

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  • The half life of facts

    In medical school, they tell you half of what you are about to learn won't be true when you graduate — they just don't know which half.

    In every field of knowledge, half of what is true today will one day be updated with better information, and it turns out that we actually know when that day will come for many academic pursuits.

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    Are you hiring? Do you know where to post your job to find the best candidates? Posting your job in one place isn't enough to find quality candidates. If you want to find the perfect hire, you need to post your job on ALL the top job sites — and now you
    can. With ZipRecruiter.com, you can post your job to 200 plus job sites, including social media networks like Facebook and Twitter – all with a single click. Right now, my listeners can post jobs on ZipRecruiter for free by going to
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    This is what author Sam Arbesman calls "the half life of facts." In fact, Sam wrote a book about this fact, called, The Half Life of Facts. The premise is that for every domain, silo, discipline, and school of knowledge, the facts contained within are slowly being overturned, augmented, replaced, and refined — and in medicine, for example, the rate of that overturning is high enough that if you never really complete your education. Medical school, in other words, never ends.

    Because science is a self-correcting system, it not only continuously adds new evidence to our collection of things so that we know today that we did not know yesterday, but it also never stops attacking the ideas that make up our current models. A lot of what we knew yesterday, what we considered factual, just isn't true anymore.

    Sam says these two processes — adding and attacking — create a churn that is consistent but unique from one silo to the next. For instance, in physics, about half of all research findings will be disconfirmed within 13 years. In psychology, it's every seven. In other words, if you graduated with a degree in psychology seven years ago, half of the information in all your textbook is now inaccurate.

    Here's the thing though, this isn't just true for science. It's true for everything people do. Some facts withstand the test of time, but a whole lot do not.

    What does this tell us about how to approach the truth, and rationality, and how to live our lives, how to stay healthy, or who to trust, and so on? In this episode, listen as author and scientist Sam Arbesman explains.

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  • Why we often choose to keep useful information out of our heads

    The cyberpunks, the Founding Fathers, the 19th Century philosophers, and the Enlightenment thinkers — they each envisioned a perfect democracy powered by a constant multimedia psychedelic freakout in which all information was free, decentralized, democratized, and easy to access.

    In each era, the dream was the same: A public life for the average citizen that was no longer limited by any kind of information deficit; a life augmented by instant and full access to all the information anyone could ever want. On top of that, they imagined the end of gatekeepers, the public fully able to choose what went into their minds.

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    Benjamin Franklin helped create to postal service to disseminate information through a network of newspapers and correspondence, and he thought public libraries, one in every community, would make farmers as educated as the aristocracy. The rationalist philosophers thought that widespread public education would eliminate superstitions. The same was said of public universities, and then computers, and then the internet, and then social media, and then the smart phone. And, in many ways, this dream has been realized.

    Little did these champions of the Enlightenment know that once we had access to all the facts…well reason and rationality wouldn't just immediately wash across the land in a giant wave of enlightenment thinking. While that may be happening in some ways, the new media ecosystem has also unshackled some of our deepest psychological tendencies, things that enlightenment thinkers didn't know about, weren't worried about, or couldn't have predicted. Many of which we've discussed in previous episodes like the backfire effect, confirmation bias, selective skepticism, filter bubbles and so on. These things have always been with us, but modern technology has provided them with the perfect environment to flourish.

    In this episode, we explore another such invasive psychological species called active information avoidance, the act of keeping our senses away from information that might be useful, that we know is out there, that would cost us nothing to obtain, but that we'd still rather not learn. From choosing not to open open bills, visit the doctor, check your bank account, or read the nutrition information on the back of that box of Girl Scout Cookies, we each choose to remain ignorant when we'd rather not feel the anguish of illumination, but that same tendency can also cause great harm both to individuals and whole cultures when it spreads through politics, science, markets, and medicine. In this show, you'll learn how.

    This episode's cookie is Caramel Apple Cider Cookies sent in by Ubi Dubium.

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    Participate in George Loewenstein's New Research

    Active Information Avoidance

    George Loewenstein

    David Hagmann

    How to Operate Your Brain (Leary's guided trip)

    George Lakoff's Book: The Political Mind

    The Role of Benjamin Franklin in the First Public Library

  • Is progress inevitable?

    In his book on the history of human progress, Our Kind, anthropologist Marvin Harris asked in the final chapter, "Will nature's experiment with mind and culture end in nuclear war?"

