Greedy Goblin

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The misunderstood backfire effect

The word of the year 2016 by the Oxford Dictionary is "post-truth": "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief". "Alternative facts" and "fake news" became the headlines of the last months. The related bias is "backfire effect": "given evidence against their beliefs, people can reject the evidence and believe even more strongly".

The publications about these paint a dark picture: mankind is losing its connection to reason and only propaganda matters anymore as facts become irrelevant. I think it's completely wrong. All of these surveys worked on a wrong assumption, therefore misunderstood rational behavior for irrational.

To see the problem, let's ask the question: "Does Australia exists?" The answer seems obvious, but it's not. Most of you reading this have never been to Australia, never seen it with your eyes or met anyone you can trust who did. Sure, we have awful lot of people claiming to see Australia, but can we believe them? If you sit in a room, talking to people, you cannot tell the difference between them honestly informing you about Australia versus them being conspirators trying to mislead you about this mythical continent for their own purposes.

Or should we believe maps showing Australia? If we accept them as evidence, then please accept this map as evidence too:

Or should we just accept it as we learned it in school? Just like I learned that communism will soon control the whole world because the oppressed workers of the US will revolt? Or as Americans learned "intelligent design"?

The thing is that we don't know if Australia exists. We accept this because we have more claims for it than against it (actually I've never seen Australia-denial) and because we have no horses in the race. If it turns out that Australia was indeed just a hoax, I can say "good grief" and move on with no losses.

Similarly all the research about post-truth is based on the assumption that the researcher knows the truth and everyone else questioning it is wrong. They might be factually wrong, but it doesn't make them irrational. Not believing in Australia without proof is completely rational. The "backfire effect" is actually the researcher telling people his assumptions then act surprised when people don't bow to it but defend their own assumptions fiercely. This created the wrong results that people don't respond to facts.

They do. I've never met "fire is hot"-denial, people don't touch hot plate repeatedly in the wrong belief that it doesn't burn. Why? Because they have evidence that it burns. Similarly the Australia-denial can be stopped not by preaching but by offering evidence in the form of an air ticket to Australia (obviously with the written contract to pay it back if Australia is found). With the air ticket, one can get there and see the continent with his own eyes and meet Australians. Seeing is believing.

Similarly, instead of lectures and ridicule, one should offer chance to real evidence to those who - rationally - question the status quo of doctrines. Those who don't believe in evolution should be offered the chance to work as unpaid assistants in research on antibiotics resistant bacteria. If they see how a single survivor can multiply creating a new MRSA variant, they'll believe. One denying the holocaust shouldn't be punished but offered to take part in historic research. When he digs up corpse with a barely visible yellow star on his jacket and a Luger bullet in his head next to the railway station where the victims were waiting for transportation, he'll believe.

People didn't stop believing in facts. They just don't get them anymore. We live in cities, work in offices, cut off from anything that is happening, receiving information about them only on screens and in papers that can be - and usually are - created with bias. Questioning them isn't madness, it's the rationality that keeps us from being drones of the Big Brother. Sure, some people question correct information. But then their correctness must be proved instead of the people ridiculed.


Provi Miner said...

to funny.... I had a high school teacher, 30 years ago, who could and would argue the world is flat in much the same way you deny Australia. Seems the more things "progress" the more and more I am reminded of the "pointless" arguments I used to have as young person. oh by the way about 2 years after that class I was sticking a bayonet in a mock up enemy soldier. He was made out of red plastic, with a wash bowl helmet holding an AK-47 molded gun. 2 years after that I accidently drove into east Germany in a military truck. 3 months later I was witness to the largest party I have ever heard of. Life is strange gobs. Hold to you what you know, verify your beliefs with research, ignore the doubters and rabble rousers, do what they say you can't, beat them at their own game don't run cause you don't like the tilt of the field.

Anonymous said...

> When he digs up corpse with a barely visible yellow star on his jacket and a Luger bullet in his head next to the railway station where the victims were waiting for transportation, he'll believe.

