Thinking Out Loud: Ignorance Scales

Debunking bad science can be difficult. The misdirection, false assumptions, and biased narratives are often nuanced or built upon a series of citations requiring the debunker to go down the rabbit hole to find the underlying “truth.” Why is it so much harder to counter lies than to tell them?

My recent experience writing about the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) allegedly toxic fish fillet and the Consumer Protection Safety Commissions' desire to ban gas stoves made me wonder about just this. Especially after spending eight-PLUS hours carefully reading the underlying studies and, in some instances, searching for and then reading several of their cited references. My writing skills are insufficient to reduce what I learned to a few paragraphs, let alone a memorable phrase. It took me a thousand or more words just to hit the highlights of the, as Representative George Santos might say, "embellishments."

Long-form articles garner about 148 seconds of attention, and short-form at least a minute to read on our cell phones. Meta-analysis puts our average reading speed at just shy of 250 words per minute, so for those of us writing on the internet, we get 250 to 600 words to make our case. [1] Here’s a fun fact from a study of online reading by college students: We spend even less time reading articles that we agree with, and if you add a button to like or not like an article, you read for even a shorter period.

“If you’re talking, you’re not listening.”

One reason why we offer “short shrift” to contrary opinions is the role of confirmation bias – the tendency to see and believe what we want to be true, not necessarily what is. This is an affliction that affects all of us. We exhibit our confirmation bias through selective search, recall, and, most often in the case of debunking science, selective interpretation. Another fun fact is that our opinions can be reinforced outside the “echo chambers” social media construct for us. When liberals and conservatives were paid to look at opposing Twitter viewpoints over a month, reading the opposition actually deepened their commitment to their primary view.

Schadenfreude – Joy in others' suffering

Another ubiquitous online means of limiting discourse includes the written “rolling” of eyes; and the tried and true personal attacks – who among us can resist comeuppance? Personal attacks and sarcasm are easily crafted and written – they easily fit within the minute we spend reading an article, and could it be that the algorithms of social media point in their direction? For those interested, some researchers have identified several forms of schadenfreude, including bolstering:

  • Our self-esteem in recognizing others' imperfections
  • Our identity and the power of our kith and kin, enhanced by the misfortunes of the other
  • Our security in knowing the other is being punished and is less likely to hurt me
  • Our sense of justice, punishment for those who differ from our views

All these factors are managed by our intuitive brain, the part with a gut feeling based upon the gist or perception, an essential survival skill, especially in the short term. Our analytical side is far slower at achieving a consensus that we might express and may be more suited to long-term concerns. The problem is that not only do we have the attention span of a gnat, but we consider two years, the length of an election cycle, to be a long time. Do any of us believe that we would sit for even one of the seven three-hour-long Lincoln-Douglas debates? Our most recent Presidential “debates” were two 90-minute attempts to gather snarky sound bites rather than discuss substantive issues.

Bottom line

"Scaling" is a tech term for growing something quickly and easily. You want your product to scale. The problem with debunking lousy science is that it doesn’t scale; there are no snappy lines to take down carefully constructed but flawed arguments. To evaluate a scientific study dispassionately, you need to be open to contrary views and have the time to let your analytic brain, not your intuitive brain, respond. Based on what our intuitive brain tells us, a mixture of survival skills, confirmation bias, and schadenfreude, Ignorance scales. And that is especially true for social media, the place that 60% of us go for our news. 


[1] For a bit of perspective, the press release for the EWG article runs to over 1000 words, the actual “study,” around 7500 words