    The book came out in 1989, in the final years of our Cold War nuclear paranoia, and his telling of how people developed from hunter gatherers all the way to McDonald's franchise owners, he said, couldn't honestly end with him gazing optimistically to the horizon because never had the fate of so many been under the control of so few.

    "What alarms me most," he wrote, "is the acquiescence of ordinary citizens and their elected officials to the idea that our kind has to learn to deal with the threat of mutual annihilation because it is the best way of reducing the danger that one nuclear power will attack another."

    In the final paragraph, Harris wrote that "we must recognize the degree to which we are not yet in control" of our own society. Progress was mostly chance and luck with human agency steering us away from the rocks when it could, but unless we gained some measure of control of where we were going as a species, he said, we'd be rolled over by our worst tendencies, magnified within institutions too complex for any one person to predict or direct.

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    I know where this feeling came from because I grew up terrified of nuclear war. It seemed like every week there was a TV special assuring me I didn't have much to look forward to, like The Day After, Countdown to Looking Glass, Testament, and Special Bulletin, and HBO movies like By Dawn's Early Light as well as a handful of the rebooted The Twilight Zone episodes and remnants of the 1970s like Damnation Alley floating among the cable apocalyptic schlock – all devoted, it seemed, to scaring the shit out of us by revealing what horrors awaited if they ever pressed the button.

    It was always with us, that fear, that uncertainty, that feeling that progress had brought us the Nintendo Entertainment System but also our doom, and then all at once Star Trek the Next Generation premiered, the Berlin Wall came down, and the Soviet Union collapsed. The Cold War ended, and the cast of Seinfeld appeared, worried about raisins and parking spaces and the smell of wet sand but not nuclear bombs or fallout zones. Soon we'd have the internet, and for a time, it was good.

    I became enamored with science and progress, looking back through time and seeing nothing but so much ignorance and injustice and lack of freedom, things that are today unthinkable were then commonplace. And I got this sense that social change was a force of nature itself, that progress, however you define it, was inevitable, and that we were in control of that progress. We chose to go to the moon, and we would choose to go to the stars as well.

    If you lean liberal on social issues, there was a palpable sense in the last decade, at least for me, that human social progress was definitely now on the Star Trek timeline, not the Mad Max one. Despite our folly with social media public shaming and weaponized outrage-flavored clickbait, we were sorting things out. Same-sex marriage was legal in Mississippi. Our technology wasn't just making drones and bipedal robots and self-driving cars, but was exposing every kind of privilege, accelerating social change as much as it had technological change. Hashtags and body cameras, smart phones and protests, each was now, with the power of our modern communication tools, exposing where the work needed to be done, where injustice flourished. I had a sense that with this new pace of change we were hurtling toward a cure for baldness that no one would use because, as Gene Roddenberry famously said, "no one would care," and then came Brexit and Trump.

    I'm not saying we are back onto the Mad Max timeline. I'll never believe that, just that we aren't in as much control as I had assumed and that most social change is farther away than I imagined. Nuclear bombs are now back in play, and the people in charge of them seem as inept and hawkish as ever. Marvin Harris was right. The moment we believe the struggle is over and that we are fully choosing our destiny is usually the moment before we realize it isn't and we aren't. Personally, I believe we will continue to bend the arc of the moral universe, but now I am more aware than ever of how difficult that will be.

    This episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast is about progress, how we invented it as an idea and then went about pursuing it on-purpose. Our guest is University of Chicago historian Ada Palmer. I wanted to talk to Ada because she wrote this brilliant, fun, illuminating essay earlier this year titled On Progress and Historical Change which felt like had been written specifically to address my exact confusion.

    Historians, she writes, are careful to avoid a teleological frame of mind they sometimes call "Whig history," in which we look back at our ignorant pasts and compare it to our amazing present and then assume there is an ultimate goal to all of this activity, an end-state of perfection, a strange attractor pulling us toward the ultimate purpose of all human effort. The truth is that it is a lot more complicated than that.

    In the essay, she reveals the problems with thinking in this way and asks, "Is progress inevitable? Is it natural? Is it fragile? Is it possible? Is it a problematic concept in the first place?"

    In the episode, you'll hear her address all these questions and more, and I promise it will leave you feeling optimistic, but also a bit more realistic.

