Misinformation May Be the Disease, But Curiosity Is the Cure

Tim Harford, whose work I have followed since I first got into media and statistical literacy a decade ago, has one of the best pieces yet on our post-truth moment. As we’ve often done in these pages, he traces the roots of our current crisis not to the 2016 election but to the realization in the 1950s by Big Tobacco that that they could manufacture doubt at a fraction of the cost of adapting to truth. He goes through the well-known problems with attacking doubt and misinformation with facts, and comes to where we’ve landed with the Digital Polarization Project (sort of).

One of our big focuses for the Digital Polarization Project has been to try to engage the curiosity of students — to get them to think like reporters rather than attorneys, as encyclopedists rather than activists. Turn off the rhetoric for a while and just delight in finding new things out.

Tim comes at that from a bit of a different angle, essentially asking (as he has been asking for a while) where the Carl Sagan of sociology and public policy is — the person who can engage people in science and social science for the joy of exploration and learning rather than more immediate argumentative needs. But I think his conclusion plugs into things much bigger than that:

What Kahan and his colleagues found, to their surprise, was that while politically motivated reasoning trumps scientific knowledge, “politically motivated reasoning . . . appears to be negated by science curiosity”. Scientifically literate people, remember, were more likely to be polarised in their answers to politically charged scientific questions. But scientifically curious people were not. Curiosity brought people together in a way that mere facts did not. The researchers muse that curious people have an extra reason to seek out the facts: “To experience the pleasure of contemplating surprising insights into how the world works.”

I’ve talked much about the nature of wiki, and particularly the idea that your job is to summarize the consensus of a community of experts. You’re not writing for yourself in wiki: you’re writing to represent others.

People often find this difficult at first. They want to win arguments.

But here’s what happens when people get into the “wiki zone” of production: it changes you.

Let me give you an example from this morning. I was writing a piece on DigiPo on a claim that Fukushima had increased thyroid cancer in the surrounding area by several thousand percent. I went into it pretty inclined to disbelieve it, and in the end it did turn out to be false: there’s no good evidence that thyroid cancer in the surrounding area has increased at all. It’s early, and evidence might develop over time — but right now the answer is nope.

In the middle of doing research on it, however, I found an article in a journal that appeared to show otherwise. While not arguing for a 2,000% increase in prevalence, it did argue for substantial increases. And it was from Epidemiology, a journal of high stature.

Now you might expect me to kick against that evidence immediately since it disproves my personal gut on the evidence, and blows apart the piece I had been writing. But when you get deep into the wiki zone, that’s not how it feels. When I came across the article, I was delighted, because it added complexity to the article I was working on. It was surprising. It would allow my wiki article to tell a more interesting story, even if it undermined what I had thought up to now.

I was actually  bit depressed when after a bit of research I found that the article had been roundly criticized as methodologically flawed by the world’s biggest experts in the epidemiology of radiation exposure. (Epidemology itself published seven letters in a later journal that tore apart the study and its conclusions).

But this is what wiki does, as opposed to blogging. It puts you in a learning mode vs. an argumentative mode. You can feel it when it happens, physically, when it lets down the rhetorical defenses you’ve set up. Ward used to call it Egoless Wiki. When people let down defenses enough to get there, to delight in the investigation more than the result, that’s when you’re in the zone. And I think it correlates with Tim’s point — that to have truth win we can’t fight for truth — we have to fight for curiosity and a bit of egolessness. We have to ask people not to argue their point, but to tell us what they know. In the end that’s the only thing that that’s going to save us.

Go read Tim’s piece though, it’s a brilliant summary of where we are and how we got here.


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