3/16/2012

Too Good to Be True: Facebook as a Medium to Spread Pseudoscience

We engage in wishful thinking all the time. Infomercials continue to exist because people continue to buy the products. Diet pills fly off the shelves because we want an easy fix. The HCG diet is popular because, of course, the weight falls off when you restrict your calories to 500 a day--drops be damned.

The problem with this tendency to accept what we hear or read unquestioningly is a huge one, and one that psychologists have long been aware of. In 1990, Daniel Gilbert, Douglas Krull, and Patrick Malone showed that people "easily accept all information before it is assessed, and then laboriously recode the information that is subsequently found to be false." Most of the time, we simply don't bother to do that secondary assessment and false information is taken in and then shared with others.

We are constantly inundated with information too good to be true. Mass email forwards of stories that are amazing or horrifying are constantly filling our inboxes; our facebook walls are filled with friends passing along links to sites and stories that snopes.com shows to be clearly false, or that even the site linked to will show. People take satire sites like The Onion to be real, and misinformation spreads.

Another tendency online is that stories are shared and readers don't notice the publication date and stories that have been debunked for years spread across facebook walls like wildfire. We take on fresh outrage over old stories;  we hop on bandwagons because everyone else is. Facebook is a particularly good naturalistic environment to watch the spread of misinformation and the tendency of people to bandwagon in order to tighten their in-group bonding.

So what to do when you're the hard-core skeptic in the group? Do you always directly point out the misinformation? Do you leave a link on a posting? Or do you do a sidestep of not commenting directly and instead place on your own feed the links that will provide accurate information?

No one likes the constant buzzkill of being questioned, so direct confrontation is often inadvisable. So much of what people believe is pseudoscientific that it's impossible to confront it all and would quickly make sure you're not at all popular. Watch your friend list drop to zero if you do that, but maybe that works for you. Occasionally, leaving the snopes.com link will be sufficient and not lead to alienation. And sometimes, like I am doing today on my facebook wall, linking to stories that disprove or call into question the latest wildfire spreading on my friends' feeds is the best option. It feels passive-aggressive, but it's not--it allows people the choice to read if they desire. We have to know when to push and when to put out the information and let people make their own decisions. Pushing your reality on other people until they relent SHOULD NEVER be an option.

When it comes to the online autism community, having a wide diversity of facebook friends involved in that community can provide glimpses of what the latest fads are, what issues are hot-button topics, and what is currently uniting or dividing the community. It's important, though, to respect other people's realities, and to not assume superiority when beliefs differ.

The walls of facebook friends shouldn't be about pissing contests, although that often happens, and we all come to facebook for different reasons--yes, we want community and support, and I think that's probably a universal reason, but many come to find argument and drama: diversion. We all seek momentary diversion from our lives and the chance to dip our toes into other people's lives for a wee break from our own.

That's perhaps part of the reason we are also so willing to accept without that necessary second step of assessment so many feel-good stories. We want miracles. We need happy endings. And we can keep those miracles and happy endings if we just go with it.

So what's the harm in that? Sometimes, there's no harm, but at other times, the harm is great. Facilitated communication can do tremendous harm to both the individual being facilitated and to the family members, as well (think the Wendrow case where the daughter was facilitated and accused her father of sexual abuse and the mother of complicity). Think also of this: a person who spends thirty years being facilitated never learns to communicate independently and is therefore unable to share symptoms of an impending heart attack and dies from that heart attack.

If we want to come as close as we can to knowing the world as it really is, we must be skeptical. We must always consciously choose to evaluate information. We need to raise a metaphorical hand in the stop pose and question the veracity of information we choose to share.

If it's too good to be true, it is.

4 comments:

farmwifetwo said...

http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/03/15/investigators-striking-information-gold-in-elections-canada-robocalls-probe-source/

Not just autism. People jump on bandwagons without ever checking the information.

Then there's the daily reports in the newspapers/online about scams and people still believe everything they are told over the phone/email/facebook etc.

I sometimes wonder if people pride themselves on this lack of knowing?? Why else would they not learn the entire story first before jumping on the bandwagon.

If someone told you to jump off a bridge, would you??

kathleen said...

It is hard! Things on fb run like wildfire sometimes..FC, I think is the most difficult. People WANT so much to believe that it works-and if you say it doesn't..you are looked at as the bad guy because in essence, you are SEEN as saying non verbal people can't communicate. Which isn't what you are saying at all..But some loud mouthed phony will paint you with that brush..You can't win. So yeah-posting links is probably the best you can do..People believe what they want to believe..and they will always find an "expert" to back up those beliefs...even if that "expert" is a fake...sigh...

Lori said...

A timely post. I frequenly agonize over how to react when I see misinformation spread.

Ultimately, I shrug my shoulders at glurge and too good to be true stories.

I have enough difficulty with communication without adding the additional stress of defending my skeptical nature.

Yet, some moral part of me longs to speak. I will follow your suit, I will post to keep my ethical heart happy, but not engage head on.

Thank you for the insight.

K Wombles said...

fw2, only if a bungy cord was attached to my feet!

Kathleen, yup--it's often a complete no-win situation.

Lori, thank you. :)