Sister blog of Physicists of the Caribbean in which I babble about non-astronomy stuff, because everyone needs a hobby

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Does fake news actually exploit critical thinking rather than stopping it ?

Misinformation researchers have proposed two competing hypotheses for why people fall for fake news on social media. The popular assumption—supported by research on apathy over climate change and the denial of its existence—is that people are blinded by partisanship, and will leverage their critical-thinking skills to ram the square pegs of misinformation into the round holes of their particular ideologies. According to this theory, fake news doesn't so much evade critical thinking as weaponize it, preying on partiality to produce a feedback loop in which people become worse and worse at detecting misinformation.

The other hypothesis is that reasoning and critical thinking are, in fact, what enable people to distinguish truth from falsehood, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum. (If this sounds less like a hypothesis and more like the definitions of reasoning and critical thinking, that's because they are.).

Which then means that people believing fake news aren't rationalising their positions but just committing "mental laziness".

My rough-and-ready definition of analytical intelligence would be the capacity to process information to form a conclusion. Critical thinking would be a capability to overcome bias, i.e. to sincerely judge which conclusion is in better agreement with the evidence regardless of personal preference. These are not the same, so an intelligent but non-critical person can use highly sophisticated methods to rationalise whatever position they want. Such people do exist - those who are highly biased but also highly intelligent. But, purely anecdotally, intelligence and criticiallity aren't uncorrelated. It does happen, but it's rare to get someone extremely intelligent but uncritical, or vice-versa (ignoring more complex group effects). These people are by far the hardest to convince of anything, and the vocal ones are disproportionately influential, but they are rare.

Under this definition, people who believe fake news aren't using their critical thinking skills, but they're not exactly being mentally "lazy" either. Or rather, what I would guess is that people who aren't terribly critical and/or intelligent are indeed being mentally lazy, but those who are intelligent but not critical... those are the dangerous ones, the ones who will use intelligence to rationalise but not criticise. The ability to challenge self-bias is a different skill to that of analysing data, in my view. Again, not uncorrelated, but they're not the same either. Intelligent people who rationalise in a sophisticated way aren't being "lazy", that's too simple, they're just being uncritical.

The researchers found that, despite partisan differences in trust, the crowdsourced ratings did "an excellent job" distinguishing between reputable and non-reputable sources.

"That was surprising," says Rand. Like a lot of people, he originally assumed the idea of crowdsourcing media trustworthiness was a "really terrible idea." His results not only indicated otherwise, they also showed, among other things, "that more cognitively sophisticated people are better at differentiating low- vs high-quality [news] sources."

All of which suggests susceptibility to fake news is driven more by lazy thinking than by partisan bias. Which on one hand sounds—let's be honest—pretty bad. But it also implies that getting people to be more discerning isn't a lost cause. Changing people's ideologies, which are closely bound to their sense of identity and self, is notoriously difficult. Getting people to think more critically about what they're reading could be a lot easier, by comparison.

I dunno, my feeling is that it's going to be a lot more complicated than that. Identity-driven partisanship probably helps drive both lazy (unsophisticated) and/or uncritical thinking, in different circumstances.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Platforms could use visual cues that call to mind the mere concept of truth in the minds of their users—a badge or symbol that evokes what Rand calls an "accuracy stance."

IIRC, Facebook already tried something similar to this and it didn't work well at all, but I can't find the story right now.


  1. It's useless to blame the base electorate for media-made ignorance. People with too much to do, on their minds, have no time to fact check or find a wider view.

  2. I'm not sure it's relevant to the fake news discussion but my mother has a different definition of intelligence, or rather, of a smart person: it is one who believes that thinking about a problem might help. It's an operational definition - there are people for whom it would help, but they don't believe it, so they don't and effectively they aren't smart people.

  3. laurie corzett I think sheer lack of time is an underrated factor. But accounting for that, there are three possible approaches people might take with regard to fake news :
    1) They don't have the critical/analytical tools needed to determine that it's fake, so they accept it.
    2) They have the mental tools needed but for various reasons don't use them. The article calls this "intellectually lazy", but this is probably more intended for convenience than as an insult. For instance if you check the accuracy of a source frequently, and find it's of a consistently high standard, it becomes trusted. So you might not check it as often in future - this would be "intellectually lazy" in the sense intended here, but it wouldn't really be "lazy" in the usual sense of "can't be bothered". It's more about become habituated to accuracy, I suppose.
    3) They have the analytic but not the critical tools needed, so they rationalise their acceptance rather than truly examining the issue.

    And there's a zeroth level which relates to point 2 : they just don't have any credible contrasting information, or have so little that it doesn't seem credible to them. People who think they already know the answer don't bother to check it. Which relates to confirmation bias, ignorance, absolute thinking, etc.

  4. Allen Knutson That's an interesting one. I was thinking about how to tie in "wisdom" to my working definitions... I like the use of the word "effective" too.

    In my experience there are people with tremendous analytical, technical skills who can solve anything you throw at them, but with little or no "meta-wisdom" to actually stop and think whether the method proposed is the best one or if the problem is even worth solving. I think the relations between the different types of intelligence are so complex and interrelated that working definitions are the best we can manage.

  5. Rhys Taylor - I wonder if this stems from my debate with Michael J. Coffey on climate change. I'm not your typical denier. I believe it's happening. I just think the driving forces are different from what we are being sold (err... told) by the media and many scientists who have been bought by corporations. I think deforestation and bad agricultural practices, which lead to desertification, are just as significant as the human spewing of CO2 through the use of fossil fuels. Also, unlike many deniers, I'm not saying that we should continue using fossil fuels. On the contrary. There are other reasons to stop using them. One big reason is air pollution which is responsible for 16% of all deaths worldwide; and that only takes human deaths into consideration. Another reason is because removing vast amounts of oil is making Earth's crust more brittle. Thus, causing more frequent and intense earthquakes.

    Here are some articles to support my claims.

  6. David Lazarus Well, no, not really. You were a partial trigger for some of the discussion on Aumann's Agreement Theorem ( but by no means all. If I observe people doing something that I consider strange, I try very hard to find multiple examples before generalising on it. Otherwise there's a risk of building a house of cards on very shaky foundations, since individuals all have weird quirks anyway. I'm more interested in the larger patterns of behaviour and trying to understand the common reasons behind them.

    My thoughts on the different aspects of intelligence are views I've had for many years. They are based on direct interactions with many people (especially senior research scientists... "the natural state of an academic", a wise man once quipped, "is to go mad.") as well as various psychology articles I've come across.

    The really tricky part is to factor in my own failure rate... I'm certainly guilty of rationalising my own positions on some issues.

  7. Rhys Taylor - Right. I remember that conversation. The fact that the surface brightness of galaxies does not obey the inverse square law is still bothersome for me. OK, wait. I see. It helps to know the units:

    Now that part makes sense. I wrongly thought that "surface brightness" referred to the collective brightness of numerous objects rather than the brightness per area. However, I still fail to see where this proves, or requires, that the universe to be finite. Only the observable universe is finite.

    I'll take a closer look at the other two posts later. I saw that I hadn't commented on either one. Though the second one seemed a bit familiar.

    Also, I still haven't forgotten about the big picture with regard our conversation about the universe. I've just had a lot on my mind lately and haven't had the energy to pursue a big project. - Brightness and Surface Brightness


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