The Science of Truth and Belief

Throughout human history, there have been those who promote falsehoods for various reasons: flawed logic, religious beliefs, superstition, and for financial or political gain. However, the challenge of discerning the truth has become greater than in the past because of social media and other online information flooding our brains, decreasing our ability to keep up. A recent article discusses the consequences to our capability to discern the truth. In an attempt at efficiency, humans have historically used simple rules to choose quickly what to believe. Because in the past, most of what we heard was true, we frequently erred on the side of belief. Research supports that we attend to information that is new, exciting, and supports what we already believe. This describes much of the messaging that bombard us online. The more often one hears a false claim, the more believable it becomes as many charlatan politicians and news reporters well know.

A computational social scientist, Jevin West, cowrote Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World. In addition to the difficutly of discerning truth, he advises: “We’re also contending with a platform, and with algorithms and bots that know how to pierce into our cognitive frailties.” (I frequently boast that I grew up on a farm and am familiar with the smell of BS.) According to West, times of uncertainty like that caused by Covid prompts more dangerous speculation.

Further, social media uses means to hook us into frequent use by tempting us to get more likes, retweets, etc, which encourages us to share more, particularly unusual posts. Information scientist, Sinan Aral of MIT and author of the 2020 book The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health — And How We Must Adapt argues   “Novelty has an advantage in the information economy in terms of spreading farther, faster, deeper.”

Many universities require a course in “critical thinking” as part of their general education requirements. I consider critical thinking as one of the best consequences of a college education. Classes have tips such as considering the source of information, how to recognize flawed arguments labeled : straw dog or straw man device (substitute a similar but easily refuted claim instead of the one in question,) topic avoidance via vague and unrelated generalities, wrong attribution to a respected figure, cherry picking, poor analogies, overgeneralization, quoting out of context, and more.

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