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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The year 2011 proved to be a challenging year.  A number of serious health issues in close family members took center stage.  The frequency of my posts declined in part due to these important distractions but other factors also played a major role.  Although I published fewer articles, the number of visits to my blog increased substantially.

 

Over the course of the year, I had 18,305 hits at my website by 15,167 unique visitors, accounting for over 25,000 page views.  I had visitors from every state in the Union and visits from people from 140 nations around the world.  Visitors from the United States accounted for the vast majority of those hits, but the UK, Canada, and Australia also brought in a large contingent of visitors.

 

One article in particular far outpaced all other posts.  My post on Brain Waves and Other Brain Measures accounted for as many visits as the next three most popular posts combined.  Of my posts published in 2011, only four made it to this year’s top ten list.  The other six were published in 2010.  Of those six from 2010, four were also on the top ten list last year.

 

Great interest persisted in my post entitled Nonmoral Nature: It is what it is.  This review of Stephen Jay Gould’s most famous article sustained a number two ranking for a second straight year.  I had also reviewed in 2010 a very popular New York Time’s article by Steven Pinker entitled The Moral Instinct.  This article moved up a notch this year, ultimately ranking number three.  My critical article on the Implicit Associations Test ranked number four this year, versus a number six ranking last year.  And my Hedgehog versus the Fox mindset piece ranked number ten this year, compared to a number seven ranking last year.

 

So here is the Top Ten list for 2011.

  1. Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures (2011)
  2. Non Moral Nature: It is what it is (2010)
  3. Moral Instinct  (2010)
  4. IAT: Questions of Reliability and Validity  (2010)
  5. Where Does Prejudice Come From?  (2011)
  6. Cognitive Conservatism, Moral Relativism, Bias, and Human Flourishing  (2011)
  7. What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does Not Rule.  (2010)
  8. Intuitive Thought  (2010)
  9. Effects of Low SES on Brain Development  (2011)
  10. Are you a Hedgehog or a Fox?  (2010)

It’s interesting to me that this list includes the very foundational issues that have driven me in my quest.  And each was posted with great personal satisfaction.   This encompassing cross section of my work is, in fact, a good starting point for those who are new to my blog.  There are several popular 2011 posts that ranked outside the top ten but ranked highly relative to other posts published in 2011.  These other posts include:

One article I published late in 2011 has attracted significant attention.   I believe that it is perhaps one of the most important posts I’ve written.  As I was writing this retrospective, Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail was far outpacing all other posts.

 

The most emotional and personally relevant articles pertained to significant problems in healthcare in the United States and my wife’s battle with breast cancer.  These articles include: (a) What not to say to someone with cancer: And what helps; (b) Up and Ever Onward: My Wife’s Battle With Cancer; (c) Cancer, Aging, & Healthcare: America, We Have a Problem; (d) We’re Number 37! USA USA USA!; and (e) Tears of Strength in Cancer’s Wake.  The latter pertains to perhaps the proudest parental moment of my life.

 

Another very important issue that I wrote a fair amount about includes the pernicious affect of poverty on child development.  Clicking here takes you to a page that lists all of the articles on this topic.  Knowing the information in this series should motivate us, as a society, to truly evaluate our current political and economic policies.

 

One of my favorite articles tackled my long standing curiosity about the geology of the place I live.  The article itself did not get a lot of attention, but I sure loved writing it.

 

This two-year journey, thus far has resulted in perhaps unparalleled personal and intellectual growth.  It has changed the way I look at life, the world around me, and my fellow human beings.   It is my sincerest hope that those who have seen fit to read some of my material have experienced shifts of perception or at least a modicum of enlightenment.

 

The bottom line:

 

The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways.  First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought.  Since the age of enlightenment, when human kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe.  These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival.  Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force.  Although our intuition and rapid cognitions have sustained us, and in some ways still do, the subsequent everyday illusions impede us in important ways.

 

Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to blindfold its disciples.  Often those blindfolds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology.  And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized.  As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture:

“We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience.  Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in.  The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.

Because of these innate tendencies, we must make additional effort in order to discover the truth.

 

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When I hit the publish button for my last post Cognitive Conservatism, Moral Relativism, Bias, and Human Flourishing I felt a tinge of angst.  It took a few days for my rational brain to figure out (or perhaps confabulate) a reason; but, I think I may have.  Perhaps it should have been immediately obvious, but my outrage likely clouded my judgment.  Anyways, that angst wasn’t due to the potential controversy of the article’s content – I had previously posted more provocative pieces.  What I have come to conclude is that the nature of the controversy could be construed as being more personal.