He'll believe that the corpse was planted by the global Zionist conspiracy. Or that the corpse was a terrorist justly executed for his crimes against society. Or that a platoon of conquering Soviet soldiers got shit-faced drunk and murdered a bunch of civilians for fun (using looted German weapons).

These guys can look at forensic reports showing cyanide residue on the walls of gas chambers and *still* disbelieve. They're fuckwits.

Azuriel said...

We're in a post-fact world because people honestly believe that Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a pizza shop. Or that Obama isn't a US citizen. And when a birth certificate is presented, the long-form one is requested. And when that is presented, they believe it was a forgery. When you Google "obama long form birth certificate" the third result is a sheriff from Arizona stating in December 2016 that they conclusively proven it was a fake. There are people who read that article and nodded their head, as if that didn't imply the greatest scandal in American history if true.

You can't station a climate denier in the Arctic drilling ice core samples to change their mind. These individuals have taken what they believe and made it a part of their identity. That is why facts are useless - to accept counter-arguments is to destroy who they are. It is like trying to reason someone out of belief in God.

And the worst thing is that the rise of actual fake news has given people ammunition to doubt reality itself. Experts don't just have biases anymore, they cannot be trusted period. In which case the echo chamber door has been sealed shut forever.

Anonymous said...

Actually I have a different theory, and you just stumbled onto it, but then moved on: “and because we have no horses in the race”. The thing is, we do have horses in the race. There isn’t an infinite amount of land, resources, good paying jobs, etc, and there’s too many horses in the race. In the bad old days, we used to have warring tribes fight over this stuff with horses and axes – these days the tribes fight through informational warfare, propaganda, gaslighting, nagging and so on.

It’s not that two opposite sets of “facts” cannot be true at the same time – it’s that one set of “facts” (which then lead to policy) benefits one tribe, the other benefits another. It’s not that people are irrationally attached to a wrong belief - they are rationally (if subconsciously) attached to the side that their bread is buttered on. So proof to the contrary + horse in the race = our horse is under attack, defend the horse!

This is the problem with modern liberalism. They want too many pigs at the trough: high wages & open migration, economic development & neo Malthusian environmentalism, fact-based discourse & postmodernism. They spread the pie too thin, to the point nobody is happy. This is also why Trump won. His (Steve Bannon’s) ideology is a return to the “bad old days” – throw some pigs out, more pie for the remaining ones (as for who those remaining ones will be …).

Smokeman said...

"mankind is losing its connection to reason and only propaganda matters anymore as facts become irrelevant."

Did facts ever really matter?

What's different now is communities are more spread out, separating people from the "facts" they need to believe to thrive in the close knit communities we always lived in in the past.

A "rational humanity" would be great, but it's not going to happen because the Human Race is not an enlightened species.

As such, the belief in "diversity" is delusional. Look at Europe, the ONE place on the planet where you would think people would be able to say "You know what? Perhaps we should ALL SPEAK THE SAME LANGUAGE." But they don't. Everyone teaches their kids their native tongue, and just assumes some future generation will "Bring us all together."

These language barriers separate people from being in the same "group." Not being "In the group" exacerbates the tendency to reject outside "facts."

And then there is:
"We live in cities, work in offices, cut off from anything that is happening, receiving information about them only on screens and in papers that can be - and usually are - created with bias."

We are all solipsistic, trapped in our own thoughts. We cannot PROVE that which we can not see, as such... we must trust an "authority" at some point. There was this fella, "Samuel Robotham" who traveled about England in the 19th century preaching something he called "Zetetic Astronomy." It was bullshit, but it was clever bullshit you couldn't disprove at the time without literally traveling to Australia. He was able to convince people that THE WORLD WAS FLAT by preying on their desire for the "truth" but not being able to prove it for themselves.

Alvi said...

You mistake evidence and experience. Even if you have no experience of visiting Australia and confirming it existence - there is overwhelming amount of evidence of it. So you just doubting evidences and trying to say they are forged when you deny Australia.
So every photo, book, news made by different people are lies, perfectly tailored together to create this made up continent. That is a point where rationality walks away - when you look at vast amount of evidence and dismiss it without any thought.