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  • How to fight back against the backfire effect

    The final show in my three-part series about the pitfalls associated with trying to debunk myths, battle fake news, and correct misinformation is up. In this episode I interview scientists who have great advice on how to both avoid the backfire effect and eventually overcome it.

    If you ask a social scientist familiar with motivated reasoning and the backfire effect if there is any hope to ever reach people who refuse to accept facts – is there any chance to change people's minds with evidence, reason, or scientific consensus – they will usually point you to a 2010 paper titled: "The Affective Tipping Point: Do Motivated Reasoners ever 'Get It'?"

    Like most of us, political scientists David P. Redlawsk, Andrew J.W. Civettini, and Karen M. Emmerson wondered if, when confronted with challenges to their erroneous beliefs, do the people who resist efforts at correction ever come around, or are we just causing more harm than good by trusting in facts instead of using some time-tested technique from the emotional manipulation toolkit?

    To test this, Redlawsk and his team created a mock presidential election in which people would gradually learn more and more terrible things about their preferred virtual candidates from a virtual news media. Unbeknownst to the subjects, the news stories they read included a precise mix of negative information about their chosen candidates so the effect of those messages could be measured as the negativity increased in intensity.

    The scientists thought that surely, at some point, after a person had chosen one candidate over another, a constant flow of negative information about that person would persuade them to reconsider their choices. They expected to see the backfire effect at first, of course, but they believed with enough persistence they might also discover its natural limit.

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    Great Courses PlusThis episode is sponsored by The Great Courses Plus. Get unlimited access to a huge library of The Great Courses lecture series on many fascinating subjects. Start FOR FREE with Your Deceptive Mind taught by neurologist Steven Novella. Learn about how your mind makes sense of the world by lying to itself and others. Click here for a FREE TRIAL.

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    dbh_largeIn this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast, part three of our series on the backfire effect (part one, part two), we sit down with Redlawsk to learn what he discovered when he pushed people's beliefs to the breaking point.

    Also in this episode, psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky takes us step-by-step through The Debunking Handbook, a guide he and John Cook wrote for avoiding the backfire effect when confronting vaccine and climate change deniers. Originally meant to be an instruction manual for science communicators, it can be applied to just about any situation where the facts are on your side, yet the people who need to hear them are dead set on keeping belief-threatening ideas out of their heads.

    Links and Sources

    • Johnson, Hollyn M., and Colleen M. Seifert. "Sources of the Continued Influence Effect: When Misinformation in Memory Affects Later Inferences." Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 20.6 (1994): 1420-436. Print.

    • Redlawsk, David P., Andrew J. W. Civettini, and Karen M. Emmerson. "The Affective Tipping Point: Do Motivated Reasoners Ever "Get It"?" Political Psychology 31.4 (2010): 563-93. Print.

    DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

    Previous Episodes

    Part One of this Series

    Part Two of this Series

    Boing Boing Podcasts

    Cookie Recipes

    The Backfire Effect

    The Debunking Handbook

    "The Affective Tipping Point: Do Motivated Reasoners Ever "Get It"?"

    David Redlawsk

    Stephan Lewandowsky

    Music in this episode donated by: Mogwai

  • How motivated skepticism strengthens incorrect beliefs

    This is part two in my "The Backfire Effect" series. This one focuses on motivated reasoning, specifically something called motivated skepticism. In addition, it features interviews with the scientists who coined the backfire effect term itself and who have extended their original research outside of politics and into health issues.

    By now you've likely heard of confirmation bias. As a citizen of the internet the influence of this cognitive tendency is constant, and its allure is pervasive.

    In short, when you have a hunch that you might already understand something, but don't know for sure, you tend to go searching for information that will confirm your suspicions.

    When you find that inevitable confirmation, satisfied you were correct all along, you stop searching. In some circles, the mental signal to end exploration once you feel like your position has sufficient external support is referred to as the wonderfully wordy "makes sense stopping rule" which basically states that once you believe you've made sense of something, you go about your business satisfied that you need not continue your efforts. In other words, just feeling correct is enough to stop your pursuit of new knowledge. We basically had to invent science to stop ourselves from trying to solve problems by thinking in this way.

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    Great Courses PlusThis episode is sponsored by The Great Courses Plus. Get unlimited access to a huge library of The Great Courses lecture series on many fascinating subjects. Start FOR FREE with Your Deceptive Mind taught by neurologist Steven Novella. Learn about how your mind makes sense of the world by lying to itself and others. Click here for a FREE TRIAL.

