Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring Dr Jay Van Bavel of NYU's Social Perception and Evaluation Lab. The topic of this month's lecture was "Our Partisan Brains".
Dr Van Bavel opened the lecture by showing the pictures contrasting Trump's inauguration crowd with Obama's inauguration crowd:
He then showed the text of Trump spokesman Sean Spicer saying that Trump had the largest inauguration crowd of all time, which led to Kellyanne Conway's infamous comment about Spicer relying on alternative facts. He compared these two 'blurbs' to a line from George Orwell's 1984: The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. The 'alternative facts' kerfuffle landed 1984 on the bestseller lists last year.
A majority of poll respondents indicated that fake news has left them confused about basic facts. There are fact checking organizations such as Politifact. He also noted that scientists are in the fact-checking business. After seeing a report that 15% of Republican voters believed that Trump's inauguration crowd was bigger than Obama's even after being shown pictures, Dr Van Bavel wanted to answer a simple question: WTF? He noted that humans have highly partisan brains, and that our partisan brains shape our beliefs.
Democrats and Republicans are more divided than in the past, which is both a cause of and a consequence of the Trump phenomenon. Dr Van Bavel displayed a graphic from the Pew Research Center displaying this polarization:
There is evidence that liberals and conservatives have different brains. Identical twins are likely to share attitudes even if raised apart- there is a huge genetic component to an individual's attitudes. The actor Colin Firth was involved in the publication of a neuroscience paper concerning the brains of liberals and conservatives- the study indicated that liberals have more gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex and conservatives had more gray matter in the amygdala. As an editorial note, and because Smut insists on accuracy, this is a controversial study.
Studies of political partisans show that there is a similarity between partisanship and sports fandom, with the parties being analogous to teams. Cheerleaders may say that they believe something to be true even if they don't actually believe it. Strip away the conflicts over resources, and there is a history of strictly Us vs Them conflicts, perfectly satirized in this cartoon by Paul Noth:
In one study, participants were assigned to a group, either Rattlers or Eagles, according to a coin toss. They were asked to state their political affiliation as well. When their brains were scanned, there was similar activity when they were shown 'team' affiliated images and political images. The arbitrary in-group affiliation led to activity much like their political affiliation... the subjects divided themselves into tribes at the flip of a coin.
Dr Van Bavel then displayed screenshots from the Wall Street Journal's Red Feed/Blue Feed site, which displays a side-by-side comparison of Conservative and Liberal Facebook feeds. To some extent, the information we receive is curated by social media algorithms. It's profitable for media corporations to show us what we want to see. On the Twitter platform, there is a sharp Red/Blue divide. The posts which are more likely to go viral include moral and emotional words, with 'shares' going up about twenty percent per moral-emotional word. Dr Van Bavel joked that the best way to get a social media post to go viral is to put the word 'disgusting' in it.
People create echo chambers with little crosstalk- there is a moral-emotional divide, a 'you are with me or against me' attitude prevails, with much communication taking the form of virtue signalling. This divide has been weaponized against Americans by Russian operatives. Classic Russian propaganda emphasized images of Russian strength, the new Russian social media propaganda often plays on Americans' cultural divide. Propaganda involves pushing people's buttons, and knowledge about American psychology allowed these trolls to push our tribal buttons. The firm Cambridge Analytica used social media profiles to push a political agenda. In a study published in Science Mag, a team of researchers at MIT confirmed something that has long been held to be true:
"Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends or financial information. We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information."
As the maxim goes, "A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on."
This article was the 9th most discussed article in the history of Science. The issue of the dissemination of falsehood goes beyond crowd size- global warming matters, vaccination matters- commonly believed falsehoods adversely effect crucial policy discussions. The lateral prefrontal cortex plays a role in memory, and memory can be messed up by politics- a falsehood can fit into one's memory if it fits into one's preferred narrative. The problem is that it is hard to have a serious discussion about carbon taxes or carbon credit swaps if the science behind anthropogenic climate change is distorted.
The value placed on the validity of knowledge depends on accuracy goals. In science, finance, and prosecutorial matters, accuracy is important. In politics, belonging goals are important in the formation of communities. Epistemic goals, existential goals, status goals, system goals, and moral goals also play roles in political matters. If other goals are more important than accuracy goals, trouble can result- people can believe falsehoods. People's goals effect their calculations about what to read and what to share.