Gevlon said...

@Anon: but he wasn't lead to that corpse. The research team figured out where it was. How could the global Zionist place it in there decades ago?

@Azuriel: and people honestly believe that one of the richest man on planet was so out of supermodels that he raped/tried to rape 12 ordinary women. The problem about this hoaxes isn't that they are untrue (you can't verify or falsify them). The solution is pointing out that running a child sex ring, having a fake birth certificate or grabbing random women by the pussy are not relevant characteristics of a president and you should completely ignore these claims, regardless of their truth.

@Anon: most climate change deniars are not coal miners to have a horse in the race. Most immigration lovers are not immigrants or relatives of immigrants (but young white, high class people).

@Smokeman: "facts" didn't matter, because they were unaccessible. What's the point of believing if round Earth if you can't even leave your town?

@Alvi: Nazis and Communists faked more photos and wrote more fake books than photos and books made about Australia. So you have more reason to be a Nazi or Communist than an Australia-believer.

Jim L said...

Bad logic. Just because Nazis faked photos does not mean all photos are faked.

There are a wide variety of unconnected sources if evidence indicating that Australia exists. There are hundreds of travel related books from publishers that have excellent reputations for being accurate showing pictures of Australia. Google Earth and Google Maps can give views of Australia. My barber tells stories of visiting Australia. I have talked to dozens of people (with funny accents) from Australia. I have seen the Olympics televised from Australia. I have read history books published decades ago that describe Australia. I have helped U.S. soldiers who have served with Australian soldiers. All of these sources are reliable, unconnected, and have no obvious reason to deceive me.

Even without experiencing Australia I am quite confident it exists.

Let me ask you this, do you think your opinions on U.S. politics can be dismissed simply because you have not experienced U.S. politics first hand?

Gevlon said...

@Jim L: out of your "evidences" only your barber and the soldiers are somewhat reliable, as they have some connection to you. But how many people have you talked to who honestly believe that there is/is not climate change. One side lies to you!

Yes, if there is someone on the planet who did not experience US politics first hand, he can dismiss it. I doubt if such person exists, but if he does, he can.

Anonymous said...


Most climate change deniers are people who love their V8 cars, their air conditioned large homes, their plate ticket vacations, their cheap electricity, their dirty polluting jobs, and so on. The issue consistently polls at the bottom of concerns. People are happy to virtue signal about it, until you actually pass policy that cuts their lifestyle

The white high class people who love immigration are professionals who benefit from a diverse high-tech workforce (to an extent), and white-guild liberals who score virtue brownie points by supporting immigration. That is their horse.

Vizjira said...

"He'll believe", no he won't and that you think that clearly shows your lack of actual on-hand-experience talking to alt-right, extreme left or religious people.

If you fly a no-australier out he will say:
- we are not on australia, you redirected the plane
- you created this as part of the deepstate conspiracy, this was not here
- full mental rejection by constant deflection
- you drugged me, this is not real

It is like me saying Falcon/CCP never tried to sabotage you, you will never change your mind because beeing wrong on this would mean serious damage.

There is another assumption burried in your text, you value rationality way higher than most people and the reason is that the gevlon phenotype sucks for reproduction and is presumably going to be eliminated while church goers have a higher average birthrate than atheists and you will never ever going to talk them out of god.

dobablo said...

For me, the a defining feature of post-truth is a reduction in the acceptance the testimony of experts in favour of personal anecdote.

"Similarly all the research about post-truth is based on the assumption that the researcher knows the truth and everyone else questioning it is wrong."
Good testing is truth-agnostic. Researcher test multiple interpretations of "truth" and find the results similar results in all datasets. Testing is done on multiple groups with each shown evidence supporting different "truths." The same backfire effect of opinions being hardened when exposed to evidence that runs counter to held opinions is seen in across all groups.

Anonymous said...

