Fake news is an abundant commodity in public discourse these days.  The reality of the situation is that all of us are hurt by it.  By acknowledging the existence of untenable facts, it gives permission to everyone to ignore hard and fast evidence, and thus justification to hunker down in the echo chambers of their political and moral beliefs.  Believe it or not, it is these moral and political underpinnings that give fake news its leverage.  Here is a  surprising real fact – the root of the problem is in your head in the form of a cognitive bias.

 

The scientific term for this bias is called Motivated Reasoning.  Before I explain it, let me state that Motivated Reasoning is universal and automatic; therefore, regardless of who you are, how intelligent you think you are, and what your political perspective is, YOU are vulnerable to it’s impact.

 

Here are some definitions of Motivated Reasoning:

  • Motivated reasoning is a form of reasoning in which people access, construct, and evaluate arguments in a biased fashion to arrive at or endorse a preferred conclusion.1

  • Motivated reasoning leads people to confirm what they already believe, while ignoring contrary data. But it also drives people to develop elaborate rationalizations to justify holding beliefs that logic and evidence have shown to be wrong.2

  • … motivated reasoning, … describes our tendency to accept what we want to believe with much more ease and much less analysis than what we don’t want to believe.3

Here are the key things to keep in mind about Motivated Reasoning:

  1. this bias leads us to accept what we want to believe
  2. we do so while ignoring contrary evidence, and empirically established facts
  3. we do so while developing elaborate rationalizations in order to justify such biases
  4. we do it with ease, meaning that it is automatic – it is occurring subconsciously

I have written about related concepts that serve as the foundation of this tendency.  First, there is the concept of Confirmation Bias which is the automatic inclination to take in, and accept as true, information that supports our belief systems, and miss, ignore, or discount information that runs contrary to our beliefs.4   It leads us to “believe” things like that full moons directly influence people’s behavior (which is not supported by empirical evidence).  “It shapes our religious and political beliefs, our parenting choices, our teaching strategies, and our romantic and social relationships.  It also plays a significant role in the development of stereotypes and the maintenance of prejudices.”Secondly there is Spinoza’s Conjecture.  “Benedict Spinoza, a 17th-century Dutch philosopher, wrote with great insight that “mere comprehension of a statement entails the tacit acceptance of it being true, whereas disbelief requires a subsequent process of rejection.”  What this suggests is that we are likely to accept, as true, a statement that makes immediate sense to us. But we can also infer that we are, in general, unlikely to critically scrutinize such logical statements.  A further implication is that we are likely to reject statements that don’t make immediate sense to us.”5

 

By appreciating the concepts of Confirmation Bias and Spinoza’s Conjecture one is inclined to gain a deep understanding of Motivated Reasoning.  At the basis of each of these concepts are one’s beliefs or what one believes to be true.  A belief is defined as “an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof.” Belief is something that often necessarily involves a leap of faith, like a belief in God, or the acceptance of a particular political ideology.  Beliefs are generally thought to be influenced by morality.  And with regard to politics, there is evidence to suggest that political beliefs “… are often guided by our Moral Foundations.7”  According to Jonathon Haidt, a prominent Social Psychologist, there are five universal moralsHaidt’s research has indicated that liberals tend to value two of those morals (care and fairness), at a higher level than their conservative counterparts, and likewise compared to conservatives, hold a lower valuation of the other three (ingroup loyalty, authority and purity/sanctity).8   In related research Haidt9 has found that liberals value the rights and welfare of all individuals and tend to express “widespread human concern about caring, nurturing, and protecting vulnerable individuals from harm.”  Conservatives instead, express moral proclivities that “emphasize social cohesiveness and social order with a focus on loyalty, obedience, duty, self-restraint, respect of authority, piety, self-sacrifice for the group, vigilance for traitors or free-loaders, and orderly cultural boundaries.”

 

Another difference between those with liberal versus conservative ideological notions is related to future focus as opposed to a nostalgic one.  Whereas liberals tend to be inspired by “Hope and Change,” with a focus on making things better than they have ever been, conservatives tend to be nostalgic, seeing society’s trajectory as being regressive.  Conservatives tend to value the past and want to get back to it (e.g., “Make America Great Again“).

 

Granted, these are just a few of many variables that drive Motivated Reasoning.  The point is that there are a number of complicated factors that set people up for opposing beliefs.  These differences in perspective fuel our cognitive biases, and greatly affect what we are likely to accept as true.  From this evolves the concept of “truthiness” whereby people, regardless of ideology, accept information as being true, particularly if it supports their already held beliefs, and reject as “Fake” those facts that place their beliefs in doubt.

 

So how do we get around this automatic inclination?  The first step is to accept the concept of Motivated Reasoning as being real.  If you do not, facts and truth are irrelevant to you, and you are beyond hope.  If you can accept this reality, then you need to be willing step back from your deep convictions and open yourself up to seeing how those convictions shape your ingestion and acceptance of information.  Secondly, you need to critically evaluate the sources of your information.  There are news organizations out there that prosper from feeding Motivated Reasoning.   Here’s the rub, your Motivated Reasoning will distort your perspective on what news sources to trust.  Again, at the risk of being redundant, I urge you to keep in mind that your deeply held beliefs set you up for erroneous thinking.  It is ideology that is the culprit.  Finally, you must embrace evidence, and gather facts from sources that value evidence over ideology.