 

It is not hard to imagine that there is a very real possibility that people I love may have been hurt by what I wrote.  This left me feeling like a hypocrite because what I have continually aspired to communicate is that “true morality” should promote human flourishing for everyone.  Although the overarching message was consistent with my goal, the tone and tenor was not.

 

I was inspired by a blog post written by a family member that touched the nerves of my liberal sensitivities.  Further, and more importantly, I believe that what he wrote was likely hurtful to others in my family.   A couple of my tribal communities (moral and kin) were assaulted, and I responded assertively.

 

The whole purpose of my blog How Do You Think? has been driven toward understanding such diverse and mutually incompatible beliefs that do in fact transcend my family and the world in general.  In this particular situation, however,  I placed several family members in the crux of just such a moral juxtaposition.

 

I am certain that much of what I have written over the last year may be construed as offensive to some from a variety of different tribal moral communities.  But one thing I am equally certain of, is that attacking one’s core moral holdings is not an effective means of facilitating enlightenment.

 

I responded to my relative’s pontifications with moral outrage and indignation.  I was offended and mad.  That is what happens when core beliefs are challenged.  We circle the wagons and lash back.  But this does nothing to further the discussion.  I should have known better.  And, that error of judgment may have lasting familial consequences.  This saddens me, and I am sorry.

 

So then, how are we to cope with such diametrically opposed perspectives?

 

If you have consistently read my posts you are likely to have come away with an understanding of the workings of the human brain, and as such, realize that it is an incredible but highly flawed organ.   What is more important to recognize, is that these flaws leave us prone to a variety errors that are both universal and systematic.  The consequences of these errors include Confirmation Bias, Spinoza’s Conjecture, Attribution Error, Pareidolia, Superstition, Essentialism, Cognitive Conservatism, and Illusions of all sorts (e.g., Attention, Cause, Confidence, Memory, Efficacy, Willpower, and Narrative).  The down stream consequences of these errors, paired with our tribal nature, and our innate moral inclinations lead us to form tribal moral communities.  These communities unite around ideologies and sacred items, beliefs, or shared history’s.  Our genetically conferred Moral Instincts which are a part of our Human Nature lay the ground work for us to seek out others who share our beliefs and separate ourselves from others who do not.  This is how the divide occurs.  And our brain is instrumental in this division and the subsequent acrimony between groups.

 

This is perhaps the most important concept that I want to share.  Systematic brain errors divide us.  Understanding this – I mean truly understanding all of these systematic errors, is essential to uniting us.  Education is the key, and this is what I hope to provide.  Those very brain errors are themselves responsible for closing minds to the reality of these facts.  Regardless, the hopes that I have for universal enlightenment persist and I hope to endeavor ever onward opening minds without providing cause to close them.   I fear that I  have taken a misstep – spreading the divide rather than closing it.

 

Please know that Human Flourishing for all is my number one goal.  Never do I intend to come off as judgmental, hurtful, or otherwise arrogant or elitist.  When I do – please push back and offer constructive criticism.   We are all in this together – and time, love, life, peace, and compassion are precious.   This is the starting point – something that I am certain we share.  Don’t you think?

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So really, what caused that earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan?  A quick Google search posing this very question yields a wide range of answers.  Fortunately a majority of the hits acknowledge and explain how plate tectonics caused this tragedy.  Sprinkled throughout the scientifically accurate explanations are conspiracy theories suggesting that the US government caused it through hyper-excitation of radio waves in the ionosphere (HAARP) and perhaps even planned radiation releases.  Other theories include the “Supermoon’s” increased tug on the earths crust due to the fact that it is at perigee (closest proximity to the earth in its cyclical orbit).  Solar flares (coronal mass ejections) were also blamed; and by some, the flares working in concert with the moon in perigee are believed to have triggered the quake.  Global warming also gets its share of the blame (but the proponents  suggest that real cause is the removal of oil from the crust leaving voids that ultimately trigger earthquake).   Some have even suggested that a comet or even God may have done this.

 

The problem with the scientific explanation is that plate tectonics is invisible to most of us.  Its motion is so gradual that it does not “on the surface” seem plausible.  We seemingly need a clear causal agent that fits within our understanding of the world.  Scientifically literate individuals are inclined to grasp the agency of tectonics because the theory and the effects do in fact, fit together in observable and measurable ways.  Others reach for causal explanations that better fit within their understanding of the world.

 

Our correlation calculators (brains) grab onto events temporally associated with such events and we then conjure up narratives to help us make sense of it all.  It is easy to understand why folks might assume that the moon at perigee, or increased solar activity, or even an approaching comet might cause such events.  Others, who are prone to conspiracy theories, who also have a corresponding belief that big brother is all powerful and sadistic, will grab onto theories that fit their world views.  The same is true for those with literal religious inclinations.  Unfortunately, this drive often leads to narrative fallacies that misplace the blame and sometimes ultimately blame the victims.