Something like your new bacteria example happend and the answer was something like this: It's not "macro" evolution because it didn't create a new "kind" of life. Those people expect cats turning into dogs in one generation as proof of evolution. That's impossible and so is evolution to them. IMO most deniers (of anyting based on evidence) simply deny something completely different. They reconstruct the claim into something they can understand and then look at the evidence. Presenting more evidence to them would be useless or worse, produce the backfire effect. I'm not saying all of them are "dumb", they may be lazy(not enough time) or too emotionally invested or something else.

By the way do you belive in homeopathy? You seem to value first hand experience more than evidence and a lot of people claim homeopathy works. If you don't, why? Just food for thought.

Gevlon said...

@Anonymous: I don't think most climate change deniers can afford V8 cars, air conditioned large homes, and plane ticket vacations. The rich people are less likely to be deniars.

@Vizjira: no, he can at best claim that I BUILT Australia as part of the conspiracy, he can't deny that it's now there. I don't CARE if Falcon tried to sabotate me. All I care is that he did. I don't have to talk anyone out of God. They will kill each other with the followers of another God.

@Dobablo: who are the "experts"? Some guy with a white coat with fancy letters before his name? If he such an expert, we don't need to believe him, he can SHOW us proof.

@Anonymous: if he accepts micro-evolution, he already stops sabotating practical implementations of evolution (stem cell research, genetic modification). If he still believes that God placed the fossils below ground 6000 years ago, he can. Especially because WE DON'T KNOW IF IT'S NOT TRUE!

Lots of people indeed CLAIM that homeophaty works. My whole post was about ignoring what people claim and look for evidence. If some homeopath offers me an unpaid research assistant position in a properly conducted double blind experiment, I'll accept his offer.

Anonymous said...

> but he wasn't lead to that corpse. The research team figured out where it was. How could the global Zionist place it in there decades ago?

A decades-old corpse is not going to be very recognizable. It's unlikely that any clothing would remain. How do you determine the identity of the deceased or the circumstances of death? You'd need to look at various forms of evidence (fiber analysis, dental records, coroners' inspection, etc). The Neo-Nazi guy can't do that stuff himself; he must wait for an expert.

The expert says "this is the body of a Jewish man killed by a close-range gunshot wound to the back of the head, most likely 9mm Parabellum." Then the Neo-Nazi decides that the expert is just another member of the global Zionist conspiracy. He now hates the expert and disbelieves the testimony.

Or the expert says "the sample is too badly decayed; the analysis is inconclusive." Then the Neo-Nazi happily declares that the whole railway-corpse thing was a Zionist forgery - but their work was too sloppy to fool his mighty Aryan brain.

Once again: these guys *acknowledge* that there is cyanide residue on the walls of gas chambers. They don't visit Germany in person to verify or challenge the findings. Instead they come up with a new excuse for how the cyanide got there, and then assert that the room wasn't actually a gas chamber, and therefore the Holocaust didn't happen, and therefore all of the talk about the Holocaust is a giant Zionist conspiracy.

They're not going to suddenly abandon a lifetime of indoctrination after digging up a single rotting skeleton.

dobablo said...

The expert did show you proof. He e-mailed you the photos of his recent Australia road-trip while talking to you from his home in Sydney. However the backfire effect kicked in and you rejected his evidence because it wasn't irrefutable (which you proved by refuting it).
Meanwhile, you hold as gospel that your barber walked Australia but it wasn't there, and you can prove Australia is a hoax because even offical maps cannot agree where it should go. (

Anonymous said...

the special snowflakes groups will hiss and cringe when confronted with real evidence. what is truth worth if it makes you feel funny and all wobbely tingly inside so much so that said group will flee, deadly triggered, to their savespaces and therapy animals.

As long as it looks good on facefuck and shitter, all goes. Like you have shown us so many times, the M&S are concerened with image not truth.

on confirmation bias. I don't know anyone me included who really seeks out disagreement. Engineers go pretty far. I like that aproach: "test untill failure" which is a good thing. even if they calculated it and in theory "should, could, would" ... they want to see it succeed and if all checkes out they want to see it fail.

maxim said...

