One of the oddest political hoaxes of recent times was Pizzagate, in which conspiracy theorists claimed that Hillary Clinton and her 2016 campaign chief ran a child sex ring from the basement of a Washington, DC, pizzeria.
To fight disinformation more effectively, he suggests, humans need to stop believing in one thing above all: our own gullibility.
Millions of believers spread the rumor on social media, abetted by Russian bots; one outraged netizen stormed the restaurant with an assault rifle and shot open what he took to be the dungeon door. (It actually led to a computer closet.) Pundits cited the imbroglio as evidence that Americans had lost the ability to tell fake news from the real thing, putting our democracy in peril.
Such fears, however, are nothing new. "For most of history, the concept of widespread credulity has been fundamental to our understanding of society," observes Hugo Mercier in Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe (Princeton University Press, 2020). In the fourth century BCE, he points out, the historian Thucydides blamed Athens' defeat by Sparta on a demagogue who hoodwinked the public into supporting idiotic military strategies; Plato extended that argument to condemn democracy itself. Today, atheists and fundamentalists decry one another's gullibility, as do climate-change accepters and deniers. Leftists bemoan the masses' blind acceptance of the "dominant ideology," while conservatives accuse those who do revolt of being duped by cunning agitators.
What's changed, all sides agree, is the speed at which bamboozlement can propagate. In the digital age, it seems, a sucker is born every nanosecond.
The Case Against Credulity
Yet Mercier, a cognitive scientist at the Jean Nicod Institute in Paris, thinks we've got the problem backward. To fight disinformation more effectively, he suggests, humans need to stop believing in one thing above all: our own gullibility. "We don't credulously accept whatever we're told—even when those views are supported by the majority of the population, or by prestigious, charismatic individuals," he writes. "On the contrary, we are skilled at figuring out who to trust and what to believe, and, if anything, we're too hard rather than too easy to influence."
He bases those contentions on a growing body of research in neuropsychiatry, evolutionary psychology, and other fields. Humans, Mercier argues, are hardwired to balance openness with vigilance when assessing communicated information. To gauge a statement's accuracy, we instinctively test it from many angles, including: Does it jibe with what I already believe? Does the speaker share my interests? Has she demonstrated competence in this area? What's her reputation for trustworthiness? And, with more complex assertions: Does the argument make sense?
This process, Mercier says, enables us to learn much more from one another than do other animals, and to communicate in a far more complex way—key to our unparalleled adaptability. But it doesn't always save us from trusting liars or embracing demonstrably false beliefs. To better understand why, leapsmag spoke with the author.
How did you come to write Not Born Yesterday?
In 2010, I collaborated with the cognitive scientist Dan Sperber and some other colleagues on a paper called "Epistemic Vigilance," which laid out the argument that evolutionarily, it would make no sense for humans to be gullible. If you can be easily manipulated and influenced, you're going to be in major trouble. But as I talked to people, I kept encountering resistance. They'd tell me, "No, no, people are influenced by advertising, by political campaigns, by religious leaders." I started doing more research to see if I was wrong, and eventually I had enough to write a book.
With all the talk about "fake news" these days, the topic has gotten a lot more timely.
Yes. But on the whole, I'm skeptical that fake news matters very much. And all the energy we spend fighting it is energy not spent on other pursuits that may be better ways of improving our informational environment. The real challenge, I think, is not how to shut up people who say stupid things on the internet, but how to make it easier for people who say correct things to convince people.
"History shows that the audience's state of mind and material conditions matter more than the leader's powers of persuasion."
You start the book with an anecdote about your encounter with a con artist several years ago, who scammed you out of 20 euros. Why did you choose that anecdote?
Although I'm arguing that people aren't generally gullible, I'm not saying we're completely impervious to attempts at tricking us. It's just that we're much better than we think at resisting manipulation. And while there's a risk of trusting someone who doesn't deserve to be trusted, there's also a risk of not trusting someone who could have been trusted. You miss out on someone who could help you, or from whom you might have learned something—including figuring out who to trust.
You argue that in humans, vigilance and open-mindedness evolved hand-in-hand, leading to a set of cognitive mechanisms you call "open vigilance."
There's a common view that people start from a state of being gullible and easy to influence, and get better at rejecting information as they become smarter and more sophisticated. But that's not what really happens. It's much harder to get apes than humans to do anything they don't want to do, for example. And research suggests that over evolutionary time, the better our species became at telling what we should and shouldn't listen to, the more open to influence we became. Even small children have ways to evaluate what people tell them.