 

History is filled with stories drawn up to explain such tragedies.  In the times of ancient Greece and Rome, many tales were spun to explain famine, plagues, and military failures.  All of this occurred prior to our increasingly complex understanding of the world (e.g., germ theory, plate tectonics, meteorology), and it made sense to blame such events on vengeful gods.  How else could they make sense of such tragedies?  This seems to be how we are put together.

 

A study published in 2006 in the journal, Developmental Psychology, by University of Arkansas Psychologists Jesse Bering and Becky Parker looked at the development of such inclinations in children.  They pinpointed the age at which such thinking begins to flourish.   They also provided a hypothesis to explain this developmental progression.  This study was summarized in a March 13, 2011 online article at Scientific American by the first author titled: Signs, signs, everywhere signs: Seeing God in tsunamis and everyday events.

 

In this study of children ages three to nine years of age, the psychologists devised a clever technique to assess the degree to which individuals begin to assign agency to events in their environment and subsequently act on those signs.  What they found was that children between three and six years of age do not read communicative intent into unexplained events (e.g., lights flickering or pictures falling from the wall).  But at age seven, children start reading into and acting on such events.  So why is it that at the age of seven, children start inferring agency from events in their environment?  Bering suggests that:

 

“The answer probably lies in the maturation of children’s theory-of-mind abilities in this critical period of brain development. Research by University of Salzburg psychologist Josef Perner, for instance, has revealed that it’s not until about the age of seven that children are first able to reason about “multiple orders” of mental states. This is the type of everyday, grown-up social cognition whereby theory of mind becomes effortlessly layered in complex, soap opera–style interactions with other people. Not only do we reason about what’s going on inside someone else’s head, but we also reason about what other people are reasoning is happening inside still other people’s heads!”

 

So as it turns out, this tendency to read signs into random events is associated with the maturation of cognitive processes. Children with less mature “Theory of Mind” (click here for a very basic description of Theory of Mind) capabilities fail to draw the conclusion that a supernatural being, or any being for that matter, knows what they are thinking and can act in a way that will communicate something.

 

“To interpret [capricious] events as communicative messages, … demands a sort of third-person perspective of the self’s actions: ‘What must this other entity, who is watching my behavior, think is happening inside my head?’ [These] findings are important because they tell us that, before the age of seven, children’s minds aren’t quite cognitively ripe enough to allow them to be superstitious thinkers. The inner lives of slightly older children, by contrast, are drenched in symbolic meaning. One second-grader was even convinced that the bell in the nearby university clock tower was Princess Alice ‘talking’ to him.”

 

When a capricious event has great significance, we are seemingly driven by a ravenous appetite to look for “signs” or “reasons.”  We desperately need to understand.  Our searches for those “reasons” are largely shaped by previously held beliefs and cultural influences. Divine interventions, for example, have historically been ambiguous; therefore, a multitude of surreptitious events, can be interpreted as having a wide variety of meanings. And those meanings are guided by one’s beliefs.

 

“Misfortunes appear cryptic, symbolic; they seem clearly to be about our behaviors. Our minds restlessly gather up bits of the past as if they were important clues to what just happened. And no stone goes unturned. Nothing is too mundane or trivial; anything to settle our peripatetic [wandering] thoughts from arriving at the unthinkable truth that there is no answer because there is no riddle, that life is life and that is that.”

 

The implications of this understanding are profound.  We are by our very nature driven to search for signs and reasons to explain major life events, and we are likewise inclined to see major events as signs themselves. The ability to do so ironically depends on cognitive maturation. But, given the complexity and remoteness of scientific explanations, we often revert to familiar and culturally sanctioned explanations that have stood the test of time.  We do this because it gives us comfort, regardless of actual plausibility.  As I often say, we are a curious lot, we humans.

 

References:

 

Bering, J. (2011). Signs, signs, everywhere signs: Seeing God in tsunamis and everyday events. Scientific American.  http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=signs-signs-everywhere-signs-seeing-2011-03-13&print=true

 

Bering, J., & Parker, B. (2006). Children’s Attributions of Intentions to an Invisible Agent. Developmental Psychology. Vol. 42, No. 2, 253–262

 

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The Implicit Associations Test (IAT) is a very popular method for measuring implicit (implied though not plainly expressed) biases. Greenwald, one of the primary test developers, suggests that “It has been self-administered online by millions, many of whom have been surprised—sometimes unpleasantly—by evidence of their own unconscious attitudes and stereotypes regarding race, age, gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.” (2010). It purports to tap into our unconscious or intuitive attitudes at a deeper level than those that we are able to rationally express. The best way to get an idea of just what the IAT is, is to take it. If you haven’t done so already, go to the Implicit Associations Test website and participate in a demonstration of the Race Test. It takes about ten minutes.

