The Homeostatic Fallacy and Misinformation Literacy

I wrote a thing for Neiman’s year-end journalism predictions yesterday that I’m quite excited about. Hopefully will be out soon. (Look at me, a typical writer — submitting something 48 hours late and then hoping it gets published early).

In the article I finally publish this term I’ve been throwing around in some private conversations — the “homeostatic fallacy”. 

Homeostasis is a fundamental concept of biology. The typical example is human temperature. For humans the temperature 98.6 tends to be a very desirable temperature. And so what you find is no matter where you put a human body — in the arctic or the tropics — the human body finds ways to keep that temperature constant. In hot environments you sweat, and the condensation helps cool you. Your blood vessels dilate, to bring more heat to the skin where it can be dispensed with. In cold environments your blood vessels constrict. 

There are a lot of people out there that think that misinformation is sort of like hot and cold environments are towards the body. In other words, both misinformation (let’s think of it as cold) and information literacy (let’s think of it as heat) have relatively little effect, because the mind has certain homeostatic mechanisms that protect against identity threat and provide resistance to new ideas. And there’s a certain truth to this. Knowing the facts about nuclear power won’t suddenly make you a supporter, and learning the history of Reconstruction won’t turn you woke. 

And as such, we hear a lot of critiques about media literacy of the sort that you can’t change people’s minds by giving them better information. Homeostatic arguments sometimes go even further, claiming bad information is likely not leading to bad decisions anyway.

Often this is posed as a counter to a naive Cartesian view of beliefs, that treats our decision-making processes as scientific. But weirdly, both the homeostatic view of misinformation and the Cartesian one suffer from the same transactional blindspot. On a case by case basis — show a person a fact, check if it changes them — homeostatic mechanisms often prevail. Your mind has certain psychological set-points and will often fight to keep them constant, even in the face of disinformation or massive scientific evidence. 

But the fallacy is that the set-point itself will not change.

People often use temperature as an example of a homeostatic set-point, but I think another example is far more educational. Consider weight.

Your body has a natural weight it gravitates towards, and the power of that set-point can’t be underestimated. Think about this astonishing fact — one pound of weight is about 3,500 excess calories. To maintain weight over a year, your average intake would have to stay within about 10 calories a day of maintenance levels. Few people account for calories at this level of precision, and yet many retain a stable weight year after year. That’s the power of homeostasis.

How do we gain weight, then? There’s quite a lot of debate on this, actually. But, more or less, temporary behavior and adverse events, in sufficient quantities, not only increase our weight, but change our set-points. And now the homeostatic mechanisms that kept us trim work against us, to keep the pounds on.

In short time frames, a sort of psychological homeostasis is protective. We see bad info or good info and nothing changes. We share a corrosive meme and we’re still the same person. Just as a single cookie at the Christmas party will have a net zero effect on your weight through the magic of homeostasis, a single bit of disinfo isn’t going to change you.

But the goal of disinformation isn’t really around these individual transactions. The goal of disinformation is to, over time, change our psychological set-points. To the researcher looking at individuals at specific points in time, the homeostasis looks protective — fire up Mechanical Turk, see what people believe, give them information or disinformation, see what changes. What you’ll find is nothing changes — set-points are remarkably resilient.

But underneath that, from year to year, is drift. And its the drift that matters.

Recognition Is Futile (and also dangerous)

I often talk about the dangerous of teaching students to “recognize” fake news. Here’s a good example from today of why recognition is a lousy strategy that can lead to bad results, a tweet proposing that the President of Nigeria has been replaced with a clone.

Here is how Peter Adams’s excellent newsletter The Sift  describes the conspiracy theory:

Speaking on Sunday to Nigerians living in Poland, where he is attending a U.N. climate conference, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari denied viral rumors — amplified by his political opponents — that he had died and that a look-alike from Sudan had taken his place.

The rumors first emerged in 2017 amid Buhari’s lengthy, unexplained disappearances from public life. They have been strengthened by misinformation and conspiracy theories shared on social media — including by Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, a political activist and leader of a separatist group.

But wait, are those the same person? Look closely…

What do you think? 

See, here’s the thing, and I really wish we’d put this at the center of what we do. If I tell you these are the same person, you’ll say, “But of course, it’s so obvious!” and point to some details. On the other hand, if I say actually I played a trick on you and swapped a picture out for another one, you’ll say… “But of course, it’s so obvious!” and point to other details.

