Believing Everything You Read
Do you believe everything you read? What about everything you see on television? Do you just accept as truth things that pop up in your news feed on Facebook? Interesting questions to consider.
What we know is that the way language is used can change the way people remember things. Studies in the past have detailed the concept of the 'false memory'. Loftus & Palmer (1974) found that, when people watched videos of cars crashing at different speeds, the wording of the questions they were asked afterwards was better at predicting the speed the person recalled the car traveling, over and above the actual speed itself. In other words, being asked how fast a car was traveling when it 'smashed' into another car, was more likely to plant a false memory of the car traveling faster, than when people were asked how fast a car was traveling when it 'bumped' into another car, even if the latter video actually displayed a faster collision than the first. Peoples' memories were being changed with emotionally salient language. Fascinating; but concerning.
It is for this reason that I am wary of the pop psychology which appears on Facebook on a daily basis. We are constantly bombarded with 'what does your status update say about your personality?' or 'what is your IQ - take the test now!' - I worry that intelligent, rational people will read a snippet of an article about how their political persuasion can supposedly predict their health, out of the corner of their eye, and begin to transfer this brief but colourful snippet of information into their long-term memory. Much later on, they will most likely not remember where they picked the 'information' up, but they could remain staunchly convinced that excessive emoji use is linked to insecurity - or some other bizarre, unsubstantiated finding.
Media outlets such as FM radio stations seem entranced by the idea of generating as much 'click bait' and advertising revenue as they can muster, and the idea of accurate reporting seems a distant memory of a bygone era. Yesterday, I was intrigued into clicking into an article which genuinely claimed that a cold shower of a morning could protect one against contracting Ebola. Wow. Just wow.
We cannot entirely blame the digital content producers of FM radio and digital magazines - it is clear that people are more likely to search for stories about Caitlyn Jenner's transition or Taylor Swift's latest love interest than the latest research coming out of MIT or UCLA. But this doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to promote the spread of good, evidence-based research. We just have to make it sexier. More colourful. More eye catching. More clickable. And less boring.
Good on pages like IFLScience.com, who are attempting to promote scientific research to the masses by following the above formula. But more can be done. The power of social media and the instantaneous mode of publishing which we find at our disposal is one of the most powerful tools that humankind has ever developed. But tools used in the wrong way can be weapons. Opinions that are swayed by colourful language can lead to new beliefs. Any schmuck with a spare hour can make a website to promote the latest fad. And from behind a keyboard and a screen, anybody can claim anything to be the truth - and scarily, people will believe it.
Does social media have a role to play in spreading the good, empirical word? I hope so. It can't not. I refuse to accept that social media exists only to promote the Kardashians, the food or beverage choices of celebrities, or the spread of ridiculous cat memes. Yes, some of them are hilarious. But I know that it can do more. We can do more.
By the way, it would be hypocritical of me to ask you to blindly accept everything I write. You can choose whether or not you accept a single word of this post. You should be open minded, but question everything. Be critical. Ask for and seek evidence. Reject falsehoods. Formulate informed opinions. Anyone can be a scientist. You can start by not believing everything you read.