Are You Crazy, Stupid, Ignorant, or Just Cognitively Biased?

By Keith Kloor | May 28, 2013 10:58 am

The world is full of people who hold whacky views. This doesn’t make them nuts or stupid.

We can mock Donald Trump for being a birther, but this doesn’t make him a crazy person. We can ridicule Senator James Inhofe for believing that global warming is a big hoax cooked up by a cabal of climate scientists, but this doesn’t make him an idiot. We can laugh at Bill Maher for his anti-vaccine and anti-GMO tirades, but this doesn’t make him an anti-science loon.

Similarly, with respect to where people stand on some issues or who they vote for, we shouldn’t assume that intelligence or lack of information are major factors. Some of you may recall this now infamous Daily Mirror cover that appeared in the UK after George Bush’s reelection in 2004:

How Can 59 Million People Be So Dumb?

This kind of dumb logic was just exhibited by the American Thinker, a conservative online magazine:

The same low information type voter who elected President Obama have been taken in by the Luddites who are scaring the ignorant into thinking that genetically modified seeds are a danger.

Is it low information that leads the American Thinker to write another post headlined “Growing evidence we may be in for a mini-ice age”? No, just as it isn’t low information that leads Senator Inhofe to argue that global warming is a hoax. And just as it isn’t low information that leads Bill Maher to believe that vaccines are harmful and part of a nefarious Big Pharma plot. Inhofe and Maher undoubtedly know of the reams of evidence that contradicts their views. As Michael Shermer pointed out in an 2009 open letter to Maher, it is “cognitive biases and conspiratorial thinking” that is at work here.

On a similar note, there is a tendency among the climate concerned to believe that an unholy alliance between Big Oil and and climate “skeptics” is the main obstacle to public understanding of climate change. This was the implicit thrust of yet another round of media stories about the scientific consensus on global warming and the ensuing debate on the merits of emphasizing this consensus ad nauseam.

Those who care deeply about established facts of certain issues, such as climate change and GMOs, want desperately to believe that a more informed public will lead to greater understanding and acceptance of what science says about both.

Unfortunately, science also tells us that it is not ignorance or low information that prevents this from happening.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: biotechnology, climate change, GMOs, select
  • Matt B

    Well, all these items you list (GMO, anti-vax, conspiracies on both sides of the climate debate) at least have a plausible hypothesis supporting the fringy point of view. If you want to go straight to Kookytown, the numbers don’t look good for the Land of the Free & Home of the Gullible: 73% believe in at least one paranormal activity……the Amazing Randi still has some work to do………

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/16915/three-four-americans-believe-paranormal.aspx

    Now who can argue with that?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ke5Mr5eCF2U

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000980613760 Kevin Folta

    I do think it is important to distinguish between the stupid and the maliciously biased. I say that with some sensitivity. In GMOs, I think that Jeffrey Smith, Robyn O’Brien, Zen Honeycutt, etc mean well. They are concerned based on their beliefs and defend that position. Where they get it wrong is that they don’t seek or trust good information.

    Others are blatant liars that spread misinformation with an intent to deceive and build fear. They know that there is no harm in GM foods– but they argue otherwise. Those are the ones I just can’t tolerate.

    It is cool to see the anti-GM side showing up more and more on Coast-to-Coast AM, Info Wars, Alex Jones, etc. That is quite telling.

    • kkloor

      Kevin,

      I’m not sure I get your distinction between those that “mean well” and those that are “blatant liars.” The latter group may also mean well, and the former, in the face of scientific evidence they are surely aware, continue to to propagate false information.

      So I’m not seeing a difference between the two groups. The commonality is that they both selectively choose information for their views based on cognitive biases.

      • Joshua

        The commonality is that they both selectively choose information for their views based on cognitive biases.

        Interesting how only the people who disagree with you do that, eh Keith? Funny how that works, isn’t it?

      • dogctor

        The latter group may also mean well, and the former, in the face of scientific evidence they are surely aware, continue to to propagate false information.

        What does that say about Kevin, Keith…I’ve posed a question to Kevin requesting a link to distinct “safety studies” on yesterday’s blog post, which he refused to answer.

        In response to the multiple choice in the title of your blog: none of the above. The answer from this agricultural GMO critic is very simple : scientific truth based on a scientific analysis of scientific literature.

