Why facts will never be enough to make people believe; and why journalists should learn to roll with that

Right now I’m reading Seth Mnookin’s Panic Virus — a book about the bad science, bad science media coverage, and quirks of human psychology that fostered the anti-vaccine movement (by parents concerned that vaccines cause autism, despite the wealth of peer-reviewed science to the contrary).

I’m reading it because I’m fascinated and concerned why people (sometimes in large numbers) tend to cling to beliefs/positions fiercely long after they’ve been factually debunked/disproven, whether by science or by journalistic, legal, or other systematic investigation. (WMD, anyone?)

This kind of anti-fact, anti-science backlash tends to really confuse and frustrate journalists and scientists.

It sucks when you work really hard to do the fairest, most systematic investigation of a topic that deeply affects many people’s lives — but the very people who are suffering most from the topic of your research refuse to believe what you have to say, or accuse you of being part of some conspiracy to hoodwink them. And meanwhile, your less skilled or less ethical colleagues are producing their own research and reports designed to foster fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

That generates considerable friction, controversy, and conflict. And worse, it delays the discovery and implementation of real solutions.

Why does this happen — and what can journalists and scientists do about it?…

Panic Virus isn’t a great book (I found most of it tiresomely redundant, like a heavily padded feature article), but the 2nd half of ch. 16 on cognitive biases is relevant here.

There (starting at about location 3100 in the Kindle edition), Mnookin explains psychological phenomena such as pattern recognition, the clustering illusion, cognitive dissonance, and availability cascades. They’re just part of how our brains work, and the practices of science and journalism often act as counterbalances to these innate tendencies. That’s why science and journalism are fundamentally uncomfortable and controversial professions.

But these quirks of how brains work are why just presenting facts and information often has the opposite social effect that journalists hope for.

I think if our goal as journalists is to help people understand how things really are, how they got that way, what might happen next, and what people might do to steer the future or protect their interests, we need to think hard about how to accommodate — not deny — these psychological tendencies.

These phenomena evolved into our brains’ hardwiring for good reasons — but like many evolved tendencies, they present drawbacks when the environment that people exist within shifts quickly and radically.

I’m not sure what might be the best way to adapt journalism/media in ways that accommodate these neurological tendencies constructively (rather than simply dismiss or denigrate them). But I’m pretty sure that the standard journalistic approach of posing as a detached, uninvolved observer who makes no decisions or judgments only feeds the kind of passionate anti-fact backlash these neurological tendencies produce.

I realize it’s hugely controversial to suggest that it might be a good thing for society if journalists were to present themselves as less detached and more human. Usually when I have that conversation in a community of journalists, it generates a lot of passionate backlash.

But maybe such a fierce reaction, in itself, might be an indicator of these very phenomena at work in journalists’ own brains.


June 18: On a related theme of collective cognitive dissonance, watch this short, brilliant video rant by NY hip-hop radio show host Jay Smooth: How Lebron James Broke the Golden Rule of Sports.

June 16: In B2B Memes, John Bethune wrote an excellent followup to my post. Here’s an excerpt:

I wonder: when you’re dealing with anosognosics—people who can’t recognize their own cognitive failings—is there any way to get them to accept reality without wrapping it in deception? Can you give such readers what they need without, perhaps impossibly, also giving them what they want? Does your goal of truth telling somehow imperceptibly slip into propaganda?

Faced with such questions, I tend to throw up my hands in despair and fall back on a selfish impulse: “This is my search for truth here. You can take it or leave it.”

That’s fine for me, but not for journalism. Truth-telling is transactional. As Gahran suggests, if journalists can’t find ways to get people to listen, they will have failed. The trick will be to do so without bending the truth in the process.

Also, about the anti-vaccination movement: My friend Mary Mactavish pointed me toward this week’s USA Today story noting that the US is in the midst of the worst measles outbreak in 15 years. Salient point: “Granting exceptions to vaccine requirements has helped foster outbreaks, research shows.”

7 thoughts on Why facts will never be enough to make people believe; and why journalists should learn to roll with that

  1. We have cognitive biases, true. We don’t always respond rationally when facts are presented dispassionately, true. I don’t think the logical conclusion is that we should wrap facts in “more human” journalism. I feel like a lot of enviro-journalism already does this and it seems to breed ill-informed people supporting a good cause (which isn’t an entirely a bad thing but I think there are better ways to support these causes). Personally, I prefer going down the road of learning about our cognitive biases so we can avoid them. I have nothing against “human” journalism, I just don’t think it would help us overcome our cognitive biases. Thanks for bringing up this important topic!

  2. Thanks JerL. I’m actually not talking about “overcoming” cognitive biases, because I doubt that’s possible — at least until we upload to the great cloud after the singularity of course 😉

    Rather, I’m talking about recognizing cognitive biases as a kind of fact on the ground — one that strongly affects how the information contained in journalism is received, understood, and integrated into experience. The point is how to take them into account and communicate well despite them — or perhaps even learn how to address them in more nuanced ways, meet them on their own terms, in order to give the facts a better chance of being heard or believed.

    To be clear, humanizing journalism doesn’t necessarily mean adopting or catering to an advocacy perspective. It’s more an issue of presentation and followup/engagement, I think.

    IMHO, of course.

  3. One thing that experts on cognitive/cultural bias recommend is to look for sources with whom audiences can identify culturally. A source’s cultural creds may be even more important than his or her scientific creds. When Al Gore or any other politician makes pronouncements about climate change, for example, that tends to predispose a lot of people not to believe him regardless of the facts.

  4. David Roepik explores this issue in his book, “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.” Amy, you are right: our brains are wired in interesting ways.

  5. Pingback: Do your readers want the truth? | B2B Memes

  6. Great point Dawn. I especially see that in my work with OaklandLocal.com. In a lot of parts of this town, if you aren’t from there (and especially if you haven’t lived there for at least several years), anything you say about that part of town or the people in it gets discounted.

    This is why we go to a lot of effort to include local voices. They may not always be experts, but they can usually comment on how an event or issue is affecting their neighborhood.

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