 

All of this is difficult, necessitating much cognitive effort, and the process is likely to make you feel uncomfortable.  Here is a hint, avoid cable news, particularly those networks with clear political objectives (you know who they are).  Below I have listed a few articles and sites to help you in your efforts to overcome your natural brain biases.  By gathering evidenced based information, and by avoiding inherently biased news, you will expand your understanding of the complexities of our world.  The discomfort you will likely experience by doing so, is called cognitive dissonance.  It is avoidance of that dissonance that keeps you in your echo chamber and susceptible to alternative facts.  The only way around this bias is to push through the pain: and only by experiencing that discomfort, will you be able to accurately reject fake news.

Tools for assessing the veracity of your preferred news outlets:

  1. Forbes 10 Journalism Brands Where You Find Real Facts Rather Than Alternative Facts10 
  2. Media Bias Fact Check11
    1. Pro-Science
    2. Least Biased
    3. Left-Center Bias
    4. Left Bias
    5. Right-Center Bias
    6. Right Bias
  3. FactCheck.org12

 

References

  1.  Motivated Reasoning Psychology Reference and Research: https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/attitudes/motivated-reasoning/
  2. Motivated Reasoning The Skeptic’s Dictionary: http://skepdic.com/motivatedreasoning.html
  3. Psychology’s Treacherous Trio: Confirmation Bias, Cognitive Dissonance, and Motivated Reasoning Why We Reason: https://whywereason.com/2011/09/07/psychologys-treacherous-trio-confirmation-bias-cognitive-dissonance-and-motivated-reasoning/

  4. Confirmation Bias How Do You Think? http://geraldguild.com/blog/2010/01/29/confirmation-bias/

  5. Spinoza’s Conjecture How Do You Think?  http://geraldguild.com/blog/2010/01/22/spinozas-conjecture

  6. Definition of belief: English Oxford Dictionary: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/belief
  7. Haidt, J. (2008). What Makes People Vote Republican? http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt08/haidt08_index.html
  8. Moral Foundations Theory How Do You Think? http://geraldguild.com/blog/2010/09/24/moral-foundations-theory/
  9. Graham, J., Haidt, J., and Nosek, B. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 5, 1029–1046
  10. Forbes 10 Journalism Brands Where You Find Real Facts Rather Than Alternative Facts
  11. Media Bias Fact Check
  12. FactCheck.org
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There is an Indigo Girls song called Galileo that references a fear of motion (00:01:19 into the song) and suggests that the source of this particular fear is from “some other fool across the ocean years ago [having] crashed his little airplane.”  In the song, the means of transmission of this fear is reincarnation, which according to dictionary.com is “the belief that the soul, upon death of the body, comes back to earth in another body or form.”  Such claims lie outside the measurable parameters of science and are dubious.  However, recent research is suggesting that perhaps some fears are indeed transferable across generations.  How can this be?

 

First, lets consider the life-cycle of a butterfly which commences as an egg laid by a mature butterfly.  The egg hatches and a caterpillar (the larval stage) begins consumption of copious amounts of foliage (molting as he grows) in preparation for one of life’s most mysterious transitions.  When the caterpillar is ready for its amazing metamorphosis, it cocoons itself into a chrysalis.  During this phase the caterpillar essentially digests itself becoming a sack of ooze.  It doesn’t transition from caterpillar into a butterfly by simply sprouting wings.  Nope, it breaks down into a primordial soup and starts a remod from component cells called imaginal discs.  These stem cells of sorts, comprised of just a small number of organized cells, ultimately reconfigure the sack of melted ooze into a fully functional butterfly.  Although the imaginal discs have their beginnings in the egg stage, they remain essentially invisible but preparatory for the butterfly stage throughout the larval stage.  They jump into rigorous reconstruction mode while in the chrysalis.  This same process occurs in moths as well.

 

Life Cycle of a Butterfly

Life Cycle of a Butterfly

 

Life itself ceases for the caterpillar as it pupates in the chrysalis.  It stops breathing, its heart stops beating: its muscles, skin and brain, legs, and antennae, all melt down, becoming liquid fodder for the resurrection.  It’s not simply a transition – it’s a death and a rebirth.

 

So, you may be asking, how is this relevant?  Let’s consider some amazing research by Martha Weiss, an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at Georgetown University.   Her research focuses on evolutionary ecology, plant-animal interactions, butterfly and wasp learning, and caterpillar behavior.  One of her studies looked at whether learning during the caterpillar stage would make it across the pupal stage and be evidenced by the moth, despite the death and liquefication of the entire caterpillar.  Such maintenance of memory was largely considered impossible.  In her study, Dr. Weiss exposed caterpillars to a clearly distinguishable, but neutral odor, and then she paired the odor with a mild electric shock.  Pretty quickly, after many repeated pairings,  the caterpillars developed an aversion and a subsequent escape behavior, associated with the odor.  They came to fear it.