 

I tend to have a skeptical inclination. This in part stems from the training that I benefited from in acquisition of my PhD in psychology. But it is also just part of who I am. Psychology is, in itself, a rather soft science – full of constructs – and variables that are inherently difficult to measure with any degree of certainty. I learned early in my training that there are dangers associated with inference and measuring intangibles. In fact, my training in personality and projective measures essentially focused on why not to use them – especially when tasked with helping to make important life decisions. Why is this? All psychological measures contain small and predictable amounts of unavoidable error – but those based on constructs and inference are particularly untenable.

 

This is relevant because as we look at thinking processes, we are dealing with intangibles. This is especially true when we are talking about implicit measures. Any discussion of implicit thought necessitates indirect or inferential measures and application of theoretical constructs. So, with regard to the Implicit Associations Test (IAT), one needs to be careful.

 

Currently, increasing evidence suggests that our intuition has a powerful influence over our behavior and moment to moment decision making. Books like Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer point out the power of intuition and emotion in this regard. Chabris and Simons in their book, The Invisible Gorilla, make a strong argument that intuition itself sets us up for errors. Gladwell perhaps glorifies intuition – but the reality is, it (intuition) is a powerful force. Gladwell uses the story of the IAT as evidence of such power. Essentially, if the IAT is a valid and reliable measure, it provides strong evidence of the problems of intuition.

 

I am motivated to shed some light on the IAT – not because of my personal IAT results, which were disappointing, but because the IAT has the risk of gaining widespread application without sufficient technical adequacy. Just think of the ubiquitous Meyers-Briggs Personality Inventory and the breadth and depth of popular use and appeal that it has garnered (without a shred of legitimate science to back it up). Real decisions are made based on the results of this instrument and frankly it is dangerous. The Meyers-Briggs is based on unsubstantiated and long out-of-date Jungian constructs and was built by individuals with little to no training in psychology or psychometrics. This is not the case for the IAT for sure, but the risks of broad and perhaps erroneous application are similar.

 

The authors of the IAT have worked diligently over the years to publish studies and facilitate others’ research in order to establish the technical adequacy of the measure. This is a tough task because the IAT is not one test, but rather, it is a method of measurement that can be applied to measure a number of implicit attitudes. At the very foundation of this approach there is a construct, or belief, that necessitates a leap of faith.

 

So what is the IAT? Gladwell (2005) summarizes it in the following way:

The Implicit Association Test (IAT)…. measures a person’s attitude on an unconscious level, or the immediate and automatic associations that occur even before a person has time to think. According to the test results, unconscious attitudes may be totally different or incompatible with conscious values. This means that attitudes towards things like race or gender operate on two levels:
1. Conscious level- attitudes which are our stated values and which are used to direct behavior deliberately.
2. Unconscious level- the immediate, automatic associations that tumble out before you have time to think.
Clearly, this shows that aside from being a measurement of attitudes, the IAT can be a powerful predictor of how one [may] act in certain kinds of spontaneous situations.

So here is one of the difficulties I have with the measure. Take this statement: “The IAT measures a person’s attitude on an unconscious level, or the immediate and automatic associations that occur even before a person has time to think.” Tell me how one would directly and reliably measure “unconscious attitude” without using inference or indirect measures that are completely dependent on constructs? I am not alone in this concern. In fact, Texas A&M University psychologist Hart Blanton, PhD, worries that the IAT has been used prematurely in research without sufficient technical adequacy. Blanton has in fact published several articles (Blanton, et al., 2007; Blanton, et al., 2009) detailing the IAT’s multiple psychometric failings. He suggests that perhaps the greatest problem with this measure concerns the way that the test is scored.

 

First you have to understand how it all works. The IAT purports to measure the fluency of people’s associations between concepts. On the Race IAT, a comparison is made between how fluent the respondent pairs pictures of European-Americans with words carrying a connotation of “good” and pictures of African-Americans with words connoting “bad.” The task measures the latency between such pairings and draws a comparison to the fluency of responding when the associations are reversed (e.g., how quickly does the respondent pair European-Americans with words carrying a “bad” connotation and African-Americans with words connoting “good.”). If one is quicker at pairing European-Americans with “good” and African Americans with “bad” then it is inferred that the respondent has a European-American preference. The degree of preference is determined by the measure of fluency and dysfluency in making those pairings. Bigger differences in pairing times result in stronger ratings of one’s bias. Blanton questions the arbitrary nature of where the cutoffs for mild, moderate, and strong preferences are set when there is no research showing where the cutoffs should be. Bottom line, Blanton argues, is that the cutoffs are arbitrary. This is a common problem in social psychology.

