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Social media and misinformation: It's a game of whack-a-mole

Some of the Facebook and Instagram ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process and stir up tensions around divisive social issues, released by members of the U.S. House Intelligence committee, are photographed in Washington, on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. A report compiled by private researchers and released by the Senate intelligence committee Monday says that "active and ongoing" Russian interference operations still exist on social media platforms, and that the Russian operation discovered after the 2016 presidential election was much broader than once thought. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

One might suspect scientists of belaboring the obvious with the recent study called "Belief in Fake News Is Associated With Delusionality, Dogmatism, Religious Fundamentalism and Reduced Analytical Thinking."

The conclusion that some people are more gullible than others is the understanding in popular culture - but in the scientific world it's pitted against another widely believed paradigm, shaped by several counterintuitive studies that indicate we're all equally biased, irrational and likely to fall for propaganda, sales pitches and general nonsense.

Experts have told us that consistent irrationality is a universal human trait. A columnist in The Washington Post last week reminded us of Jonathan Haidt's "a cogent and persuasive account" of how bad humans are at evidence-based reasoning. The article also cites the classic 2013 book "Thinking, Fast and Slow" to argue that we're ruled more by tribes, affiliations and instincts than by evidence. But isn't it possible this applies to some people more than others? Is it reasonable to believe that we are all equally bad at reasoning? Luckily some scientists seem to think that they are capable of evidence-based reasoning, and they have investigated the questions.

Canadian psychologist Gordon Pennycook, an author on the delusionality paper and a leader in the camp promoting the idea that some are more gullible than others, concedes that it is a little weird that one can get published demonstrating that "smarter people are better at not believing stupid things." That's essentially the conclusion in a newer paper not yet officially published, "Rethinking the Link Between Cognitive Sophistication and Identity-Protective Bias in Political Belief Formation," which he co-wrote with Ben Tappan and David Rand.

They question the idea that smarter people are, if anything, more likely to believe false things, because their mental agility helps them rationalize. It's a school of thought that became popular partly because it is a bit loopy, and partly because views that lump us all together have a ring of political correctness.

The roots of it trace back, in part, to Yale researcher Dan Kahan, who has done some widely respected experiments showing that peoples' views on technical subjects such as climate change and nuclear power depended almost entirely on political affiliation.

I wrote about Kahan's work, citing a study that "showed that the better people are at math and reasoning, the more likely they are to align their views with ideology, even if those views included creationism or other unscientific stances."

Pennycook said he agrees with Kahan on this to an extent; it's not incompatible with his findings, but it applies only in special cases, such as climate change, where the subject matter is technical and complex. On television, complete charlatans who know the right buzzwords can sound as erudite to the lay public as the world's true experts would.

But Pennycook and his colleagues questioned whether this counterintuitive finding applied more generally. To put it to the test, they showed subjects a mix of fake and real news stories and asked them to rate their plausibility. They found some people were bad at this and some were good, and that the best predictor of news discernment was something called the Cognitive Reflection Test. Low scores are correlated with religious dogmatism, superstition and belief in conspiracy theories as well as a type of fake aphorism that Pennycook called "pseudoprofound."

Understanding who believes fake news and why touches on the very foundations of American democracy. The view that we're all equally clueless plays into the post-truth rabbit hole dug by the Trump campaign and administration. Why listen to experts who've spent a lifetime studying something if they, like all of us, deserve an F in rationality? Why bother trying to think anything through?

Well, maybe because the truth is out there. In the book "Network Propaganda," a group of Harvard researchers analyze thousands of social media posts to demonstrate the influence of false and misleading information in American politics. They also dispel the myth that partisans on the left and right are equally influenced by falsehoods. The data, they say, show the problem is concentrated on the right.

This is not to say that people who are good at picking out fake news and score well on the Cognitive Reflection Test are smarter than other people in other ways. As Michael Shermer argued long ago in his classic "Why People Believe Weird Things," very creative people - even famous scientists - can be subject to delusions and occasionally believe in astrology or conspiracy theories.

Pennycook agreed this is not just a cognitive issue but could encompass elements of personality and mental health. Just as Shermer showed there creative delusional people, there also are those smart but narcissistic types - the people who insist all climate scientists are idiots, for example.

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Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology.

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