        Toxicity Studies of Genetically Modified Plants: A Review of the Published Literature
        JOSE L´ . DOMINGO

        Laboratory of Toxicology and Environmental Health, School of Medicine, “Rovira I Virgili” University, San Lorenzo 21,43201 Reus, Spain

        According to the information reported by the WHO, the genetically modified (GM) products that are currently on the international market have all passed risk assessments conducted by national authorities. These assessments have not indicated any risk to human health. In spite of this clear statement, it is quite amazing to note that the review articles published in
        international scientific journals during the current decade did not find, or the number was particularly small, references concerning human and animal toxicological/health risks studies on GM foods
        . In this paper, the scientific information concerning the potential toxicity of GM/transgenic plants using the Medline database is reviewed. Studies about the safety of the potential use of potatoes, corn, soybeans, rice, cucumber, tomatoes, sweet pepper, peas, and canola plants for food and feed were included. The number of references was surprisingly limited. Moreover, most published studies were not performed by the biotechnology companies that produce these products. This review can be concluded raising the following question: where is the scientific evidence showing that GM plants/food are toxicologically safe?

        You should really try it!

      • jh

        While I mostly agree with you, I have to challenge the “cognitive bias” rationale.

        The problem is that many of these issues are extremely complex. People judge them from different points of view and different levels of knowledge. And there’s always the chance that “the science” will be or is mistaken.

        I strongly support GMOs. But I’m 100% certain that, eventually, some personal health and environmental issues will be discovered. For some people, that eventuality, and the fact that they don’t know what issue will arise, is unacceptable. For myself, the benefits far outweigh the risks.

        Keith, you must be familiar with The Wisdom of Crowds (James Surowiecki). Note that it is the aggregate of what a particular “crowd” believes that leads to the best answer. This occurs because in complex problems, no one person or group of people has all the knowledge or information necessary to understand the problem. Think climate science and sustainability.

        So, no, I don’t think cognitive bias is the real issue. The problem is that these issues are large and complex and that no single person or group has all the necessary information to understand the issue.

      • jh

        Cognitive bias has become the raison du jour to explain why other people don’t agree with you, and why you can continue to discount their POV. It works ike this: “Oh, well, I don’t have to take my opponent’s views seriously, because there’s a scientific explanation for why they don’t accept what’s pathetically obvious to everyone on my side: they suffer from Cognitive Bias!”

        • kkloor

          I’m not sure why some are inferring this–that I’m using the cognitive bias explanation as a sweeping reason to discount people’s views.

          I cited very specific issues, where the facts have been well established. So yeah, if someone wants to argue that Obama’s birth certificate is phony; that climate change is a hoax; that vaccines cause autism and other diseases; that GMOs cause cancer and/or other health problems–if someone take any of these positions, then you are holding a view that is completely unsupported by factual evidence.

          Instead of me saying you are dumb or crazy, I’m saying you are blinded by cognitive biases. Why do some find this objectionable?

          • jh

            1) I didn’t refer to you in particular. Beyond your column, the term “cognitive bias” is used in the media mostly as I described it above. I’ve heard it used even by psychology / social science researchers to describe some pretty ridiculous things.

            2) You did refer to specific positions on issues. But in reality these positions are extremes on a spectrum. So where does “rational” or “right” thinking stop and “cognitive bias” begin on the spectrum of views? Isn’t that a matter of opinion?

            “Instead of me saying you are dumb or crazy, I’m saying you are blinded by cognitive biases. Why do some find this objectionable?”

            What’s the difference? Either way, you’re rejecting the viewpoint of the other person as not worth consideration instead of listening to that viewpoint. You’re claiming that this rejection is independent of your personal opinion, when in reality it’s still just your opinion that justifies your view.

          • mickjo

            Keith, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who claims that climate change is a hoax. Quite a few *do* claim that Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming is a hoax, and there’s rather a lot of evidence that this could be the case.

            Journalists are supposed to be precise in their language. Bearing in mind your sloppiness, why should anyone take you seriously rather than conclude that you have an axe to grind and a desire to marginalise those you evidently think are subject to the cognitive biases that you are immune to?

          • plutarchnet

            Senator James Inhofe. Congressmen Dana Rohrabacher, Barton. Invited scientific expert to Senate hearing on science Christopher Monckton. Sometimes labelled ‘liberal conspiracy’ rather than ‘hoax’.

            Quite a few others of course, even only limiting to the 435 representatives and 100 senators. That’s not hard to find.