Why is that? Two reasons. First, the informational field here is dense. A photograph has literally hundreds of things I can drill down on, and given an initial orientation towards the photo I may often find whatever I need to bolster that initial orientation. Second, there’s no stopping rule for declaring whether these are the same person or not. There’s no point, for example, where you can have looked at three precise things and declare, with high certainty, that this is confirmed to be him. So instead of bringing you to more certainty, the longer you look at it the more likely you are to find some strange differences, and the more likely you are to become confused.

Most things aren’t quite as informationally dense as photographs, but the same problems come into play. The more features you have to look at, the more you start to be manipulated. Don’t believe me? Here’s a cruel trick you can play on your faculty. Show them this page:

Tell them — hey this is a suspicious medical site, how do we know? Unless they know the site is the site of one one of the most prestigious journals in medicine they’ll tell you all the reasons why it’s obvious this is a junk site:

  • It’s a .com, not a .org. Probably an imposter.
  • There’s literally an “Our Company” link at the top. Like, hello!?! This is not a journal!
  • “Beating sugar taxes” in that headline doesn’t sound very scholarly
  • And look at these pictures, they look like something from a clickbait site, stock photos, etc.
  • There’s a popup ad that looks like an ad for some sort of pharmaceutical promotion in the bottom, what a scam!

Start by telling them the opposite — that it’s one of the top five medical journals published in English, and again, they’ll come up with all the reasons why it was so so obvious from the start this was quality:

  • Good clean style
  • Lots of focus on medical practice
  • Scholarly titles on some articles
  • Mentions of the CDC
  • Research tab and Authors tab looks legit.

In a dense informational field you think you’re being Sherlock, and feel pretty smart. But the more data you look at the more you’ll get confused.

This is well known by people outside online media literacy of course. Ever go to buy a car? The psychology of dealerships is to put complex configurations of car options in front of you — this one is $1600 more but it has the power windows and the satellite radio is standard, it has seat warmers and leather interiors, this one is less but but doesn’t have ABS and doesn’t come in white, at least on the lot. All of this stuff is fed to you deliberately to overload your cognition so that by the time you sit down and hear about their special warranties you’re putty in their hands. 

If you want to survive on the internet or in a car dealership, you have to radically reduce what you look at. If seat warmers and satellite radio were not things you came in looking for — ignore them entirely. Their value to you is zero. Reduce the information you look at dramatically, and prefer things that are resolvable to comparable criteria (is this journal well cited compared to other journals) to things that aren’t comparable (which page looks more professional). Choose a couple crucial things, and stop there if those things suggest clear answer.

Our four moves approach, of course, deals with just this issue, and you can read about it here.

Empower Teachers First

Someone asked me today whether I could share any insights about OER creation. I have a few thoughts about that, but the one I always come back to is that you have to empower teachers first.

You know that thing on planes where it’s like “In case of sudden decompression, put on your own oxygen mask first. Once it’s securely fastened, help those around you put on theirs?”

That’s OER. If the teacher gets their mask on they are going to save the damn plane, and if they don’t you’re all screwed. 

There are other models of course — every mega-MOOC wanted to do a direct-to-student play back in 2011. The OpenCourseWare movement largely ignored teacher-facing resources for most of its history. In both cases, the lack of focus on reuse by teachers resulted in impact patterns that followed the “Matthew Effect”, with most gains going to the students that came in with privilege, knowledge, and access.  Those who already had knowledge and opportunity gained more opportunity, but those who didn’t never get a foot on that first rung.

The way to help at-risk students and the way to create more diversity in professions lacking it is not to create more and better self-study materials. It is to find teachers that are already teaching the populations you want to attract or help and relentlessly focus on helping them be better and more effective teachers. 


I’ve written on this, alone and with Amy Collier, a bunch of times over the years. Here are some posts on it. Some of this is dated but the larger points still hold:

Why I Am Concentrating On Open Teaching Resources (2010)

Openness as a Privilege Multiplier (2011)

Why We Shouldn’t Talk MOOCs as Meritocracies (2012)

Rethinking Online Community in MOOCs Used for Blended Learning (2013, with Amy Collier)