In The Fake News Era, Are We Too Gullible? No, Says Cognitive Scientist
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.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Kids stressing you out? They could be protecting your health.
- A new device unlocks the heart's secrets
- Super-ager gene transplants
- Surgeons could 3D print your organs before operations
- A skull cap looks into the brain like an fMRI
This article originally appeared in One Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases by land and by sea - and how scientists are working on solutions.
On a warm summer day, forests, meadows, and riverbanks should be abuzz with insects—from butterflies to beetles and bees. But bugs aren’t as abundant as they used to be, and that’s not a plus for people and the planet, scientists say. The declining numbers of insects, coupled with climate change, can have devastating effects for people in more ways than one. “Insects have been around for a very long time and can live well without humans, but humans cannot live without insects and the many services they provide to us,” says Philipp Lehmann, a researcher in the Department of Zoology at Stockholm University in Sweden. Their decline is not just bad, Lehmann adds. “It’s devastating news for humans.
”Insects and other invertebrates are the most diverse organisms on the planet. They fill most niches in terrestrial and aquatic environments and drive ecosystem functions. Many insects are also economically vital because they pollinate crops that humans depend on for food, including cereals, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. A paper published in PNAS notes that insects alone are worth more than $70 billion a year to the U.S. economy. In places where pollinators like honeybees are in decline, farmers now buy them from rearing facilities at steep prices rather than relying on “Mother Nature.”
And because many insects serve as food for other species—bats, birds and freshwater fish—they’re an integral part of the ecosystem’s food chain. “If you like to eat good food, you should thank an insect,” says Scott Hoffman Black, an ecologist and executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “And if you like birds in your trees and fish in your streams, you should be concerned with insect conservation.”
Deforestation, urbanization, and agricultural spread have eaten away at large swaths of insect habitat. The increasingly poorly controlled use of insecticides, which harms unintended species, and the proliferation of invasive insect species that disrupt native ecosystems compound the problem.
“There is not a single reason why insects are in decline,” says Jessica L. Ware, associate curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and president of the Entomological Society of America. “There are over one million described insect species, occupying different niches and responding to environmental stressors in different ways.”
Jessica Ware, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, is using DNA methods to monitor insects.
In addition to habitat loss fueling the decline in insect populations, the other “major drivers” Ware identified are invasive species, climate change, pollution, and fluctuating levels of nitrogen, which play a major role in the lifecycle of plants, some of which serve as insect habitants and others as their food. “The causes of world insect population declines are, unfortunately, very easy to link to human activities,” Lehmann says.
Climate change will undoubtedly make the problem worse. “As temperatures start to rise, it can essentially make it too hot for some insects to survive,” says Emily McDermott, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at the University of Arkansas. “Conversely in other areas, it could potentially also allow other insects to expand their ranges.”
Without Pollinators Humans Will Starve
We may not think much of our planet’s getting warmer by only one degree Celsius, but it can spell catastrophe for many insects, plants, and animals, because it’s often accompanied by less rainfall. “Changes in precipitation patterns will have cascading consequences across the tree of life,” says David Wagner, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. Insects, in particular, are “very vulnerable” because “they’re small and susceptible to drying.”
For instance, droughts have put the monarch butterfly at risk of being unable to find nectar to “recharge its engine” as it migrates from Canada and New England to Mexico for winter, where it enters a hibernation state until it journeys back in the spring. “The monarch is an iconic and a much-loved insect,” whose migration “is imperiled by climate change,” Wagner says.
Warming and drying trends in the Western United States are perhaps having an even more severe impact on insects than in the eastern region. As a result, “we are seeing fewer individual butterflies per year,” says Matt Forister, a professor of insect ecology at the University of Nevada, Reno.
There are hundreds of butterfly species in the United States and thousands in the world. They are pollinators and can serve as good indicators of other species’ health. “Although butterflies are only one group among many important pollinators, in general we assume that what’s bad for butterflies is probably bad for other insects,” says Forister, whose research focuses on butterflies. Climate change and habitat destruction are wreaking havoc on butterflies as well as plants, leading to a further indirect effect on caterpillars and butterflies.
Different insect species have different levels of sensitivity to environmental changes. For example, one-half of the bumblebee species in the United States are showing declines, whereas the other half are not, says Christina Grozinger, a professor of entomology at the Pennsylvania State University. Some species of bumble bees are even increasing in their range, seemingly resilient to environmental changes. But other pollinators are dwindling to the point that farmers have to buy from the rearing facilities, which is the case for the California almond industry. “This is a massive cost to the farmer, which could be provided for free, in case the local habitats supported these pollinators,” Lehmann says.
