Clusterfackt

Mike Dwyer – Anchor Staff

Nowadays, facts come at you fast. News cycles and timelines are on overdrive. Fake news is common place. Clusterfackt is an ongoing series that asks readers to question everything. Think of it as an exercise in critical thinking. Each week readers will be given a giant clusterfackt of scientific findings meant to replicate the dizzying news loops that dominate our lives. However, there’s a catch. One statement within the clusterfackt is entirely false. Identify the falsehood and win a prize by emailing editorinchief@anchorweb.org and don’t repeat anything you read here without doing your research!

In last week’s issue we got a bit meta-factual by taking a look at the science behind fake news and conspiracism. In observance of the 2018 midterm elections Clusterfackt is going to take a break from its usual fast paced fackt-ery  and dig a little deeper into the psycho-social implications of falsehood.

Perhaps we can inoculate ourselves before we enter the voting booths next Tuesday. Perhaps readers will recognize that I have already lied- the election is this Tuesday- and will wonder if that’s this week’s falsehood. But is it a falsehood if the falsifier admits to its fabrication? One might similarly ask: does tagging news stories as “fake” reduce the effect they have on public opinion? Do unfounded facts gain a footing through authentic belief or is it just entertainment?  

Bad information plays an important role in public discourse and the ubiquity of magical thinking cuts across all demographic lines. The twisting of truth is by no means a modern phenomenon. However, the rate at which falsehood is disseminated nowadays creates a conundrum for critical thought and fact checking. When false information or half-truths are repeated online, in social media or in cable television, it has an effect on the public’s perception of reality, producing sound bites that are as comical as they are Orwellian.

Take for instance the double-think employed by Rudy Guliani when he said “the truth isn’t the truth” on Meet the Press last August. The Host Chuck Todd doubled over in amusement at what he had just heard. But does Todd deserve to be so incredulous? Is Chuck Todd immune to fake news?

Last week, as authorities were still searching for the pipe bombing suspect, Todd himself engaged in delusion, saying he “feared that this could be some Russian operation” designed to divide the public. Guest panelist John Podhoretz, when given a chance to correct Todd was instead amicably complicit, saying “it is a very strange moment and we have no idea where it comes from.”  

Podhoretz’s agreement sounds eerily similar to the deflections made by certain Republican senators when asked to refute false news claims. One of the primary features of fake news and conspiracy claims is their non-falsifiability. In a recent TEDtalk, Quassim Cassam, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick in England said that the consequence of this “implanting of doubts” in the minds of others results in a “loss of confidence” and ultimately a “loss of knowledge.”

Last March, a paper published in the journal Science sought to shed some light on the nature of falsehood through psychological methodology. The study’s 16 co-authors defined fake news as “fabricated information that mimics news media content in form but not in organizational process or intent” and went on to analyze the individual, institutional and societal factors which contribute to this problem.

One of the studies co-authors, Steven Sloman, a professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University told National Public Radio that the problem is threefold, “First, because of technology, anyone in the world can be a source of news…Second, we are inundated by information. We just don’t have time to separate the facts from the falsities…Third, the huge variety of news media in our culture means that people have the freedom to tune into news sources that tell them what they want to hear, and we all like to hear news consistent with our beliefs.”

Sloman pointed to another research paper by Gordon Pennycook and David Rand that explores this cognitive bias. Pennycook and Rand started by asking “Do we use our reasoning abilities to convince ourselves that statements that align with our ideology are true, or does reasoning allow us to effectively differentiate fake from real regardless of political ideology?” Pennycook and Rand were able to demonstrate that an ability to think analytically as measured by the Cognitive Reflection Test could predict the susceptibility of subjects to fake news. The CRT is designed to measure a person’s ability to overcome “gut” reactions and come to the correct answer.

The original test consisted of just three questions:

  1. A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
  2. If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?
  3. In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

Tune in next week for the answers to the CRT. In the meantime, think critically and analytically and make sure to go out and vote next Tuesday.

Mike Dwyer is a 2013 graduate of CCRI’s school of nursing and has since worked as a registered nurse in and around his hometown of Newport, Rhode Island. Writing has been a life-long passion (Re: obsession) and in 2016 Mike enrolled at RIC to pursue a BA in English literature. He is a senior planning to graduate next Spring, after which he will stay local, stay weird, and pursue a graduate degree.