 

Another issue of concern is the stability of the construct being measured. One has to question whether one’s bias, or racial preferences, are a trait (a stable attribute over time) or a state (a temporary attitude based on acute environmental influences). The test-retest reliability of the IAT is relatively unstable itself. Regardless, according to Greenwald: “The IAT has also shown reasonably good reliability over multiple assessments of the task. …. in 20 studies that have included more than one administration of the IAT, test–retest reliability ranged from .25 to .69, with mean and median test–retest reliability of .50.” Satisfactory test-retest reliability values are in the .70 to.80 range. To me, there is a fair amount of variance unaccounted for and a wide range of values (suggesting weak consistency). My IATs have bounced all over the map. And boy did I feel bad when my score suggested a level of preference that diverges significantly from my deeply held values. Thank goodness I have some level of understanding of the limitations of such metrics. Not everyone has such luxury.

 

As I noted previously, the IAT authors have worked diligently to establish the technical adequacy of this measure and they report statistics attesting to the internal-consistency, test-retest reliability, predictive validity, convergent validity, and discriminant validity, almost always suggesting that results are robust (Greenwald, 2010; Greenwald, 2010; Greenwald, et al, 2009; Lane, et al, 2007) . There are other studies including those carried out by Blanton and colleagues, that suggest otherwise. To me, these analyses are important and worthwhile – however, at the foundation, there is the inescapable problem of measuring unconscious thought.

 

Another core problem is that the validity analyses employ other equally problematic measures of intangibles in order to establish credibility. I can’t be explicit enough – when one enters the realm of the implicit – one enters a realm of intangibles: and like it or not, until minds can be read explicitly, the implicit is essentially immeasurable with any degree of certainty. The IAT may indeed measure what it purports to measure, but the data on this is unconvincing. Substantial questions of reliability and validity persist. I would suggest that you do not take your IAT scores to heart.

 

References

 

Azar, B. (2008). IAT: Fad or fabulous? Monitor on Psychology. July. Vol 39, No. 7,  page 44.

 

Blanton, H., Jaccard, J., Christie, C., and Gonzales, P. M. (2007). Plausible assumptions, questionable assumptions and post hoc rationalizations: Will the real IAT, please stand up? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Volume 43, Issue 3, Pages 399-409.

 

Blanton, H., Klick, J., Mitchell, G., Jaccard, J.,Mellers, B., Tetlock, P. E. (2009). Strong Claims and Weak Evidence: Reassessing the Predictive Validity of the IAT. Journal of Applied Psychology. Vol. 94, No. 3, 567–582

 

Chabris, C. F., & Simons, D. J., 2010. The Invisible Gorilla. Random House: New York.

 

Gladwell, M. 2005. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Little, Brown and Company: New York.

 

Greenwald, A. G. (2010).  I Love Him, I Love Him Not: Researchers adapt a test for unconscious bias to tap secrets of the heart. Scientific American.com: Mind Matters.   http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=i-love-him-i-love-him-not

 

Greenwald, A. G. (2009). Implicit Association Test: Validity Debates. http://faculty.washington.edu/agg/iat_validity.htm

 

Greenwald, A. G., Poehlman, T. A., Uhlmann, E., & Banaji, M. R. (2009). Understanding and using the Implicit Association Test: III. Meta-analysis of predictive validity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 97, 17–41.

 

Lane, K. A., Banaji, M. R., Nosek, B. A., & Greenwald, A. G. (2007). Understanding and using the Implicit Association Test: IV. What we know (so far) (Pp. 59–102).  In B. Wittenbrink & N. S. Schwarz (Eds.). Implicit measures of attitudes: Procedures and controversies. New York: Guilford Press.

 

Lehrer, J. 2009. How We Decide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York.

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Over the last two weeks I’ve dealt with the issue of vaccines as they pertain to Autism. I first dealt with the back story and then addressed why such an illusion of cause has persisted despite the efforts of the scientific and medical communities. Although I have made reference to some of the data, I thought it would be prudent to put forward some particularly relevant facts and statistics.

 

First, I would like to note the progress mankind has made with regard to average life span and give credit where credit is due. Carl Sagan, in his excellent book, The Demon-Haunted World, addressed this very issue indicating that in pre-agricultural times, 10,000 years ago, human life expectancy was about 20-30 years. That expectancy persisted throughout the rise and fall of the Greek and Roman empires right through Medieval times. Not until the late 19th century did it rise to 40 years. In 1915 it was estimated to be 50 and then as high as 60 by 1930. It rose to 70 in about 1955 and is currently around 80 for individuals living in developed countries.