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    purchase.

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    You could, instead, try and disconfirm your assumptions, to start your investigations by attempting to debunk your beliefs, but most of the time you don't take this approach. That's not your default method of exploring the natural world or defending your ideological stances.

    VaxxFor instance, if you believe that vaccines cause autism, and then you go searching for data that backs up that hypothesis, with the power of search engines you are guaranteed to find it. That's true for just about everything anyone has ever believed whether it's the moon landing was a hoax, the Denver airport is a portal to Hell, or that there is a fern that produces small animals that eat grass and deliver their nutrients into the plant via an umbilical vine.

    We even reason through a confirmation bias when searching our memories. In one study, subjects read a story about a woman named Jane. In it, she exhibited some behaviors that could be interpreted as introverted, and some that seemed more extroverted. Several days later, psychologists divided those same subjects into two groups. They told one group that Jane was thinking about applying for a job as a real estate agent, and asked if they thought she was suited to the work. Most people said she would be great at it, and when asked why, those subjects recalled all the extroverted behavior from their memories, citing those parts of the narrative as evidence for their belief. The scientists then said that Jane was also considering a job as a librarian. The subjects groused upon hearing this, saying that Jane was too outgoing for that kind of environment. For the other group, the order was flipped. They first asked if Jane should take a job as a librarian. Just like the other group, most of the subjects said "yes!" right away, taking an affirmative position by default. When asked why they felt that way, they too searched their memories for confirmation that their hunches were correct and cited all the times they remembered Jane had acted shy. When scientists asked this second group if Jane should go for a real-estate job instead, they were adamantly opposed to the idea, saying Jane was obviously too reserved for a career like that.

    Confirmation bias is an active, goal-oriented, effortful process. When tasked to defend your position, even if you just took it, even if you could have taken another, you tend to search for proof, pushing past a threatening, attitude-inconsistent thicket to cherry-pick the fruit of validation.

    There is another process though that is just as pernicious but that runs in the background, passive, waiting to come online when challenging information is unavoidable, when it arrives in your mind uninvited. This psychological backup plan for protecting your beliefs is called motivated skepticism.

    Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler saw the power of motivated skepticism when they confronted anti-vaxxers with a variety of facts aimed at debunking myths concerning a connection between the childhood MMR vaccine and autism. In this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast, they explain how they were successful at softening those subjects' beliefs in those misconceptions, yet those same people later reported that they were even less likely to vaccinate their children than subjects who received no debunking information at all. The corrections backfired.

    As I've written before, "when your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger." In this episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast, the second in a series on the The Backfire Effect, we explore how motivated skepticism fuels this bizarre phenomenon by which correcting misinformation can cause people to become even more certain in their incorrect beliefs. (This is a link to part one in the series).

    This episode's cookie is espresso dark chocolate sent in by Sarah Hendrickson.

    Links and Sources

    • The Makes-Sense Stopping Rule: Perkins, D. N., Farady, M., & Bushey, B. In Voss, J. F., Perkins, D. N., & Segal, J. W. (1991). Informal reasoning and education. Hillsdale, N.J: L. Erlbaum Associates.

    • Jane Confirmation Bias Study: Snyder, Mark, and Nancy Cantor. "Testing Hypotheses about Other People: The Use of Historical Knowledge." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 15.4 (1979): 330-42.

    • Vaccine Corrections Study: Nyhan, B., J. Reifler, S. Richey, and G. L. Freed. "Effective Messages in Vaccine Promotion: A Randomized Trial." Pediatrics 133.4 (2014).

    DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

    Previous Episodes

    Part One of this Series

    Boing Boing Podcasts

    Cookie Recipes

    The Backfire Effect

    Effective Messages in Vaccine Promotion: A Randomized Trial

    Study: You Can't Change an Anti-Vaxxer's Mind

    Vaccine Opponents Can Be Immune to Education

    Brendan Nyhan on Twitter

    Brendan Nyhan's Website

    Jason Reifler's Twitter

    Jason Reifler's Website

    Music in this episode donated by: Mogwai

  • The neuroscience of changing your mind

    This is the first of three You Are Not So Smart episodes about the "backfire effect." In it, I interview a team of neuroscientists who put people in a brain scanner and then challenged their beliefs, some political and some not, with counter-evidence and then compared which brain regions lit up for which beliefs. The crazy takeaway was that for political beliefs, but not for others, people seemed to react as if their very bodies were being threatened by the challenging evidence.