Dr Van Bavel displayed an example of the 'old', obvious fake news- the classic Weekly World News cover story about Bat Boy. He noted that even the fake news could dabble in political satire. It's often hard to tell fake news from real news now- especially if links are coming from trusted friends. In the recent political scene, both Trump and Clinton have been in the public eye for so long that they have had quotes on both sides of many issues, such as the Iraq war and LGBTQ issues. Liberals tend to value equality and environmental conservation, while conservatives tend to value authority and security- each tended to give more credence to quotes which matched their confirmation bias, while being skeptical of quotes which didn't.
There was a study of fake news sites which utilized items from the satirical Empire News website. There were stories about Hillary Clinton wearing an earpiece during a debate, of Florida Democrats voting to impose Sharia law on women, of Donald Trump imposing a 'one child' policy on minorities. When presenting the fake news stories, there was a 'control' condition in order to determine if subjects would believe any bullshit, such as a story about Leonardo DiCaprio flying an eyebrow stylist 7,500 miles to groom him for the Oscars ceremony. Generally, Democrats believe bad fake news about Republicans and vice versa. Democrats have a better ability to sort out complete bullshit than Republicans- Democrats tend to default to skepticism while Republicans tend to default to credulousness, so there is an asymmetry in bullshit detection.
One in four Americans has shared fake news with others. Dr Van Bavel confessed to sharing three fake news stories, but was called out by scientist friends. Democrats are more reluctant to share fake news than Republicans, an important asymmetry. He illustrated the change in attitudes toward truth with two quotes. The first, attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, is: "Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts." The second, by Stephen Colbert, is: " It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty." This shift is really worrisome in its implications. Facebook is concerned with news sources, and is attempting to collate trust scores for different media outlets. The number one fake news story of the 2016 election season was the story of Pope Francis endorsing Trump, which originated with an openly fake news site, WTOE 5. The fake news outstripped the real news. The big problem with having the news crowdsourced through social media is that it is susceptible to hivemind.
The antidote to fake news is increasing accuracy goals. This involves self-reflection. The concept of naïve realism leads us to believe that people who disagree with ourselves are idiots or jerks. We must engage in self-criticism, we must value accuracy. We must also make people publicly accountable for spreading fake news. We should strive to open minds- if belief emerges from identity goals, then challenging the belief threatens identity. The best way to open a mind is to affirm a person's worth while correcting them. For example, pounding antivaxxers with evidence often ends up entrenching their beliefs.
Dr Van Bavel noted that scientists are working on the fake news problem and urged the audience to help them with fix it.
The lecture was followed by a Q&A session. The first question concerned gender differences in attitudes towards fake news, but the sample sizes were too small. Comparing Twitter feeds of men and women, it turned out than men tend to be more emotional regarding politics than women. Regarding the density of brain neurons, there are certain interesting changes that can take place in the brain- London cabbies were found to have high neuron density in the area of the hippocampus that processes spatial memory. Regarding political identity, the 'Dems Left/'Pubs Right' dichotomy is of relatively recent origin- there used to be liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, but now the party affiliation is aligned right vs left. Regarding the Nature/Nurture debate, Dr Van Bavel described it as a bad dichotomy. He compared the political system of the US, with its two major parties, with that of his native Canada, with five major parties, nothing that Canadians had a harder time sorting out an Us vs Them narrative. Some bastard in the audience asked about the role of spite in the political arena, noting that one party tends to elect politicians which want to fund retraining for unemployed Kentucky coal workers while the other party tends to elect politicians to make sure that New Jersey commuters are boned by not funding needed infrastructure. Dr Van Bavel characterized this as Negational Affect toward the outgroup, which is characterized by Schadenfreude toward members of that group, joy at their suffering. He described politics as having gotten as bitter as the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry, partisanship so bad that it is damaging. The bastard in the audience then implored him to study the asymmetry of spite. Because the bastard mentioned Trump's refusal to fund a trans-Hudson rail tunnel, a subsequent questioner referred to him as 'the Jersey guy', much to the bastard's consternation. A question about approaches to identity elicited a great line from Dr Van Bavel: Identity is formed on all levels from neurons to nations. Regarding the dichotomy between 'amygdala oriented cons' and 'cortical oriented libs', Dr Van Bavel noted that conservatives attend to threats, while liberals are attuned to curiosity. In threatening environments, sticking together is a good strategy, while curiosity is a good trait in a safe environment (is this why conservatives want more a more dangerous society?). These are different solutions to evolutionary problems- partisan me has to note that one side of the partisan divide tends not to believe in evolution.
Dr Van Bavel gave an entertaining, lively lecture, even if I personally would have preferred him going 'the full driftglass'. At any rate, here is a video of him discussing the partisan brain:
Relax, pour yourself a beverage, and soak in that SCIENCE! Kudos to Dr Van Bavel, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House for yet another fantastic Secret Science Club lecture.