 

So what can we attribute this growth in life expectancy to? The answer is clear. Along with advancements in public sanitation (clean water, flush toilets) and vast improvements in nutrition, science has contributed the germ theory of disease and huge advancements in medical care and medical technology. Of particular importance has been our increased capacity to understand and prevent infectious diseases. Understanding how diseases spread has been important in minimizing the spread of illnesses like TB and it continues to be important with regard to HIV; however, another huge variable has been the introduction of immunizations.

 

Not all that long ago, infectious diseases were among the top causes of death for humans in developed nations. And this is still the case in many low income countries. According to World Health Organization statistics, six of the top ten causes of death in low income nations include infectious diseases (respiratory infections 11.2%, Diarrheal diseases, 6.9%, HIV/AIDS 5.7%, TB 3.5%, neonatal infections 3.4%, and Malaria 3.3%). Whereas in high-income countries, heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, and cancer reign supreme. The only infectious disease to make the top 10 in high-income countries is lower respiratory infections (3.8%). Although heart disease, strokes, and cancer afflict the 3rd world, the proportion of deaths attributable to infectious diseases dominates. This discrepancy is essentially due to publicly managed vaccine and infection control programs affordable only to relatively wealthy industrialized nations.

 

If you look back in time at US morbidity and mortality statistics (Roush, Murphy, & the Vaccine-Preventable Disease Table Working Group, 2007) pre- and post-mandated vaccines, the numbers are staggering. The peak annual death rates for diseases like diphtheria was 3065 (1936), measles 552 (1958), mumps 50 (1964), rubella 24 (1968), pertussis 7518 (1934), polio (paralytic) 3145 (1952), and smallpox 2510 (1902). The peak morbidity rate for diphtheria was 30,508 (1938), measles 763,094 (1958), mumps 212,932 (1964), rubella 488,796 (1968), pertussis 265,209 (1934), Polio (paralytic) 21,269 (1952), and smallpox 2510 (1902). In 2004 (the post mandated vaccine era) there were no (zero) deaths in the US attributable to diphtheria, measles, mumps, paralytic polio, rubella, and smallpox. Pertussis persists, having killed 27 people in 2004, afflicting over 15,000 in 2006. Regardless, in the US, our vaccine schedules have essentially eradicated infectious diseases that previously took thousands of children’s lives every year. There has been more than a 92% decline in morbidity and a 99% or greater reduction in deaths attributed to preventable infectious diseases targeted since 1980 by the current vaccine schedule. Endemic transmission of measles, rubella, and the poliovirus have also been eliminated and smallpox has been eradicated worldwide. This is no small accomplishment. One must keep in mind that one who fails to learn from history is doomed to repeat it (Crislip paraphrasing Santayana).

 

The objections to vaccines put forth by the anti-vaccine folks have morphed over time. The initial notions included the presence of mercury (thimerosal) in the vaccines and the vilification of the MMR vaccine itself. Both of these notions have been debunked. The new themes include too many too soon and the presence of other toxins in the vaccines.

 

In my previous post, The Illusion of Cause – Vaccines and Autism, I addressed the innate human propensity to draw causal relationships between vaccines and Autism. I noted that despite the removal of thimerosal from routine childhood vaccines, the numbers of incidences of Autism continues to rise. And I discussed the fact that thimerosal contains ethyl-mercury which poses far less risk than the more dangerous fat soluble methyl-mercury. Eating a six ounce chunk of tuna exposes one to 8959 micrograms of methyl-mercury while the maximum cumulative exposure to mercury through the first six months of life (before the removal of thimerosal) was around 187.5 micrograms of ethyl-mercury (Crislip, 2010). The research has been clear: there is no plausible association between mercury toxicity or even other heavy metal exposure and Autism (Science in Autism Treatment, 2009). In particular, a study published in 2007 in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders by Williams, Hersh, Allard, and Sears found no significant difference in the levels of mercury detected in hair samples between children diagnosed with Autism and their un-afflicted siblings. Regardless, thimerosal has been removed from routine childhood vaccines (except some influenza and some tetanus multi-dose vials) not due to safety concerns but to reduce non-compliance issues associated with unwarranted fear. Thimerosal is a non-issue.

 

With regards to the MMR vaccine – I previously discussed how Andrew Wakefield misrepresented his personal conflicts of interest and intentionally manipulated the data to support his contention that MMR causes Autism. Study after study, many of which were large scale epidemiological studies, failed to replicate Wakefield’s findings. And what is even more interesting is that some studies suggest that the MMR vaccine is actually associated with decreased incidences of Autism in recipients versus non-recipients (Mrozek-Budzyn, D., Kieltyka, A., and Majewska, R. 2010). This is likely background noise and may not pan out in other studies, but…….. In Jackson County, Oregon 15% of the children have not been vaccinated. Within Jackson County, in the city of Ashland, 25% of the children are not vaccinated. The rate of educational diagnoses of Autism in Ashland is 1.1% – which is the highest rate in the county and above the state average (Crislip, 2010). So the population where there is the lowest rate of vaccination also includes the highest rate of Autism diagnoses. One has to be careful not to fall victim to the illusion of cause with this data.

