April 8, 2018

Portions of this post were taken from an article in The Chattanooga Times-FreePress.

Let’s do a quick quiz:

QUESTION:  In the Biblical story, what was Jonah swallowed by?  How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the ark?

Did you answer whale to the first question and two of each kind to the second question?  Most people actually do, even though they are aware that Noah, and not Moses, built the ark in that story.  Noah—not Moses.  You knew that.

Psychologists call this phenomenon the “Moses Illusion”.  This is just one example of how people are very bad at discerning factual errors in the world around them.  Even when people know the correct information, they often fail to notice errors and will even go on to use that incorrect information in other situations.  An “official” definition of this illusion goes something like this:

“In pragmatics and psycholinguistics, the Moses illusion is a phenomenon whereby listeners or readers fail to recognize an inaccuracy or inconsistency in a text. It is also called the semantic illusion.”

Research from cognitative psychology shows that people are naturally very poor fact-checkers and it is very difficult for individuals to compare things we read or hear with what we already know about a specific topic.   The Moses illusion (also known as semantic illusion) was first identified by T.D. Erickson and M.E. Mattson in their article “From Words to Meaning: A Semantic Illusion” (Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 1981).

In this era of “fake news”, this reality has very important implications for how people consume journalism, social media and other bits of public information.  In the study mentioned above, eighty (80) percent of the participants failed to notice the error in the question despite later correctly answering the question, “Who took the animals into the Ark? The failure occurred even though participants were warned that some of the questions would have something wrong with them and were given an example of an incorrect question.  Psychologists call this “knowing neglect”.  People have relevant knowledge but fail to use it.

OKAY, why are human beings so bad at noticing errors and misinformation? Psychologists believe that there are at least two forces at work.

  • First, people have a general bias to believe that things are true. (After all, most things that we read or hear are true.) In fact, there’s some evidence that we initially process all statements as true and that it then takes cognitive effort to mentally mark them as false.  At one time, I personally believed just about everything written.  I suppose it was because I considered this to be somewhat of a legacy relative to the writer.  In days gone by, a non-fiction writer would write to inform and not to confuse.  Back then I felt that most writers did NOT have a political agenda. Today, I would be absolutely incorrect with that supposition.
  • Second, people tend to accept information as long as it’s close enough to the correct information. Natural speech often includes errors, pauses and repeats. (“She was wearing a blue – um, I mean, a black, a black dress.”). One idea– to maintain conversations we need to go with the flow and accept information that is “good enough”. Just move on and if people

don’t fall for these illusions when the incorrect information is obviously wrong. For example, people don’t try to answer the question “How many animals of each kind did Nixon take on the Ark?”.

Detecting and correcting false information is difficult work and requires fighting against the ways our brains like to process information. Critical thinking alone won’t save us. Our psychological quirks put us at risk of falling for misinformation, disinformation and propaganda. Professional fact-checkers provide an essential service in detecting incorrect information in the public view.  They are one of our best hopes for zeroing in on errors and correcting them, before the rest of us read or hear the false information and incorporate it into what we know of the world.


Why on earth is there so much fake news?

There are two main creators of fake news. The most egregious creator comes from non-journalists who put out spammy garbage you see on the web that’s simply untrue. As mentioned earlier, we generally believe just about everything written with the goal of checking it later, then there is no later.  The second creator of fake news is not so much fake news, but biased news coming from journalists with an agenda. Biased news isn’t as egregious since we all have our biases that are hard to extricate from our actions. However, biased journalists can do greater damage due to their large platforms. I would like to see a disclaimer at the beginning of each blog or tweet, when needed— “WARNING:  this is garbage.”  Don’t hold your breath for this to happen.

With the use of clickbait titles, misinformation, and satire, fake news has the ability to affect public opinion about a person, country or issue. I am amazed at the number of people who gain information, political and otherwise from the late-night television shows.

Findings indicate viewers of late night talk shows tend to be politically unsophisticated and low news media consumers, relying on incidental exposure to news about current events that are introduced throughout the day in the course of other activities (i.e., news headlines on email servers, jokes in late night monologues) with one notable exception.  Viewers of “The Daily Show,” are on the other end of the political spectrum, reflecting high levels of political sophistication and high news media consumption. They tune into “The Daily Show” for a “twist” on news stories with which they are already familiar, expecting Stewart and his team to provide a humorous slant on current events. Apparently, the other late-night shows—-not so much.  It’s mostly relative to political discourse garbage.


I know I need to slow down and take the time to ask the question—is this information true, partially true, completely false?  What do I know relative to this new information?  I am to the point of turning off the television set and reading a good book.  Who do you believe these days?  What news or media outlet gives a non-bias, only-the-facts, information-filled narrative?  I honestly can NOT answer that question at this time.


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