Does in­tel­li­gence of­fer im­mu­nity against fake news? It’s de­bat­able

Daily Southtown - - OPINION - By Faye Flam Bloomberg Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opin­ion colum­nist. She has a de­gree in geo­physics from the Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy.

One might sus­pect sci­en­tists of be­la­bor­ing the ob­vi­ous with the 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’s pit­ted against an­other widely be­lieved par­a­digm, shaped by sev­eral coun­ter­in­tu­itive stud­ies that in­di­cate we’re 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 us of Jonathan Haidt’s “co­gent and per­sua­sive ac­count” of how bad hu­mans are at ev­i­dence-based rea­son­ing. The ar­ti­cle also cites the clas­sic 2013 book “Think­ing, Fast and Slow” to ar­gue that we’re ruled more by tribes, af­fil­i­a­tions and in­stincts than by ev­i­dence. But isn’t it pos­si­ble this ap­plies to some peo­ple more than oth­ers? Is it rea­son­able to be­lieve that we are all equally bad at rea­son­ing? Luck­ily some sci­en­tists seem 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’s 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 co-wrote with Ben Tap pan 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’s 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 done some 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’s 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, char­la­tans who know the right buzz­words can sound as eru­dite to the lay pub­lic as the world’s true ex­perts would.

But 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 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. Low scores are cor­re­lated with re­li­gious dog­ma­tism, su­per­sti­tion and be­lief in con­spir­acy the­o­ries as well as a type of fake apho­rism that Pen­ny­cook called “pseu­do­pro­found.”

Un­der­stand­ing who be­lieves fake news and why touches on the very foun­da­tions of Amer­i­can democ­racy. The view that we’re all equally clue­less plays into the post-truth rab­bit hole dug by Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign and ad­min­is­tra­tion. Why lis­ten to ex­perts who’ve spent a life­time study­ing some­thing if they, like all of us, de­serve an F in ra­tio­nal­ity? Why bother try­ing to think any­thing through?

Well, maybe be­cause the truth is out there. In the book “Net­work Pro­pa­ganda,” a group of Har­vard re­searchers an­a­lyzes thou­sands of so­cial me­dia posts to demon­strate the in­flu­ence of false and mis­lead­ing in­for­ma­tion in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. They also dis­pel the myth that par­ti­sans on the left and right are equally in­flu­enced by false­hoods. The data, they say, show the prob­lem is con­cen­trated on the right.

This is not to say that peo­ple who are good at pick­ing out fake news and score well on the Cog­ni­tive Re­flec­tion Test are smarter than other peo­ple in other ways. As Michael Sher­mer ar­gued long ago in his clas­sic “Why Peo­ple Be­lieve Weird Things,” very cre­ative peo­ple — even fa­mous sci­en­tists — can be sub­ject to delu­sions and oc­ca­sion­ally be­lieve in as­trol­ogy or con­spir­acy the­o­ries.

Pen­ny­cook agreed this is not just a cog­ni­tive is­sue but could en­com­pass el­e­ments of per­son­al­ity and men­tal health. Just as Sher­mer showed there are cre­ative delu­sional peo­ple, there also are those smart but nar­cis­sis­tic types — the peo­ple who in­sist all cli­mate sci­en­tists are id­iots, for ex­am­ple.

JACQUIE BOYD/IKON IM­AGES

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