Sunday, March 25, 2007

Why Skepticism Is Important

The Media Report recently interviewed Stephan Lewandowsky, Professor of Psychology at the University of Western Australia, on the subject of how we remember things even when we know they're not true (the interview is about two thirds of the way down the transcript).

Stephan Lewandowsky:: It is simply the case that when people have memorised some piece of information, it becomes remarkably resilient to change later on. And just to give you an example, we've done a study that dealt with information surrounding the initial stages of the Iraq war in 2003, where on a number of occasions we were told certain things that then later on turned out to be false. For example, Prime Minister Blair claimed on one occasion that the Iraqis had executed Coalition prisoners-of-war after they surrendered. And the next day, his own Ministry of Defence said, 'Well hang on, no, we actually don't know that.' So the information was retracted, and so what one should do as a consumer of the media, is to then update one's memory and kind of purge that information from memory. Well as it turns out, what we found with our research is that people often unable to do so, and they continue to believe in the initial information. And so there appears to be this pattern of media coverage during the Iraq war where things were first reported and then retracted, and we tested something like 500 or so people in three countries around the world, in Germany, Australia and the U.S., and we tried to find out whether they were able to adjust their memories when things were corrected after first being said. And basically, the answer is only those people who were suspicious of the motives underlying the war, were able to correct their memories once the misinformation was put out.

Most people get their information from the standard media (television, papers, the internet) rather than specialist sources, and the media these days tends to be just as accepting of anything they hear as the general population (unless you're writing the Mind&Body supplement, in which case you live in a surreal alternative universe of flowing qi and telepathy).

Antony Funnell: So in terms of using the media to get a message across, the initial information that's disseminated on a subject, whether it's true or whether it's deliberately deceptive, that's the most important piece of information, regardless of the prominence or extent of the correction. It's getting in there first with the message is it, that's most important? If you're being tactical about it, say a politician.

Or a homeopath? EoR wonders.

Alties would have us believe that "skeptics" are simply nay-sayers, who believe in nothing, but of course that's not true. Skepticism is a method of critical thinking. It's a process that's important in order to determine what can be believed, what can't be believed, and what is undetermined. Without such an approach, people can be led to believe anything.

Stephan Lewandowsky:: It does not have much of an effect, unless, again let me get back to the theme of our first study on Iraq, unless people are either suspicious or critical or sceptical of the information in the first place. And we find that confirmed in a whole variety of studies all across the board, for example in jury decision-making, jurors, just like anybody else will not disregard tainted evidence even if instructed to do so by a judge. Unless they're being made suspicious or sceptical of why that information was put out in the first place. So there is a lot of evidence to suggest that what we have to do is to get people to be critical and sceptical of information in the first place, and that, if you wish, is immunization against misinformation. And I think that's where the media play a very important role in encouraging scepticism, by being sceptical and inquisitive themselves.

Well, he's lost the whole altie audience there, asking them to be "immunized" against untruths... Stephan Lewandowsky also points out that the more strongly false information is disproved, the more strongly it can be confirmed in the minds of people who have already been led to believe it. Deprogramming is much more difficult than initial correct education.

One other thing we find in our research is that even sceptical people, even people who are suspicious, will believe things that have not been corrected. They are quite capable of believing things that they have heard and they haven't been corrected. Where sceptics differ from other people is in their ability to adjust their memory for that information that has been corrected. So it's a selective ability to disregard falsehoods and it does not impair your ability to remember other things. So it's not total cynicism that I'm talking about.

EoR remains skeptical about these findings, and awaits confirmation or otherwise.

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