    • Bernie Mooney

      You’re nicer than me. I think they’re frauds, charlatans and crackpots. If guys like Smith were to do a 180, they would be out of a lucrative income. He’d have to back to being a dance teacher.

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    Ok, so more information won’t matter. Fine. What does?

    I was just musing on this. I was thinking of Andrew Wakefield. If you could see an Andrew coming along today–what would you do to counter that? Maybe shouty pushback from the very beginning would have put a stop to some of the damage. As it is, this will continue to impact public health for a long time.

    I think there are people with the potential to damage public health to the same extent today–by keeping golden rice away from kids, keeping virus-resistant cassava from poor farmers in the developing world. Keeping farmers spraying potato plants with chemicals instead of a blight-resistant variety.

    What do you do? Let this slide? That’s not my phenotype. But tell me what does work and show me the evidence.

    • kkloor

      Well, it should be obvious by now that I’m not one for letting all these shenanigans slide. It should also be obvious who I’m focusing on.

      That said, I think it’s it’s important that we diagnose the problem correctly.

      • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

        I didn’t mean “you” you. It was a rhetorical what do you do?

        I am frustrated by this on multiple fronts and I think about it a lot. We keep getting told what doesn’t work, but I have yet to see what does. And it’s not just internet banter–this really does have public health consequences.

        • kkloor

          I hear you. I suspect that there is no magic bullet. Like most “wicked problems,” cognitive bias appears to be something that we’ll only be able to manage, not solve.

    • cory

      I don’t think ‘shouty pushback’ would have helped with wakefield, because we would have had to have known first that he was cooking his data. Until his study was proven flawed, what good would pushback have done? The other consideration was that thimerosal *could* have been a cause of damage–it was a realistic avenue to pursue at the time–I for one am glad that studies were done to explore that possibility and rule it out. It is better to have it known to not cause harm than to allow the suspicions to run rampant, so I think at least that was one positive (in a multitude of negatives) from the anti-vax panic of the 90′s.

      • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

        His issue wasn’t thimerosal. MMR never had thimerosal. But it doesn’t matter for this discussion.

        There could have been some shouty pushback so the media would have caught on earlier that this tiny study shouldn’t have carried the weight it did. We have better access now to good science writers and a bit more opportunity to influence stuff like that I think. We can respond a bit faster with some caveats that people should be aware of. It won’t reach every reader of the Daily Mail, but it might reach some.

  • Marie Bowers

    I am having trouble agreeing with you that the majority (at least half) of the anti-GMO people aren’t crazy, stupid or ignorant. …maybe it’s my own cognitive bias.

    I have dealt with this Anti-GMO crowd when they were Anti-field burning, Anti-logging, Anti-Pesticides, etc. The song gets old about certain doom is near. Their intentions are control, the end of free markets and anti-progress for human life.

    But I also live in the land of radical environmentalist breeding so that’s all I experience and deal with on a daily basis. :)

    Always appreciate your posts.

  • Tom Scharf

    This is simply a symptom of not accepting you are losing the argument, many times on the merits. All the endless empty vessel, low information, communication strategy yapping is a replacement for acceptance of losing, because that is too painful to contemplate.

    Believing super extra fervently you are right doesn’t help.

    My parents told me you can’t win them all. And you can’t. Most of time you lose for very good reasons, the other side being idiots is rarely the cause.

  • Buddy199

    Every ideologue is convinced that anyone who disagrees with him is either evil, ignorant or insane. Funny how the ideologues on either end of any debate, who don’t agree on anything else, always agree with that opinion of each other.

    The thing about ideologues is that they devote 97% of their brain power to defending pre-formed opinions rather than seeking out and evaluating new information that might modify those opinions. Some are extremely intelligent, but extremely lazy with their intelligence. With the louder ideologues, their opinions were usually set in stone early in life after hearing some gasbag college professor, frothing political figure or similar “role model”. Once the role model leaves an impression in their unformed cerebral mush, like plaster of Paris it seems to remain forever, unchanged.

    I respect two kinds of people intellectually. Those who came to a subject as a blank slate, did some reading and are able to actually articulate facts in a reasonable argument, defending their opinions rather than just regurgitating ideological talking points somebody once fed them like a baby penguin. And those who started out with somebody else’s pre-planted ideology but then used their own brain power to completely revamp their opinion and go in a new direction.