    We don't treat all of our beliefs the same.

    If you learn that the Great Wall of China isn't the only man-made object visible from space, and that, in fact, it's actually very difficult to see the Wall compared to other landmarks, you update your model of reality without much fuss. Some misconceptions we give up readily, replacing them with better information when alerted to our ignorance.

    For others constructs though, for your most cherished beliefs about things like climate change or vaccines or Republicans, instead of changing your mind in the face of challenging evidence or compelling counterarguments, you resist. Not only do you fight belief change for some things and not others, but if you successfully deflect such attacks, your challenged beliefs then grow stronger.

    The research shows that when a strong-yet-erroneous belief is challenged, yes, you might experience some temporary weakening of your convictions, some softening of your certainty, but most people rebound and not only reassert their original belief at its original strength, but go beyond that and dig in their heels, deepening their resolve over the long run.

    Psychologists call this the backfire effect, and this episode is the first of three shows exploring this well-documented and much-studied psychological phenomenon, one that you've likely encountered quite a bit lately.

    In this episode, we explore its neurological underpinning as two neuroscientists at the University of Southern California's Brain and Creativity Institute explain how their latest research sheds new light on how the brain reacts when its deepest beliefs are challenged.

    By placing subjects in an MRI machine and then asking them to consider counterarguments to their strongly held political beliefs, Jonas Kaplan's and Sarah Gimbel's research, conducted along with neuroscientist Sam Harris, revealed that when people were presented with evidence that alerted them to the possibility that their political beliefs might be incorrect, they reacted with the same brain regions that would come online if they were responding to a physical threat.

    "The response in the brain that we see is very similar to what would happen if, say, you were walking through the forest and came across a bear," explains Gimbel in the episode. "Your brain would have this automatic fight-or-flight [response]…and your body prepares to protect itself."

    According to the researchers, some values are apparently so crucial to your identity, that the brain treats a threat to those ideas as if they were a threat to your very existence.

    "Remember that the brain's first and primary job is to protect ourselves," explains Kaplan in the show. "The brain is basically a big, complicated, sophisticated machine for self-protection, and that extends beyond our physical self, to our psychological self. Once these things become part of our psychological self, I think they are then afforded all the same protections that the brain gives to the body."

    How does the brain take something that is previously neutral and transmutate it into a value that it then protects as if it were flesh and bone? How do neutral, empirical facts about temperature and carbon emissions become politicized? How does an ideological stance on immigration reform become blended with personal identity? We explore those questions and more on this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast.

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    Great Courses PlusThis episode is sponsored by The Great Courses Plus. Get unlimited access to a huge library of The Great Courses lecture series on many fascinating subjects. Start FOR FREE with Your Deceptive Mind taught by neurologist Steven Novella. Learn about how your mind makes sense of the world by lying to itself and others. Click here for a FREE TRIAL.

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    PatreonSupport the show directly by becoming a patron! Get episodes one-day-early and ad-free. Head over to the YANSS Patreon Page for more details.

    Links and Sources

    DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

    Previous Episodes

    Boing Boing Podcasts

    Cookie Recipes

    The Brain and Creativity Institute

    Neural correlates of maintaining one's political beliefs in the face of counterevidence.

    Wikipedia's list of common misconceptions

    The Backfire Effect

  • Questioning the nature of reality with cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman

    Back in the early 1900s, the German biologist Jakob Johann Baron von Uexküll couldn't shake the implication that the inner lives of animals like jellyfish and sea urchins must be radically different from those of humans.

    Uexküll was fascinated by how meaty, squishy nervous systems gave rise to perception. Noting that the sense organs of sea creatures and arachnids could perceive things that ours could not, he realized that giant portions of reality must therefore be missing from their subjective experiences, which suggested that the same was true of us. In other words, most ticks can't enjoy an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical because, among other reasons, they don't have eyes. On the other hand, unlike ticks, most humans can't smell butyric acid wafting on the breeze, and so no matter where you sit in the audience, smell isn't an essential (or intended) element of a Broadway performance of Cats.

