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How do we choose who and what to believe?
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How do we choose who and what to believe?

Donald Trump wearing MAGA cap.


It appears that we live in an age full of misinformation.

Some celebrities and broadcasters openly promote false facts and misrepresentations about science and data to their audience. Many of them don’t seem to care if they are right or wrong as long as they are getting what they want.

Sometimes misinformation is promoted because people have an overinflated belief in their judgment and knowledge. Other times, they just enjoy the opportunity to express their contrarian or ideological views. Sometimes, it’s just about self-interest.

Many people hold at least one controversial belief. We may believe that the death penalty discourages crime, that raising minimum wage reduces unemployment, and that increasing taxes on businesses will lower innovation.

You might even believe that women aren’t as good at maths than men or that the Earth is flat.

We will be steadfast in some of these beliefs.

We often find that the evidence pool for justifying our beliefs is very small.

Researchers have discovered a chronic condition. illusion of explanatory depthWe underestimate our ability to understand the world.

You can find this out by trying to justify your pet beliefs. To illustrate, when I interrogate myself about why I believe the death penalty is not a deterrent, I find there is not a lot there except for consensus beliefs among my peer group – some of whom I hope have looked into the evidence – some intuition, and vague memories of looking at some blog posts or newspaper articles. This is not much. But it is perhaps not surprising: we simply don’t have time to be experts on everything.

Sometimes, people are described as having fallen for the lure of the Dunning-Kruger effect, or even as “having” Dunning-Kruger. Donald Trump one such person.

Donald Trump wearing MAGA cap.
Trump was described as ‘having Dunning-Kruger’.
Marjorie Kamys Cotera/Bob Daemmrich Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

The Dunning-Kruger effect, however, is a population-level effect, so no individual can “have” it. It primarily means that just because someone is confident doesn’t mean they are right. There are many levels of confidence. Some people are extremely confident about themselves while others are quite uncertain.

The confidence of highly confident, but incorrect people is not due to ignorance. It comes from their inherent confidence about everything. Researchers have described it as arrogance.

Trump would have been less confident if he knew more. I doubt it. Trump was (or is) just full of bluster, and Trump’s confidence was not related to his knowledge.

What determines which beliefs we believe when we have a choice to make?

Although scientific evidence can be helpful, we often believe what we want to believe.

These beliefs might be “chosen” through indoctrination. These beliefs could be rooted in self-interest or strong ideologies, such as wealthy people who believe taxes are a robber of initiative. They might also be required to fit in with a particular social group.

How does a particular belief become associated with a specific group of people? Sometimes, the connection is very clear.

People who are strongly religious don’t believe in evolution. Atheists do not believe that creation is possible. Partisanship can also lead to beliefs. Conservatives are committed to moral values different issues – such as respect for authority – than those on the left, who put more weight on harm prevention. Liberals are more inclined to seek out novelty and change, both personally as well as politically, while conservatives prefer things that are familiar, stable, and predictable.

Sometimes, simply knowing that a belief has been endorsed by someone is enough. member of “their” sideIt is enough to get people to back it.

This is the flavor of many current controversies, such as whether COVID masks or vaccines should be required or whether nuclear power can be beneficial for the environment. We look to our peers as well as to the authorities and ideologies that we respect. follow their lead.

We are also more likely follow those we like. who are highly confidentEven though confidence is a poor predictor for accuracy, this is still true. Of course, our human counterparts are likely doing the same thing.

These armchair experts act normal

Let’s return to those high-profile broadcasters, social media celebrities and armchair experts who have been wilfully spreading an avalanche of misinformation.

They are all the same.

If it is natural for us to believe things based only on limited evidence and because we believe them to be compatible with our social group and political preferences, then it should not surprise that others have beliefs that are completely different from ours. Or that they apparently do so despite, as it appears to us, overwhelming contradictory evidence – from their perspective we are doing the same thing. It shouldn’t surprise us if a TV journalist or Twitter celebrity believes things based only on flimsy evidence.

We may have chosen to follow accepted scientific wisdom during the pandemic, but we will likely face other situations in which we have beliefs that are based upon our own misjudgements or ideologies.

Upton Sinclair was an American writer and political activist. famously wrote: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”.

Even a scientist might be disposed of by a pharmaceutical company if they are hired to evaluate the efficacy a new blockbuster drug. find evidence of the drug’s effectiveness.

Conversely, there are probably reasons why a small – but prominent – number of scientists have taken a distinctly outlier stance regarding the pandemic, or other issues, such as climate change.

You don’t need to look further than this to see why there will be armchair specialists proposing all possible positions. And when they get fame and attention for doing so, they will continue to hold those positions.

Their position will be lost and they will lose all the attention, celebrity and credibility. Imagine what Donald Trump would do if he sided with poor refugees. Imagine what would happen radio hosts who have a loyal following because of their libertarian views, if they suddenly decided to change their mind about masks.

Once a set beliefs is established, the armchair expert can be trusted to stay committed.


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