    But that takes time, work and hardest of all, the willingness to look at yourself and admit that you might have been wrong all along. How many people can do that, especially the last part?

  • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

    IQ is necessary but insufficient for understanding these things. Good judgment is very important too.

  • yvessaintdid

    Scientists never make mistakes. Ever.

    • Obamalover20122

      but you are more likely to be right if you side with them.

  • AdamMerberg

    I agree that better information won’t help everything, but I think you overstate your case in this post. No doubt cognitive biases figure prominently in the examples of Maher, Inhofe, and many marchers against Monsanto. However, I don’t think there’s much reason to believe that these people are representative of the broader public.

    Admittedly, I’m speaking more from anecdotes than data here, so feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I think many people simply haven’t thought about these science-y issues very much. But perhaps such a person has a trusted friend who went to March Against Monsanto. They don’t really know what’s wrong with GMOs, but they trust that friend and decide to sign a petition to ban GMOs. Or they never think much about vaccination until they watch Bill Maher’s show, at which point they do some internet research and decide against vaccinating their children.

    I think cognitive bias is very relevant in the case of people like Maher or Inhofe. They won’t be won over with a few more facts. However, as far as I know, people aren’t born feeling deeply invested in scientifically unsupported views. There certainly are people who do have little information on various topics and people who don’t have deeply-held beliefs on a number science-related issues. It seems much more plausible that improved information would be helpful here. Incorrect beliefs come from somewhere, and I haven’t seen the evidence that better information couldn’t win over some people before they acquire those beliefs. (I find Emily Willingham’s post on “nerd nodes” particularly worthwhile here.)

    I certainly agree with most of what you say in this post. I just question whether your last couple of paragraphs, which extend the reasoning to the broader public, are well-grounded.

    • kkloor

      Adam,

      I didn’t have the general public in mind when I wrote this post. I was mainly referring to those who have strong feelings about the aforementioned issues, such as the people who came out over the weekend to march against Monsanto and GMOs.

      • AdamMerberg

        How are your last two paragraphs not a statement about the general public, though? Specifically, where you deny that “a more informed public will lead to greater understanding and acceptance of what science says about both.”

        I guess if by “greater understanding and acceptance” you mean 100% consensus, then I agree with you. No amount of information will persuade the true believers. However, I think that’s an unrealistic goal. To me, “greater understanding and acceptance” of science might mean that those scientifically unsound ideas (whether on climate change, GMOs, or vaccines) are relegated to the fringes, and that they aren’t taken seriously in discussions of the issues. I don’t think you make much of a case that a more informed public wouldn’t bring us closer to that.

        • kkloor

          Adam,

          I think I see our misunderstanding, and it’s because I wasn’t precise enough in my language.

          With climate change and GMOs, the folks that are plugged in aren’t going to change their minds. So the battle is for the people who have unformed opinions or not strongly held ones. They pay only passing attention to these debates, if at all.

          So I agree with you that moving fringe ideas off center stage is the aim. With climate change this has happened. The battle has largely been won, I believe, by the climate concerned community–in terms of getting a majority of people to accept that the planet is warming. It’s what comes next that frustrates activists and for them, that is turning a vague-ish concern into something more palpable and actionable. Personally, I think that’s going to be a harder sell, because of the unique circumstances (“wickedness”) of climate change. But denialism of global warming has been effectively marginalized.

          With GMOs, this is not the case. The fringe/crazy view is mainstream. It’s winked at/encouraged/abetted by supposed science-friendly outlets like Mother Jones and Grist, and by influentials like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman. Jeffrey Smith gets legitimized by Dr. Oz and environmental organizations that invite him to discuss his whacky and thoroughly unsupported ideas. Pseudoscience is rampant in the public discussion on the GMO debate.

          My feeling is that until the influentials stop encouraging/winking at the fringe, the GMO dialogue is going to remain polluted, to borrow a phrase from Dan Kahan.

          These mini conversations at Discover and elsewhere are mostly being heard by people who already care about the GMO issue. Maybe I am assuming too much in saying that and I would love to be wrong, but I don’t think I am.
          But assuming I’m right, no amount of information I present is going to change anyone’s mind.

          So then the aim is just to spotlight the fringe when it’s in the mainstream and hope that influentials stop playing footsie with the Jeffrey Smiths and Seralinis.