For bees and other insects, climate change can harm the plants they depend on for survival or have a negative impact on the insects directly. Overly rainy and hot conditions may limit flowering in plants or reduce the ability of a pollinator to forage and feed, which then decreases their reproductive success, resulting in dwindling populations, Grozinger explains.
“Nutritional deprivation can also make pollinators more sensitive to viruses and parasites and therefore cause disease spread,” she says. “There are many ways that climate change can reduce our pollinator populations and make it more difficult to grow the many fruit, vegetable and nut crops that depend on pollinators.”
Disease-Causing Insects Can Bring More Outbreaks
While some much-needed insects are declining, certain disease-causing species may be spreading and proliferating, which is another reason for human concern. Many mosquito types spread malaria, Zika virus, West Nile virus, and a brain infection called equine encephalitis, along with other diseases as well as heartworms in dogs, says Michael Sabourin, president of the Vermont Entomological Society. An animal health specialist for the state, Sabourin conducts vector surveys that identify ticks and mosquitoes.
Scientists refer to disease-carrying insects as vector species and, while there’s a limited number of them, many of these infections can be deadly. Fleas were a well-known vector for the bubonic plague, while kissing bugs are a vector for Chagas disease, a potentially life-threatening parasitic illness in humans, dogs, and other mammals, Sabourin says.
As the planet heats up, some of the creepy crawlers are able to survive milder winters or move up north. Warmer temperatures and a shorter snow season have spawned an increasing abundance of ticks in Maine, including the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), known to transmit Lyme disease, says Sean Birkel, an assistant professor in the Climate Change Institute and Cooperative Extension at the University of Maine.
Coupled with more frequent and heavier precipitation, rising temperatures bring a longer warm season that can also lead to a longer period of mosquito activity. “While other factors may be at play, climate change affects important underlying conditions that can, in turn, facilitate the spread of vector-borne disease,” Birkel says.
For example, if mosquitoes are finding fewer of their preferred food sources, they may bite humans more. Both male and female mosquitoes feed on sugar as part of their normal behavior, but if they aren’t eating their fill, they may become more bloodthirsty. One recent paper found that sugar-deprived Anopheles gambiae females go for larger blood meals to stay in good health and lay eggs. “More blood meals equals more chances to pick up and transmit a pathogen,” McDermott says, He adds that climate change could reduce the number of available plants to feed on. And while most mosquitoes are “generalist sugar-feeders” meaning that they will likely find alternatives, losing their favorite plants can make them hungrier for blood
Similar to the effect of losing plants, mosquitoes may get turned onto people if they lose their favorite animal species. For example, some studies found that Culex pipiens mosquitoes that transmit the West Nile virus feed primarily on birds in summer. But that changes in the fall, at least in some places. Because there are fewer birds around, C. pipiens switch to mammals, including humans. And if some disease-carrying insect species proliferate or increase their ranges, that increases chances for human infection, says McDermott. “A larger concern is that climate change could increase vector population sizes, making it more likely that people or animals would be bitten by an infected insect.”
Science Can Help Bring Back the Buzz
To help friendly insects thrive and keep the foes in check, scientists need better ways of trapping, counting, and monitoring insects. It’s not an easy job, but artificial intelligence and molecular methods can help. Ware’s lab uses various environmental DNA methods to monitor freshwater habitats. Molecular technologies hold much promise. The so-called DNA barcodes, in which species are identified using a short string of their genes, can now be used to identify birds, bees, moths and other creatures, and should be used on a larger scale, says Wagner, the University of Connecticut professor. “One day, something akin to Star Trek’s tricorder will soon be on sale down at the local science store.”
Scientists are also deploying artificial intelligence, or AI, to identify insects in agricultural systems and north latitudes where there are fewer bugs, Wagner says. For instance, some automated traps already use the wingbeat frequencies of mosquitoes to distinguish the harmless ones from the disease-carriers. But new technology and software are needed to further expand detection based on vision, sound, and odors.
“Because of their ubiquity, enormity of numbers, and seemingly boundless diversity, we desperately need to develop molecular and AI technologies that will allow us to automate sampling and identification,” says Wagner. “That would accelerate our ability to track insect populations, alert us to the presence of new disease vectors, exotic pest introductions, and unexpected declines.”