    Uexküll imagined that each animal's subjective experience was confined to a private sensory world he called an umwelt. Each animal's umwelt was different, he said, distinctive from that of another animal in the same environment, and each therefore was tuned to take in only a small portion of the total picture. Not that any animal would likely know that, which was Uexküll's other big idea. Because no organism can perceive the totality of objective reality, each animal likely assumes that what it can perceive is all that can be perceived. Each umwelt is a private universe, fitted to its niche, and the subjective experiences of all of Earth's creatures are like a sea filled with a panoply of bounded virtual realities floating past one another, each unaware that it is unaware.

    Like all ideas, Uexküll's weren't completely new. Philosophers had wondered about the differences in subjective and objective reality going back to Plato's cave (and are still wondering). But even though Uexküll's ideas weren't strictly original, he brought them into a new academic silo – biology. In doing so, he generated lines of academic research into neuroscience and the nature of consciousness that are still going today.

    For instance, when the philosopher Thomas Nagel famously asked, "What is it like to be a bat?" he thought there was no answer to his question because it would be impossible to think in that way. Bat sonar, he said, is nothing like anything we possess, "and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine." All one can do, said Nagel, is imagine what it would be like for a person, like yourself, to be a bat. Imagining what it would be like for a bat to be a bat is impossible. This was part of an overall criticism on the limits of reductionist thinking, and is, of course, still the subject of much debate.

    The siblings of these notions appear in the writings of everyone from Timothy Leary with his "reality tunnels" to J.J. Gibson's "ecological optics" to psychologist Charles Tart and his "consensus trances." From the Wachowski's Matrix to Kant's "noumenon" to Daniel Dennett's "conscious robots," we've been wondering about these questions for a very long time. You too, I suspect, have stumbled on these problems, asking something along the lines of "do we all see the same colors?" at some point. The answer, by the way, is no.

    The assumption in most of these musings is that we humans are unique because we can escape our umwelten. We have reason, philosophy, science, and physics which free us from the prison of our limited human perceptions. We can use tools to extend our senses, to see the background radiation left behind by the big bang or hear the ultrasonic laughter of ticklish mice. Sure, the table seems solid enough when we knock on it, and if you were still trapped in your umwelt, you wouldn't think otherwise, but now you know it is actually mostly empty space thanks to your understanding of protons and electrons. We assume that more layers of truth reveal themselves to us with each successive paradigm shift.

    In this episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast, we sit down with a scientist who is challenging these assumptions.

    hoffman-portrait-2xDonald Hoffman, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California with a background in artificial intelligence, game theory, and evolutionary biology has developed a new theory of consciousness that, should it prove true, would rearrange our understanding of not only the mind and the brain, but physics itself.

    "I agree up to a point," said Hoffman, "that different organisms are in effectively different perceptual worlds, but where I disagree is that these worlds are seeing different parts of the truth. I don't think they are seeing the truth at all."

    Hoffman wondered if evolution truly favored veridical minds, so he and his graduate students created computer models of natural selection that included accurate perceptions of reality as a variable.

    "We simulated hundreds of thousands of random worlds and put organisms in those worlds that could see all of the truth, part of the truth, or none of the truth," explained Hoffman. "What we found in our simulations was that organisms that saw reality as-it-is could never outcompete organisms that saw none of reality and were just tuned to fitness, as long as they were of equal complexity."

    The implication, Hoffman said, is that an organism that can see the truth will never be favored by natural selection. This suggests that literally nothing we can conceive of can be said to represent objective reality, not even atoms, molecules, or physical laws. Physics and chemistry are still inside the umwelt. There's no escape.

    "If our perceptual systems evolved by natural selection, then the probability that we see reality as it actually is, in any way, is zero. Precisely zero," said Hoffman.

    Well aware that these ideas come across as woo, Hoffman welcomes challenges from his peers and other interested parties, and in the interview you'll hear what they've said so far and how you can investigate these concepts for yourself.

    Also in the show, Hoffman explains his ideas in detail in addition to discussing the bicameral mind, artificial intelligence, and the hard problem of consciousness in this mindbending episode about how we make sense of our world, our existence, and ourselves.

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    Great Courses PlusThis episode is sponsored by The Great Courses Plus. Get unlimited access to a huge library of The Great Courses lecture series on many fascinating subjects. Start FOR FREE with Your Deceptive Mind taught by neurologist Steven Novella. Learn about how your mind makes sense of the world by lying to itself and others. Click here for a FREE TRIAL.