The most basic is what I call "plausibility checking": if you tell them you're 200 years old, they're going to find that highly suspicious. Kids pay attention to competence; if someone is an expert in the relevant field, they'll trust her more. They're likelier to trust someone who's nice to them. My colleagues and I have found that by age 2 ½, children can distinguish between very strong and very weak arguments. Obviously, these skills keep developing throughout your life.
But you've found that even the most forceful leaders—and their propaganda machines—have a hard time changing people's minds.
Throughout history, there's been this fear of demagogues leading whole countries into terrible decisions. In reality, these leaders are mostly good at feeling the crowd and figuring out what people want to hear. They're not really influencing [the masses]; they're surfing on pre-existing public opinion. We know from a recent study, for instance, that if you match cities in which Hitler gave campaign speeches in the late '20s through early '30s with similar cities in which he didn't give campaign speeches, there was no difference in vote share for the Nazis. Nazi propaganda managed to make Germans who were already anti-Semitic more likely to express their anti-Semitism or act on it. But Germans who were not already anti-Semitic were completely inured to the propaganda.
So why, in totalitarian regimes, do people seem so devoted to the ruler?
It's not a very complex psychology. In these regimes, the slightest show of discontent can be punished by death, or by you and your whole family being sent to a labor camp. That doesn't mean propaganda has no effect, but you can explain people's obedience without it.
What about cult leaders and religious extremists? Their followers seem willing to believe anything.
Prophets and preachers can inspire the kind of fervor that leads people to suicidal acts or doomed crusades. But history shows that the audience's state of mind and material conditions matter more than the leader's powers of persuasion. Only when people are ready for extreme actions can a charismatic figure provide the spark that lights the fire.
Once a religion becomes ubiquitous, the limits of its persuasive powers become clear. Every anthropologist knows that in societies that are nominally dominated by orthodox belief systems—whether Christian or Muslim or anything else—most people share a view of God, or the spirit, that's closer to what you find in societies that lack such religions. In the Middle Ages, for instance, you have records of priests complaining of how unruly the people are—how they spend the whole Mass chatting or gossiping, or go on pilgrimages mostly because of all the prostitutes and wine-drinking. They continue pagan practices. They resist attempts to make them pay tithes. It's very far from our image of how much people really bought the dominant religion.
"The mainstream media is extremely reliable. The scientific consensus is extremely reliable."
And what about all those wild rumors and conspiracy theories on social media? Don't those demonstrate widespread gullibility?
I think not, for two reasons. One is that most of these false beliefs tend to be held in a way that's not very deep. People may say Pizzagate is true, yet that belief doesn't really interact with the rest of their cognition or their behavior. If you really believe that children are being abused, then trying to free them is the moral and rational thing to do. But the only person who did that was the guy who took his assault weapon to the pizzeria. Most people just left one-star reviews of the restaurant.
The other reason is that most of these beliefs actually play some useful role for people. Before any ethnic massacre, for example, rumors circulate about atrocities having been committed by the targeted minority. But those beliefs aren't what's really driving the phenomenon. In the horrendous pogrom of Kishinev, Moldova, 100 years ago, you had these stories of blood libel—a child disappeared, typical stuff. And then what did the Christian inhabitants do? They raped the [Jewish] women, they pillaged the wine stores, they stole everything they could. They clearly wanted to get that stuff, and they made up something to justify it.
Where do skeptics like climate-change deniers and anti-vaxxers fit into the picture?
Most people in most countries accept that vaccination is good and that climate change is real and man-made. These ideas are deeply counter-intuitive, so the fact that scientists were able to get them across is quite fascinating. But the environment in which we live is vastly different from the one in which we evolved. There's a lot more information, which makes it harder to figure out who we can trust. The main effect is that we don't trust enough; we don't accept enough information. We also rely on shortcuts and heuristics—coarse cues of trustworthiness. There are people who abuse these cues. They may have a PhD or an MD, and they use those credentials to help them spread messages that are not true and not good. Mostly, they're affirming what people want to believe, but they may also be changing minds at the margins.
How can we improve people's ability to resist that kind of exploitation?
I wish I could tell you! That's literally my next project. Generally speaking, though, my advice is very vanilla. The mainstream media is extremely reliable. The scientific consensus is extremely reliable. If you trust those sources, you'll go wrong in a very few cases, but on the whole, they'll probably give you good results. Yet a lot of the problems that we attribute to people being stupid and irrational are not entirely their fault. If governments were less corrupt, if the pharmaceutical companies were irreproachable, these problems might not go away—but they would certainly be minimized.
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.