cognitive bias, counterknowledge and conspiracy theories

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This presentation, for the EDUC61711 Digital Media and Information Literacy course at the University of Manchester, covers the notions of cognitive bias, counterknowledge and conspiracy theories. How can characteristics of human cognition be used to confuse, to push certain agendas and lead to failures to learn?


  • 1. EDUC61711 Digital, Mediaand Information LiteracyWeek 9: Cognitive biases, conspiracy theories andcounterknowledge

2. Introduction In essence this presentation considers failures of informationliteracy. It discusses some examples of how and why people can be led tobelieve things that have no credibility or validity. We might think ourselves immune to this kind of deception: but I willshow you how these things are innate in us all, and can be exploited. Indeed it is because of the existence of these biases that systems havedeveloped to transcend individual perceptions of truth and developmore robust, collective assessments. 3. Saving cognitive work The ETC materials in week 9 introduced the idea ofcognitive load. Our senses are constantly gathering a lot of informationabout the world around us but because most of it is irrelevant, we filter a lot of itout. 4. Assuming youre sitting down whileviewing this presentationUntil you makethe next click forwardyoure not currently consciousof the feeling of your backside/back against the chair.Now you are because I drew yourattention to it. But most of the time,because the feeling is constant, yourmind filters it out. 5. Our minds make all sorts of cuts like this and often they arevery useful.For a start, they help us focus attention, e.g., on a conversationin a busy or noisy place. 6. More broadly, they bring a solidity to our psychology: meaning,we do not have to be constantly questioning the very basis ofour lives. We know certain things are consistently the case andexpect them to continue to be so.In the movie Memento Guy Pearces character cannot do this, thus,every few minutes he has to work out where he is and what heis doing there. (Hence the tattoos.)Imagine this in reality I am sure it would be appalling. 7. Seeking patternsHowever, when information turns up that does not accordwith our expectations about the world, it can throw out ourperception.On the next click, you will seea playing card. As soon as yousee it, call out what card it is.Did you say the six of hearts?Many people do.But it isnt its a red six ofspades. Look again. 8. The playing card exploits our minds tendency to expect things toconform to a known, common pattern. Here is another example.This is a picture of ManchesterUnited FC lining up before amatch against Bayern in 1999.However, there are 12 people inthis photograph, not 11.This is not a MUFC player, buta guy called Karl Power, whojumped from the crowd to jointhe players as they ran ontothe pitch.What is the key thingthat he had to have inorder to pull off thisstunt? 9. The answer is, the kit. Had he been dressed in a suit hed neverhave got away with it.Football players wear kitsprecisely so that cognitive loadcan be saved. To have to spotfaces of ones own team wouldbe too difficult in a fast-pacedmatch.So the stadium security, photographers and even most of the playerssaw only the kit, and not the man and let him through.(Though it seems Roy Keane, on the extreme right, may have noticed.) 10. This tendency to want to have things fit into patterns we arealready familiar with is a cognitive bias.Specifically it is a bias called the confirmation bias.If things dont fit the pattern,we may become anxious orconfused or ignore theinformation altogether.We touched on this earlier in this course,when considering the work of CarolKuhlthau and information anxiety.In the end, all learning requires us to process new information but the confirmation bias shows how we can also easily rejectchallenges to our existing preconceptions, and thus fail to learn. 11. Other cognitive biasesWe will return to the confirmation bias shortly, as it helps explainphenomena like conspiracy theories. But there are many othercognitive biases.For instance, note the affirmation bias. We dont like believing thatwe have screwed up or made a mistake. We take credit for oursuccesses, but want to deflect the blame for our failures. 12. The man in green was a banker called Nick Leeson. Over three years(1992-1995) he singlehandedly lost 827million on the stock marketand caused the collapse of Barings Bank.Even when it became obvious that his strategy was disastrous,neither Leeson nor his employers read the danger signs. In factthe bank allowed him to check his own work, which was notusually done (precisely to avoid situations like these). 13. The affirmation bias is basically the psychological state of denial: wesimply refuse to believe that something is going badly wrong.We ignore information that challenges the personal constructs we holdabout ourselves and our identities.As the Leeson case shows (and see also the collapses of Enron, orthe 2008 sub-prime crisis), this can happen at an institutional levelas well as a personal one. 14. The link below leads to a Slideshare presentationwhich lists over 100 other cognitive biases.I highly recommend having a look. (The link isalso included in the week 9 materials.) 15. The point?It is largely because of cognitive bias that we have developedvarious other means of compensating for these failures ofindividual perceptionlike scientific method, whichrequires the testing of statementsabout the world, and not theirsimple acceptance, howeverauthoritative the scientist mayseem to be. 16. Counterknowledge and badscienceWriters like Damian Thompson, inCounterknowledge and Ben Goldacre(see picture and scathing about what they seeas pseudo-science infecting publicdebate.Read Thompsons extract, provided inthe materials (though you might notlike it) 17. Remember that we spoke in week 3 about the ways that theacademic enterprise is supposed to prevent the hunches,guesses and ideologies of researchers from entering thepublic sphere unchecked.But both Goldacre and Thompson makethe point that the cross-fertilisation ofscience and the media mean that thesechecks and balances do not always getproperly appliedparticularly not when there is moneyto be made from them. 18. Conspiracy theoriesConspiracy theories are a classic example of how cognitive biasescan lead to a failure to learn, to process information properly.Peter Knights book Conspiracy Culture (2000) is an excellentstudy.See the recorded lecture, slides and review in the week 9materials. 19. The assassination of John F Kennedy in November 1963 hasbecome the classic conspiracy theory.Was he killed by a lone assassin, thought to be Lee Oswald?Or by the CIA or other unaccountable figures in the US government? 20. This photo of Oswald was widelydistributed after the assassination,and used to support the angry lonenut theory. Some believe it to befaked, however.Knight makes a clear link here to theconfirmation bias (2000, p.98):[conspiracy theorists] claim that any new piece of information which would undermineexisting theories or confirm rival ones might itself be a deliberate plant by the powers thatbe to lead investigators astray. Likewise the lack of evidence of a conspiracy can itself betaken as evidence of a conspiracy to deliberately withhold vital information. The infamousbackyard photos of Oswald confirm that he was indeed the lone gunman? Then they musthave been faked. 21. Conspiracy theories also arose around the work of Dr. AndrewWakefield in the UK, whose theories about a link between theMMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and autism led toa substantial drop in the vaccination rate (see graph). 22. Why a conspiracy theory? Many other medical scientists tried to substantiateWakefields claims as good scientists should. None wereable to repeat his findings. But because Wakefield had powerful allies in the media(particularly the Daily Mail), the same confirmation bias cameinto play. Studies which refuted Wakefields claims were treated asevidence that there was a conspiracy to keep him gagged -not that he might have been wrong. 23. ICT, the Internet and social media are often seen as culpable inhelping conspiracy theories and counterknowledge spreadmore rapidly and probably there is some truth in this.However, as Goldacre and Thompson both note, they can alsoprovide a valuable alternative perspective to that pushed throughthe mainstream media, which is quite prepared to push counter-knowledgeitself. 24. In the end, the only way to overcome cognitive biases,counterknowledge and conspiracy theories is to revealthem reflect on them and learn about them. Information literacy clearly plays a key role here hence this presentation.


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