Rationalising Data

“If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.” — Bertrand Russell

Which reminds me of an article in Tuesday’s Washington Post, about the persistence of our belief in myths and false information. It cites an experiement conducted by University of Michigan social psychologist Norbert Schwarz in which volunteers read a health flier that sought to combat myths about the flu vaccine. A few days later, older people (mis)remembered 40 percent of the myths as factual and younger people remembered about 30 percent of the myths as facts.

As the paper notes:

“The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths. …

“The experiments do not show that denials are completely useless; if that were true, everyone would believe the myths. But the mind’s bias does affect many people, especially those who want to believe the myth for their own reasons, or those who are only peripherally interested and are less likely to invest the time and effort needed to firmly grasp the facts.
“The research also highlights the disturbing reality that once an idea has been implanted in people’s minds, it can be difficult to dislodge. Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it.”

And then I saw the Dilbert cartoon for today, which is not unrelated! (Click on it to read it)

dilbertsept72007

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