Editorial: Fake news, conspiracies and biases

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Think of a controversial event or issue in which your beliefs are firm but based more on conjecture than established fact – perhaps Trump-Russia collusion in the 2016 presidential election, the 2012 Benghazi attack, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, or the assassination of John F. Kennedy, for example. Now, rather than looking for information that supports your belief, try to prove yourself wrong.

It’s a fairly simple exercise, but it’s one that Americans appear less and less willing to undertake. People are much more likely to sift through information and extract only the pieces that confirm their theory, all the while rejecting – whether consciously or subconsciously – any information that undermines their core argument. Taken to the extreme, this is the way that otherwise sensible people become conspiracy theorists.

Conspiracies can be real – Watergate and Iran-Contra come to mind – but there are plenty of long-since-debunked theories that continue to hang around. In the process of trying to understand the psychology of conspiracy theorists, we came across a brief explanation from Christopher French, a psychology professor at the University of London, in Scientific American. French cites three main factors that contribute to conspiracy theories.

One is “confirmation bias.” “We all have a natural inclination to give more weight to evidence that supports what we already believe and ignore evidence that contradicts our beliefs,” French writes. So when early news reports contain errors or contradictions, “those wishing to find evidence of a cover-up will focus on such inconsistencies to bolster their claims.”

A second driver of conspiracy theories is “proportionality bias” – “our innate tendency to assume that big events have big causes.” French points out that proportionality bias is the reason so many people refused to believe that JFK’s death was caused by a lone, deranged gunman. How, after all, could one man so disrupt the path of an entire nation?

The third piece is “projection.” French writes: “People who endorse conspiracy theories may be more likely to engage in conspiratorial behaviors themselves, such as spreading rumors or tending to be suspicious of others’ motives. If you would engage in such behavior, it may seem natural that other people would as well.”

We suppose everybody has a bit of conspiracy theorist in them, but it’s difficult for people to see signs of confirmation bias, proportionality bias and projection in themselves. Do you despise Politician X and take every slur against him or her at face value? Are you firmly in Politician X’s corner and of the opinion that every negative story about him or her qualifies as “fake news”? Is “winning” an argument more important than gaining new insight or understanding, even if that means resorting to conjecture presented as fact and vice versa?

Some of you will read this editorial and instinctively point out the biases of your perceived ideological opponents, such as the fools who write and edit opinions for a living, for example. But as far as we can tell, nobody is innocent. Our intent is not to spark new debates about controversial matters or to suggest that one crowd is worse than another when it comes to endorsing conspiracy theories, but rather to shine a bit of a light on individual and collective blind spots.

So you are free to believe whatever it is you choose to believe, but how willing are you to find out where you’re wrong?