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.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."
A highly contagious form of the coronavirus known as the Delta variant is spreading rapidly and becoming increasingly prevalent around the world. First identified in India in December, Delta has now been identified in 111 countries.
In the United States, the variant now accounts for 83% of sequenced COVID-19 cases, said Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at a July 20 Senate hearing. In May, Delta was responsible for just 3% of U.S. cases. The World Health Organization projects that Delta will become the dominant variant globally over the coming months.
So, how worried should you be about the Delta variant? We asked experts some common questions about Delta.
What is a variant?
To understand Delta, it's helpful to first understand what a variant is. When a virus infects a person, it gets into your cells and makes a copy of its genome so it can replicate and spread throughout your body.
In the process of making new copies of itself, the virus can make a mistake in its genetic code. Because viruses are replicating all the time, these mistakes — also called mutations — happen pretty often. A new variant emerges when a virus acquires one or more new mutations and starts spreading within a population.
There are thousands of SARS-CoV-2 variants, but most of them don't substantially change the way the virus behaves. The variants that scientists are most interested in are known as variants of concern. These are versions of the virus with mutations that allow the virus to spread more easily, evade vaccines, or cause more severe disease.
"The vast majority of the mutations that have accumulated in SARS-CoV-2 don't change the biology as far as we're concerned," said Jennifer Surtees, a biochemist at the University of Buffalo who's studying the coronavirus. "But there have been a handful of key mutations and combinations of mutations that have led to what we're now calling variants of concern."
One of those variants of concern is Delta, which is now driving many new COVID-19 infections.
Why is the Delta variant so concerning?
"The reason why the Delta variant is concerning is because it's causing an increase in transmission," said Alba Grifoni, an infectious disease researcher at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology. "The virus is spreading faster and people — particularly those who are not vaccinated yet — are more prone to exposure."
The Delta variant has a few key mutations that make it better at attaching to our cells and evading the neutralizing antibodies in our immune system. These mutations have changed the virus enough to make it more than twice as contagious as the original SARS-CoV-2 virus that emerged in Wuhan and about 50% more contagious than the Alpha variant, previously known as B.1.1.7, or the U.K. variant.
These mutations were previously seen in other variants on their own, but it's their combination that makes Delta so much more infectious.
Do vaccines work against the Delta variant?
The good news is, the COVID-19 vaccines made by AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer still work against the Delta variant. They remain more than 90% effective at preventing hospitalizations and death due to Delta. While they're slightly less protective against disease symptoms, they're still very effective at preventing severe illness caused by the Delta variant.
"They're not as good as they were against the prior strains, but they're holding up pretty well," said Eric Topol, a physician and director of the Scripps Translational Research Institute, during a July 19 briefing for journalists.
Because Delta is better at evading our immune systems, it's likely causing more breakthrough infections — COVID-19 cases in people who are vaccinated. However, breakthrough infections were expected before the Delta variant became widespread. No vaccine is 100% effective, so breakthrough infections can happen with other vaccines as well. Experts say the COVID-19 vaccines are still working as expected, even if breakthrough infections occur. The majority of these infections are asymptomatic or cause only mild symptoms.
Should vaccinated people worry about the Delta variant?
Vaccines train our immune systems to protect us against infection. They do this by spurring the production of antibodies, which stick around in our bodies to help fight off a particular pathogen in case we ever come into contact with it.
But even if the new Delta variant slips past our neutralizing antibodies, there's another component of our immune system that can help overtake the virus: T cells. Studies are showing that the COVID-19 vaccines also galvanize T cells, which help limit disease severity in people who have been vaccinated.
"While antibodies block the virus and prevent the virus from infecting cells, T cells are able to attack cells that have already been infected," Grifoni said. In other words, T cells can prevent the infection from spreading to more places in the body. A study published July 1 by Grifoni and her colleagues found that T cells were still able to recognize mutated forms of the virus — further evidence that our current vaccines are effective against Delta.
Can fully vaccinated people spread the Delta variant?
Scientists think it's unlikely that fully vaccinated individuals who have an asymptomatic infection are transmitting the Delta variant. That's because vaccinated people are thought to have relatively low levels of the virus in their respiratory tracts and therefore, they don't transmit as much virus.
Still, breakthrough infections can occur. If you have COVID-19 symptoms, even if you're fully vaccinated, you should get tested and isolate from friends and family because you could spread the virus.
What risk does Delta pose to unvaccinated people?
The Delta variant is behind a surge in cases in communities with low vaccination rates, and unvaccinated Americans currently account for 97% of hospitalizations due to COVID-19, according to Walensky. The best thing you can do right now to prevent yourself from getting sick is to get vaccinated.
Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said in this week's "Making Sense of Science" podcast that it's especially important to get all required doses of the vaccine in order to have the best protection against the Delta variant. "Even if it's been more than the allotted time that you were told to come back and get the second, there's no time like the present," she said.
With more than 3.6 billion COVID-19 doses administered globally, the vaccines have been shown to be incredibly safe. Serious adverse effects are rare, although scientists continue to monitor for them.
Being vaccinated also helps prevent the emergence of new and potentially more dangerous variants. Viruses need to infect people in order to replicate, and variants emerge because the virus continues to infect more people. More infections create more opportunities for the virus to acquire new mutations.
Surtees and others worry about a scenario in which a new variant emerges that's even more transmissible or resistant to vaccines. "This is our window of opportunity to try to get as many people vaccinated as possible and get people protected so that so that the virus doesn't evolve to be even better at infecting people," she said.
Does Delta cause more severe disease?
While hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are increasing again, it's not yet clear whether Delta causes more severe illness than previous strains.
How can we protect unvaccinated children from the Delta variant?
With children 12 and under not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, kids are especially vulnerable to the Delta variant. One way to protect unvaccinated children is for parents and other close family members to get vaccinated.
It's also a good idea to keep masks handy when going out in public places. Due to risk Delta poses, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new guidelines July 19 recommending that all staff and students over age 2 wear face masks in school this fall, even if they have been vaccinated.
Parents should also avoid taking their unvaccinated children to crowded, indoor locations and make sure their kids are practicing good hand-washing hygiene. For children younger than 2, limit visits with friends and family members who are unvaccinated or whose vaccination status is unknown and keep up social distancing practices while in public.
While there's no evidence yet that Delta increases disease severity in children, parents should be mindful that in some rare cases, kids can get a severe form of the disease.
"We're seeing more children getting sick and we're seeing some of them get very sick," Surtees said. "Those children can then pass on the virus to other individuals, including people who are immunocompromised or unvaccinated."