 

Following the pairing sessions and demonstration of learning, the caterpillars pupated.  Just over one month later, as mature moths, when exposed to the conditioned odor, the moths demonstrated a strong aversion to what would normally be a neutral stimuli.   In this study there were also subjects that constituted the control group.  The control moths were, when in the caterpillar stage, exposed to the odor but were not shocked.  They never exhibited a definitive aversion to the odor (as caterpillars or moths).  The caterpillars that were shocked, when presented with the odor, sustained the aversion even after pupating.  The memory made it through the metamorphosis even though the caterpillar had died and the brain turned to goo in the meantime.

 

This is remarkable – and suggests that memories are capable of being sustained across the death of the caterpillar and the rebirth (probably as a result of the data sustained in the imaginal disks).  As amazing as this is, such memories were not transmitted from adult moths through to the egg and onto subsequent generations of  caterpillars.   So memories can transcend metamorphosis, but is there any evidence of the capacity to sustain memories across generational lines like that implied by the Indigo Girls?

 

Researchers Brian Dias and Kerry Ressler from Emory University School of Medicine, in Atlanta used a similar research design with mice, whereby adult mice were trained to have an aversive response to the aroma of cherry blossoms.  They repeatedly paired this particular odor with electrical shocks and the mice subsequently learned, through classical conditioning, to fear the conditioned odor.  Unlike moths, mice procreate through intercourse, gestation, and give live birth to baby mice.  There is no metamorphosis, although gestation is a pretty amazing process in its own right.  Anyways, Dias and Ressler breed the mice who had developed the aversion and tested to determine whether their offspring also feared the conditioned stimuli (aroma of cherry blossom).

 

As it turns out, the offspring and their offspring evidenced an aversion to the cherry blossom odor despite never having been exposed to it or shocked.  The fear appears to have been handed down across generations through a process called epigentics.  Epigentic methylation results in changes in the DNA of the parent prior to conception that are then conferred to their offspring through sexual reproduction.

 

Granted this has not been scientifically evidenced in humans as yet, but the implications of these findings are staggering. This suggests that DNA is not immutable: that in fact, what happens to a parent prior to conception, can alter his or her DNA, and that those changes can be handed down across multiple generations.  Epigentics is well established and this process is increasingly understood.  But evidence of trans-generational fear responses have not been likewise so well substantiated.  This ability had been seriously doubted.  It is now conceivable that a survivor of a plane crash may later produce offspring who themselves have a subsequent fear of flying.  This may explain human phobic responses to spiders, snakes, heights, and other irrational fears that were previously unexplainable.

 

This makes me think of my previous article titled Irrational Fear: It’s Just an Alief.  In that article I wrote:

 

Philosopher Tamar Gendler has coined the word “alief” to describe this cognitive phenomenon.  She fashioned the word around the word “belief,” which is a conscious manifestation of how we suppose things to be.  An alief is a deep and powerful feeling of sorts that can and does play an important role in decision-making, but it is not based in reason or evidence.  Beliefs can be more susceptible to such rational forces.  But aliefs defy reason and exert powerful influence despite one’s attempts to rationally dispel them.  This voice is intuitive and its origins are outside your awareness.  They typically appear in an attempt to facilitate self-preservation.

 

To call such fears an Alief just gives it a name.  The underpinnings of such fears have been vague and speculative.  The findings of Dias and Ressler provide a testable hypothesis for such phenomena.  And now, when I stand at an intimidating precipice, I can speculate that my fear stems from an incident experienced by unfortunate kin rather than from random bad karma.

 

References:

 

1. Blackiston DJ, Silva Casey E, Weiss MR (2008) Retention of Memory through Metamorphosis: Can a Moth Remember What It Learned As a Caterpillar? PLoS ONE 3(3): e1736. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001736

 

2. Dias BG, Ressler KJ (2014). Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generations. Nature Neuroscience (17):89–96. 

 

3. Jabr F. (2012) How does a caterpillar turn into a butterfly? Scientific American

 

4. Radio Lab (2014)  Black Box.

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Awesome!!

11 January 2010

The word awesome, in my opinion, is overused.  There are rare moments, however, that truly inspire a response worthy of the word.  It is easy to take for granted such moments and assume that they will happen again.  I have found that appreciating such moments, as they are happening, enhances the wonder and makes them all the more meaningful.  I experienced one of those moments on Saturday 1/9/10 at Allegany State Park.  Driving into the park, ascending the winding tree lined road to the Summit is often quite beautiful. On this particular day, the jubilant anticipation of skiing was far surpassed by the shear splendor of what unfolded before my eyes.  It had snowed the night before and all the trees above 2000 feet were completely encased with silky white snow.  What made it all the more spectacular was the backdrop of the cloudless sapphire blue sky.  The depth of color was reminiscent of the blue I had only previously witnessed at high altitude in the Rocky Mountains.  It was truly awesome!  The entire cross country ski trail system wound its way through this magical zone.  I cherish this memory – it was time very well spent.

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