September 14, 2008

Avoiding Those Who Aim to Corrupt Your Mind

Mark Thoma has been having a conversation about being opened minded and whether Democrats need to look at how they treat small town Americans. An interesting point about what it means to be respectful and willing to listen to others who have views that differ from yours was from EconTech who brought up the subject of why it might be dangerous to you to listen to someone who was factually wrong.

There is another angle from which this needs to be approached, however. At some point, rationalists are interested in pursuing knowledge. Unfortunately, human minds are not particularly good at maintaining a wall between what we know (at least, in some probabilistic sense) to be true and untrue. This is why I sometimes say (if not here, in my personal life), ďHe is not even worth listening toĒ. When we hear things, especially repeatedly, we simply forget if they are true or untrue because our brain does not maintain a bibliography of our knowledge, much less an annotated one:

The brain does not simply gather and stockpile information as a computerís hard drive does. Facts are stored first in the hippocampus, a structure deep in the brain about the size and shape of a fat manís curled pinkie finger. But the information does not rest there. Every time we recall it, our brain writes it down again, and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned. For example, you know that the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably donít remember how you learned it.

This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also lead people to forget whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer, people often later remember it as true.

With time, this misremembering only gets worse. A false statement from a noncredible source that is at first not believed can gain credibility during the months it takes to reprocess memories from short-term hippocampal storage to longer-term cortical storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications gain strength. This could explain why, during the 2004 presidential campaign, it took some weeks for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against Senator John Kerry to have an effect on his standing in the polls.

Thus, when I run into someone who is willing to believe that the universe is a few thousand years old, I recognize that they are incapable of making judgements based on evidence, and anything they say to me, if I listen to them enough, will begin to ring true. That I have good reason to believe their opinions more likely than not to be wrong, listening to them would be a mistake. A literal corruption of the mind that I, knowing this to be possible, should take action to avoid.

That is why John McCain is running such an aggressively false campaign. The big lie works because when it is repeated so often it becomes true in your mind. It is this aspect that has caused too many Americans to "believe" Obama is Muslim despite all the evidence to the contrary. And it is frightening to realize that what the Republicans are doing could work its poison into the body politic enough to let him "win".

Update: In the article linked above is an important point for how to help ourselves overcome the bias to reject evidence that goes against our own beliefs:

In the same study, however, when subjects were asked to imagine their reaction if the evidence had pointed to the opposite conclusion, they were more open-minded to information that contradicted their beliefs. Apparently, it pays for consumers of controversial news to take a moment and consider that the opposite interpretation may be true.

Posted by Mary at September 14, 2008 12:51 PM | Recommended Reading | Technorati links |

M' g'da used to say that you can learn everything about a person in ten minutes conversation, all the rest is repetition.

Posted by: Ten Bears at September 14, 2008 02:30 PM

I'm reminded of what happened occasionally with my father, when I was young. We'd be looking through the newspaper to see what movies were showing (ha-ha-ha; yes, kids, that's how it used to work, back in the Dark Ages), we'd come across a movie, and dad would say, "Oh, this one's supposed to be good."

Usually, if we asked him who said that, he couldn't remember. But if one pushed him enough, it would turn out that it was... the ads for the movie.

Posted by: Barry Leiba at September 15, 2008 07:59 PM