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    Links and Sources

    DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

    Previous Episodes

    Boing Boing Podcasts

    Cookie Recipes

    Donald Hoffman's Website

    What if Evolution Bred Reality Out of Us?

    The Case Against Reality

    Mr. Jaynes Wild Ride

    The Human Intellect is Like Peacock Feathers

    XKCD: Umwelt

    David Eagleman on the Umwelt

    IMAGE SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons

  • James Burke's new project aims to help us deal with change, think connectively, and benefit from surprise

    In this episode of the YANSS Podcast, we sit down with legendary science historian James Burke, who returns to the show to explain his newest project, a Connections app that will allow anyone to search and think "connectively" when exploring Wikipedia.

    He launched the Kickstarter for the app this month. This is a link to learn more.

    DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

    For much of his career, science historian James Burke has been creating documentaries and writing books aimed at helping us to make better sense of the enormous amount of information that he predicted would one day be at our fingertips.

    JamesBurkeSmallIn Connections, he offered an "alternate view of history" in which great insights took place because of anomalies and mistakes, because people were pursuing one thing, but it lead somewhere surprising or was combined with some other object or idea they could never have imagined by themselves. Innovation took place in the spaces between disciplines, when people outside of intellectual and professional silos, unrestrained by categorical and linear views, synthesized the work of people still trapped in those institutions, who, because of those institutions, had no idea what each other was up to and therefore couldn't predict the trajectory of even their own disciplines, much less history itself.

    In The Day the Universe Changed, Burke explored the sequential impact of discovery, innovation, and invention on how people defined reality itself. "You are what we know," he wrote "and when the body of knowledge changes, so do we." In this view of change, knowledge is invented as much as it is discovered, and new ideas "nibble at the edges" of common knowledge until values considered permanent and fixed fade into antiquity just like any other obsolete tool. Burke said that our system of knowledge and discovery has never been able, until recently, to handle more than one or two ways of seeing things at a time. In response we have long demanded conformity with the dominant worldview or with similarly homogenous ideological binaries.

    james_burke_historianMy favorite line from the book has to do with imagining a group of scientists who live in a society that believes the universe is made of omelettes and goes about designing instruments to detect traces of interstellar egg residue. When they observe evidence of galaxies and black holes, to them it all just seems like noise. Their model of nature cannot yet accommodate what they are seeing, so they don't see it. "All that can accurately be said about a man who thinks he is a poached egg," joked Burke, "is that he is in the minority."

    You may have noticed that when we browse the news or type into Google we tend to seek confirmation more than we do information. We predict our current model will remain untarnished. When we want to make sense of something, we tend to develop a hypothesis just like any scientist would, but when we check to see if we are correct, we often stop once we find confirmation of our hunches or feel as though we understand. Without training, we avoid epiphany by avoiding the null hypothesis and the disconfirmation it threatens should it turn out to be valid.

    Since the 1970s, Burke has predicted we would need better tools than just search alone if we were to break out of this way of thinking. His new app aims to do that by searching Wikipedia "connectively" and producing something the normal internet searches often do not – surprises, anomalies, and unexpected results.

    With the app, one would be able to pick two seemingly unrelated ideas, people, objects, events, inventions, works of art, or whatever, and then watch as the artificial intelligence carves a visual path through the articles on Wikipedia and forms a series of interactive nodes linking them. Each node can then be explored or summarized, and the whole chain can be saved or shared. Users would also be able to carve their own paths, visualizing the possible links at each stage, or choose a single topic and watch as the app delivers a selection of possible endpoints, some expected, and some bizarre.

    "It's a way, in a sense, of turning the fairly linear material in Wikipedia, that is to say much of what you find in Wikipedia tends to be connections between people that you would have expected, such as chemists knowing chemists and so on, and to turn that into more of an interactive knowledge web," said Burke. "If that were to happen, that would be an intriguing enrichment of what Wikipedia offers."

    When I got a chance to play with the preliminary version of the app, I started with Charles Darwin. After typing in his name, a hexagon appeared with six possible paths I could take. Those paths could be reset as many times as I wanted, but I chose to go off in the direction of natural selection which collapsed the other branches and created a new hexagon with the Charles Darwin node still attached. The new hexagon offered six new paths, and on I went down a chain of connections until I arrived at Frankenberry Cereal. That might seem like just a bit of fun trivia, that Darwin and Frankenberry are linked together in an academic six-degrees-of-separation sort of way, but along that path I learned how advances in biology led to the mass production of gelatin. That took me to the history of pectin, fruit roll-ups, and something I had never heard of before called "Frankenberry Stool," the pink poop that comes from eating too much monster-based manufactured breakfast which caused a short-lived health scare in the early days of artificially dyed food.

