It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

How Propaganda Works and How It Fails

I'm just going to lift this straight from Slashdot (much nerdy discussion found there as usual), which refers to an article on the Washington Post. Most "In It" readers will probably find this interesting.
lottameez recommends an article in the Washington Post about recent research into the persistence of myths. In short: once a myth has been put out there (e.g., "Saddam Hussein plotted the 9/11 attacks"), denying it can paradoxically reinforce its staying power. Ignoring it doesn't work either — a claim that is unchallenged gains the ring of truth. Over time, "negation tags" fall out of memory: "Saddam didn't plan 9/11" becomes "Saddam planned 9/11." From the article:

"The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths... The research is painting a broad new understanding of how the mind works. Contrary to the conventional notion that people absorb information in a deliberate manner, the studies show that the brain uses subconscious 'rules of thumb' that can bias it into thinking that false information is true. Clever manipulators can take advantage of this tendency.
Climate Spin advocates the silent treatment. Atmoz recommends the calm rebuttal. The research does not bear out that either approach is effective in reaching the tangentially interested, which in a democracy typically constitutes the ruling majority. I recommend ridicule as a useful strategy. It's fun, it's harmless at worst, and it works on the adolescent subconscious in all of us very nicely. "If I take this idea seriously but it's as silly as these uncontrolably giggling people say, people will be able to mock me and thereby reduce my perceived reproductive fitness."

Effective ridicule needs to be deft, of course, but I really think it is an appropriate adaptation. The organized opposition is increasingly ludicrous on many points. Making this clear to the casual observer will go a long way to short circuiting endless discussion on matters that ought to be behind us by now.

Update: A very relevant article by Eliezer Yudkovsky appears on Overcoming Bias which refers to several older studies on a related matter. Which do you think is more common, murder or suicide? Your likelihood of getting such questions wrong correlates strongly with press coverage. The money quote from that article:
Using "availability" seems to give rise to an absurdity bias; events that have never happened, are not recalled, and hence deemed to have probability zero.
which may have something to do with 50% of Fortune 1000 executives disbelief in the likelihood of substantial impacts from climate change.


Steve Bloom said...

I keep flogging this depressing study: Understanding Public Complacency About Climate Change: Adults' mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter. I think it could come in useful in the context of ridicule since so many denialists believe they have a superior grasp of science.

Michael Tobis said...

Steve, I second your flog.

Sterman and Sweeney is pretty core to how I think about the whole problem.

I'm not sure it makes sense to ridicule the muddled intuition people tend to show up with, though.

Hank Roberts said...

Hey, I googled images with "look it up" in the name and found some doozies. Among them this gem:

Rob said...

I meant ignore them on blog comment pages. Obviously you can't let denialist messages that get wide coverage in large papers or news stations go uncorrected.

(I was going to blog about this article too.)

Fergus said...

The only problem I can see with the ridicule approach is that it requires a reader to identify the humour, which isn't always that easy. Sarcasm is a tricky tool to use on the web. Satire seems to be the order of the day. If I knew how, I've got a great idea for a youtube piece by a member of the aristocracy, demonstrating that by virtue of birth he is innately superior and therefore knows more than any expert (who is, after all, by definition, no better than middle-class).

Now, where's that joke book...

John Mashey said...

Fergus: the problem is compounded by supplying British humour to us Americans and American humor to Brits...

Actually, calm rebuttal (on the part of some) and ridicule (on the part of others) seems a good strategy.