Reading the comments is interesting.
You clearly struck some sort of nerve with the whole "post-truth" thing, but people seem to be very much in favour of post-truth :D

I, for one, know full well that the best way to get a person to change their mind is to give them first-hand experience of the facts. Please note the plural, though. Digging up one corpse may afford zionist conspiracies. Digging up multiple corpses with all the requisite paraphernalia, complete with a full package of circumstantial supporting evidence, on another hand, leaves little room for doubt.

In fact, i'd go so far as to say that these days i trust circumstantial evidence more than i do direct one. Direct evidence allows to formulate a hypothesis. F/ex seeing a direct evidence of Bandera's portrait actually hanging in a prominent spot in Kiev's official buildings allows to formulate a hypothesis that "Hey, maybe these Ukranian nationals are really a bunch of fascists". However, this fact alone is not convincing. What seals the deal is not the direct evidence but rather all the circumstantial evidence surrounding these facts and preventing all other possible interpretations.

Jim L said...

Why is Google Earth not reliable? Why are travel books that have been reliable for places I have visited now unreliable about Australia? Why is a sports news show, which has been reliable about other sports suddenly not reliable about the Olympics from Australia? Every time I have bought a ticket on United Airlines they have flown me to the location named on the ticket. Why are they suddenly unreliable about Australia?

Jim L said...

You are completely wrong about climate deniers not being able to afford all of that stuff. In the U.S., climate denial has a greater correlation to conservative/Republican politics than it does to wealth.

Do you realize that Donald Trump is a climate change denier?

Anonymous said...

I don't think most climate change deniers can afford V8 cars, air conditioned large homes, and plane ticket vacations. The rich people are less likely to be deniars.

Sorry, after almost 10 years in US I had forgotten that in eastern Europe a second hand VW 2.0 is the height of luxury :). In US Ford sells an F-150 every 38 seconds, and everytime fuel prices drop a little, pickup truck and suv sales explode. You should see what kind of cars people drive here.

As for the rich (and especially the neo-liberal rich) they like their business class trips, their massive mansions (I've been through Beverly Hills), their huge cars (I've driven through Malibu). Their support for climate change is 2 fold: cognitive dissonance to clear white guilt, and more importantly - prevent the great unwashed massed from being able to climb and also afford these toys. Then you get to enjoy your toys AND a lot of pristine beaches and forests, while the rubes stay out of sight. More pie for us, less for them, and it's been that way since the industrial revolution:

Gevlon said...

@Jim L: in oppressive regimes books, internet sites, papers are all censored, therefore unreliable. Sure, if you assume that the USA is not one, you can trust the majority of books. But someone denying stuff will claim exactly that the government is a secret oppressive conspiracy.

maxim said...

Actually, you can glean quite a lot even from censored media, provided you have a modicum of grasp on the current political goals of the censoring officials (which may or may not be representative of the government as a whole).

The problem with people denying stuff is that they feel they have that grasp, but it is entirely wrong and forces them into incorrect interpretations. I haven't found any quick ways around this problem. Over time, however, you can a person to double-down and triple down on incorrect interpretations, until the sheer ammount of accumulated fallacies triggers a paradigm shift. Whether this shift will make the person see the light or drive them completely insane, however, is anyone's guess (and is a definite risk).

Provi Miner said...

"most climate change denier's" I have never met anyone who doesn't believe the climate is changing. What I find incredible is that there are those who think we can "stop" the climate from changing by taking action.

Do you want to stop global warming? the easy answer is to releas sulfer dioxides back into the atmosphere they are super efficient method for reflecting radiation away from the earth.

Do you want to save a tiny island that has spent almost its entire geological history under water? really you think you can save something that has only been above water for a few century's? and the other 6.4 billion years as something else? that's balls on an epic I can change the earth level.

do you drive that pirus? do you know why Toyota doesn't promote it as a green vehical? because of the toxic waste needed to create the batteries and make the dam thing the benefits over a normal life span of a car. If it was a true eco vehical you would think Toyota would be all over that marketing.