    In the 1990s, Burke began working on a Knowledge Web, a mostly invite-only, experimental interactive media project built on the same principles as his approach to the history of science, innovation, and change. The K-Web allows users to visualize and navigate information outside of the way it is presented in books or libraries, and to move between nodes connection in a dense, interconnected sprawl, like neurons wired together into tethered constellations of association and influence. Today it features 2,800 people linked 30,000 ways, but the Connections app would apply the tools developed in that project to the megastructure of Wikipedia, adding five million new nodes with a yet-to-be-estimated number of new links between them.

    Richard Ingram, a professor of Educational Technology at James Madison University is heading up the dev team working on the project. Ingram said that should the Kickstarter be successful, a portion of the revenue from app sales will be donated annually to Wikipedia itself and "James himself asks that he receive no compensation." Instead , he wishes for sales to go to his non-profit to help distribute the app so that it can be used in education.

    I asked how Burke hoped people would use the app, and he said, first of all, if the campaign falls through, no one will use it for anything, but if it does, he said fun and silliness in his view are justified ends unto themselves. Aside from those goals though, he said he had "always found that reading in widening circles around a person and seeing what contacts they made, the people they knew, the influences they caused or suffered, quite often the most interesting things happened when you went to an anomaly, an outrider if you like." For example, an engineer might only have friends who are also engineers with the exception of a painter or a pilot. "Go there, because the whole process of change, and prediction, and handling innovation, which is why I started the K-Web and this app in the first place, tends in general to be a surprise."

    Great Courses PlusThis episode is sponsored by The Great Courses Plus. Get unlimited access to a huge library of The Great Courses lecture series on many fascinating subjects. Start FOR FREE with Your Deceptive Mind taught by neurologist Steven Novella. Learn about how your mind makes sense of the world by lying to itself and others. Click here for a FREE TRIAL.

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    purchase.

    PatreonSupport the show directly by becoming a patron! Get episodes one-day-early and ad-free. Head over to the YANSS Patreon Page for more details.

    Links and Sources

    DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

    Previous Episodes

    Boing Boing Podcasts

    The Connections App Kickstarter Page

    The Connections App Website

    The Knowledge Web

    A prototype of the app

    Connections

    The Day the Universe Changed

  • Why are online worlds often so toxic?

    Why do people cheat? Why are our online worlds often so toxic? What motivates us to "catch 'em all" in Pokemon, grinding away for hours to hatch eggs?

    In this episode, psychologist Jamie Madigan, author of Getting Gamers, explains how by exploring the way people interact with video games we can better understand how brains interact with everything else.

    DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

    Great Courses PlusThis episode is sponsored by The Great Courses Plus. Get unlimited access to a huge library of The Great Courses lecture series on many fascinating subjects. Start FOR FREE with Your Deceptive Mind taught by neurologist Steven Novella. Learn about how your mind makes sense of the world by lying to itself and others. Click here for a FREE TRIAL.

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    purchase.

    PatreonSupport the show directly by becoming a patron! Get episodes one-day-early and ad-free. Head over to the YANSS Patreon Page for more details.

    Links and Sources

    DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

    Previous Episodes

    Boing Boing Podcasts

    Cookie Recipes

    The Psychology of Video Games

  • The neuroscience behind the things that our brains do poorly

    In this episode we interview Dean Burnett, author of Idiot Brain: What Your Brain is Really Up To. Burnett's book is a guide to the neuroscience behind the things that our amazing brains do poorly.

    In the interview we discuss motion sickness, the pain of breakups, why criticisms are more powerful than compliments, the imposter syndrome, anti-intellectualism, irrational fears, and more. Burnett also explains how the brain is kinda sorta like a computer, but a really bad one that messes with your files, rewrites your documents, and edits your photos when you aren't around.

    Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist who lectures at Cardiff University and writes about brain stuff over at his blog, Brain Flapping hosted by The Guardian.

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    Links and Sources

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    Previous Episodes

    Boing Boing Podcasts

    Cookie Recipes

    Idiot Brain

    Dean Burnett's Website

    Brain Flapping

    Illustration: Wikimedia Commons