 

Too Many Too Soon is the new mantra, railed by the anti-vaccine set: but this argument is easily assuaged by gaining a better understanding of the microbiome. Mark Crislip, MD, an immunologist, effectively puts this issue into perspective in his podcast The Vaccine Pseudo Controversy. Crislip notes that for every human cell in the human body there are 10 bacteria cells along for the ride. We are essentially a host organism for 100 billion bacteria representing several thousand species. Although a human baby is born free of such organisms, by the end of the first year of life, a typical baby has been exposed to perhaps billions of such organisms. Many of these bacteria are essential for our survival, but many are in fact pathogens kept at bay by the immune system. Extremely conservative estimates suggest that on average, a child is exposed to at least one pathogen each day just as a function of living. That being said, the vaccine schedule represents 0.694% of the antigen exposure of a six year old. As Dr. Crislip is fond of saying, the vaccines constitute a mere drop in the bucket in terms of the total number of pathogens endured just as a function of living day to day. Seriously, have you ever been around a baby? They crawl around on the ground and mouth everything they can get their hands on. A drop in the bucket indeed. Dr. Crislip notes that “the only thing a delay in vaccination does is increase the time the child is vulnerable to infections” and, I would add, weaken herd immunity. As for evidence, consider a recent study published in Pediatrics by Michael J. Smith, MD and Charles R. Woods, MD, entitled On-Time Vaccine Receipt in the First Year Does Not Adversely Affect Neuropsychological Outcomes. An excerpt of the abstract reads as follows:

 

OBJECTIVES: To determine whether children who received recommended vaccines on time during the first year of life had different neuropsychological outcomes at 7 to 10 years of age as compared with children with delayed receipt or nonreceipt of these vaccines.
METHODS: Publicly available data, including age at vaccination, from a previous Vaccine Safety Datalink study of thimerosal exposure and 42 neuropsychological outcomes were analyzed. Secondary analyses were performed on a subset of children with the highest and lowest vaccine exposures during the first 7 months of life.
RESULTS: Timely vaccination was associated with better performance on 12 outcomes in univariate testing and remained associated with better performance for 2 outcomes in multivariable analyses. No statistically significant differences favored delayed receipt. In secondary analyses, children with the greatest vaccine exposure during the first 7 months of life performed better than children with the least vaccine exposure on 15 outcomes in univariate testing; these differences did not persist in multivariable analyses. No statistically significant differences favored the less vaccinated children.
CONCLUSIONS: Timely vaccination during infancy has no adverse effect on neuropsychological outcomes 7 to 10 years later. These data may reassure parents who are concerned that children receive too many vaccines too soon. Pediatrics 2010;125:1134–1141

 

And then there is the contention that there are toxins in the vaccines. Well this is undeniably true. The Center for Disease Control makes known the additives for each vaccine. The list may initially seem foreboding, but the CDC and Dr. Crislip, as well as others consulted who posses far more expertise than I, attempt to assure us that these additives perform important functions and pose no notable risk. The CDC notes: “Chemicals commonly used in the production of vaccines include a suspending fluid (sterile water, saline, or fluids containing protein); preservatives and stabilizers (for example, albumin, phenols, and glycine); and adjuvants or enhancers that help improve the vaccine’s effectiveness. Vaccines also may contain very small amounts of the culture material used to grow the virus or bacteria used in the vaccine, such as chicken egg protein.

 

The CDC notes that Common substances found in vaccines include:

  • Aluminum gels or salts of aluminum which are added as adjuvants to help the vaccine stimulate a better response to the vaccine. Adjuvants help promote an earlier, more potent response, and more persistent immune response to the vaccine.
  • Formaldehyde is used to inactivate bacterial products for toxoid vaccines, (these are vaccines that use an inactive bacterial toxin to produce immunity.) It is also used to kill unwanted viruses and bacteria that might contaminate the vaccine during production.
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG) and 2-phenoxy-ethanol which are used as stabilizers in a few vaccines to help the vaccine remain unchanged when the vaccine is exposed to heat, light, acidity, or humidity.
  • Thimerosal is a mercury-containing preservative that is added to vials of vaccine that contain more than one dose to prevent contamination and growth of potentially harmful bacteria.

 

A little more knowledge is helpful. Did you know, for example, that “the average person produces about 1.5 ounces of formaldehyde each day as a part of normal metabolic processes[?]” (Crislip, 2010). It’s true. And as a result, there is a low steady state of formaldehyde in human blood at a concentration of 1 to 2 parts-per-million. The concentration of this additive in vaccines is actually at a lower level than is naturally occurring in your blood. Dr. Crislip notes that by far, the deadliest additive in vaccines is dihydrogen monoxide – which is responsible for nine deaths a day in the US. Otherwise, if you accept the dose-response effect of chemicals and the microscopic doses of the additives in vaccines, you will rest assured that vaccines are safe and serve a very important life saving role in our civilization. The bottom line comes down to belief systems. If you believe something so fully that you are unwilling to put a skeptical eye on it and reject it, if the evidence does not support it, then you are rejecting reality in support of unsubstantiated ideology. Always be wary of unsubstantiated ideology! Oh and the dihydrogen monoxide – that’s water (H2O).

 

References

 

Association for Science in Autism Treatment. (2009). Autism & Vaccines: The Evidence to Date. Vol. 6., No. 1 http://www.asatonline.org/pdf/summer2009.pdf

 

Center for Disease Control. Basics and Common Questions: Ingredients of Vaccines – Fact Sheet. http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vac-gen/additives.htm

 

Crislip, M. (2010). The Vaccine Pseudo Controversy. Quackcast # 45. http://www.pusware.com/quackcast/quackcast45.mp3

 

Mrozek-Budzyn, D., Kieltyka, A., and Majewska, R. (2010).Lack of Association Between Measles-Mumps-Rubella Vaccination and Autism in Children: A Case-Control Study.Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal. 29(5):397-400.

 

Roush, S. W., Murphy, T. V., & the Vaccine-Preventable Disease Table Working Group. (2007). Historical Comparisons of Morbidity and Mortality for Vaccine-Preventable Diseases in the United States. JAMA. 298(18):2155-2163 (doi:10.1001/jama.298.18.2155) http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/298/18/2155

 

Sagan, C. (1996). The Demon Haunted Word. The Random House Publishing Group: New York

 

Smith, M. J. and Woods, C. R. (2010). On-time Vaccine Receipt in the First Year Does Not Adversely Affect Neuropsychological Outcomes. Pediatrics published online May 24, 2010; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2009-2489 http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/abstract/peds.2009-2489v1

 

Williams, P. G., Hersh, J. H., Allard, A., and Sears, L. L. A controlled study of mercury levels in hair samples of children with autism as compared to their typically developing siblings.” Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. 16 May 2007, Volume 2, Issue 1: 170-175.

 

World Health Organization. (2004). The 10 leading causes of death by broad income group. Fact Sheet No. 310. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs310/en/index.html

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There is a learning curve to the application of Skeptism. Raw, unchecked challenges to other’s beliefs, in a social context, are not well tolerated. People tend to find such notions rather offputting. In fact, as I have certainly encountered, it elicits defensiveness and sometimes hurt feelings. People often own their ideas and beliefs in a way that is essentially linked to their identity. As Carl Sagan wrote in ‘The Deamon Haunted World’ “All of us cherish our beliefs. They are, to a degree, self-defining. When someone comes along who challenges our belief system as insufficiently well-based — or who, like Socrates, merely asks embarrassing questions that we haven’t thought of, or demonstrates that we’ve swept key underlying assumptions under the rug — it becomes much more than a search for knowledge. It feels like a personal assault.”

 

These assaults repel people and in effect insolate them from the rational inquiry you may wish to posit. People are inclined to respond to uninvited or poorly crafted skepticism much as one would respond to contemptuous arrogance.

 

Throughout most of human history, the social consequences of skeptical inquiry were likely quite costly. This was most certainly true in the preagrarian stages of our evolution. It is believed that throughout early human evolution individual survival was linked to social cohesion. Although this is not as true today, in prehistory skepticism likely hindered, rather than promoted survival. With this in mind, it certainly makes sense that we as a species are inclined toward unquestioning belief rather than skepticism. This inclination also makes us vulnerable to mysticism and superstition. Natural selection, it seems, has selected for gulibility.

 

Sensitive, judicious, and scant use of sketicism, in social contexts, is prudent. This is true unless you just don’t care about how others feel about you, how they feel about interacting with you, and even about how they feel about themselves. There is a time and place for everything. Choosing those times carefully and selecting one’s words even more cautiously will more likely get better results.

 

I admire great thinkers like Bruno, Coppernicus, and Galileo who faced more than mere social consequences for putting forward their theories. Bruno, in fact, paid with his life. Darwin too faced significant costs. However, their rejection of accepted explanations (stemming from skeptical inquiry) moved us forward. We owe much to these men for their courage and steadfast dedication to the truth. We move forward when we step away from blind acceptance; but, let’s not lend a blind eye toward the social consequences of our own personal skepticism.

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