          • AdamMerberg

            Thanks for your reply. I think we’re on the same page now. It seems like the issue is that too many influentials are cognitively biased, which is a much deeper problem than the biases of a few marchers.

            I think your strategy of spotlighting the fringe is probably the best approach. For a while I held out hope that new influentials would emerge in the food and agriculture arena, but by now I’m convinced the only way that will happen is if Bittman and Pollan fabricate Bob Dylan quotes.

          • kkloor

            “It seems like the issue is that too many influentials are cognitively biased, which is a much deeper problem than the biases of a few marchers.”

            Exactly.

  • Obamalover20122

    Thanks for linking to my article on the DailyKos!!!!!

  • bobito

    I think we often argue issues/positions in blogs and within circles of people that do understand the science. And those arguments are generally nuanced around how much/how bad. Cognitive bias certainly plays are role here. But what about people that really don’t care about climate change/GMO/vaccines. All they have is a high level view from what they pickup in the news, and their vote counts as much as anyone else. This is where I feel we are failing. The nuance of the arguments on both sides get ignored and replaced with matter of fact statements.

    For example, this article is on accuweather’s site on the allergy page: http://www.accuweather.com/en/health-articles/allergies/is-this-the-worst-allergy-seas/12868128
    “This spring could be the most miserable one ever for those of us with allergies, and we can blame it on climate change.”

    The article matter of factly states that Sandy, the New England Blizzard, and midwest droughts are all caused by climate change. As if there were no other position you could have. It is articles like this that the majority of “normal” people read, certainly more than scientific papers and topic specific blogs where the nuance comes out.

    So, if a “normal” person reads an article on the site they trust for weather reports, and the article is pulled from the “LiveScience” website, why would a “normal” person question it and not just take all the contents as fact?

    In cases like this, it’s the cognitive bias of a few “experts” that end up sending incomplete and misleading information to the majority of “normal” people to be blindly consumed.

    Thanks for calling this type of thing out, continually, Keith.

  • Keith Reding

    For GMO crops, some of the anti groups have taken common agricultural events and repositioned them as harm, mostly for litigation and fundraising purposes. These groups are intentionally misleading the public. These events include development of resistant weeds and gene flow from one field to another. To them, GMOs are creating super weeds and transgenic contamination. An uninformed person will see these events as harm and unique to GMOs, whereas they have been a part of agriculture from the beginning. The “Monsanto Protection Act” is another example. Rename the “Farmer Assurance Provision” to fit your agenda. If these groups can’t mislead the public and connection an issue to Monsanto, they get no traction.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Vettlore Vexit

      When nature does natural crop hybridization it does it within the species, which is the natural order of things. When we take DNA from some Toxic plant or from an animal to a plant and bypass natural DNA evolution we create Frankencrops. Maybe man can do it but to use all of us as the testing lab I say no frigging way buddy, get the Frakenstien burger off my plate. The fact that they were allowed to create something that can cross contaminate other nature crops should be scaring you to death. At the same time they sneak in a patent law that says any plant that has their DNA they own it. That is no different that someone raping your daughter, getting her pregnant and now owning the child or your daughter just because her patented his sperm. tell me you think that is ok. Sure go ahead let them make the GMO crop but make sure it can’t cross with natural crops then see if anybody will buy it.

  • Chris Kelly

    It strikes me that discussions like these may be more powerful in influencing the fence sitters than presenting data. I’m thinking a Dawkins and Dennett et al. four horsemen type conversation on all matters GE, the science, the anti-science and the public perceptions. Get together for a discussion, make a video, bring a “live” human face to the conversation. It would expose people the views of experts in a totally non threatening way while demonstrating that despite there being differences of opinion on certain matters there is a consensus on the safety of GM foods. There is a desperate need for discussions like this to be given air time.

  • Micha

    Well, judging from the clearly cognitively unbiased title of this article, it looks like the challenge for Pro-GMO scientists is to figure out how to sell their product to all those crazy, stupid, ignorant and/or cognitively biased people. That’s a tall order since a crazy, stupid, ignorant and/or cognitively biased mind will probably interpret whatever you say in a crazy, stupid, ignorant and/or cognitively biased way.
    Alternatively, you can realize that the GMO debate has very little to do with plant science. It is a power struggle that is overflowing with seemingly unfair tactic and strategy on both sides. In battle, a rational tactic is one that works, and thus far your opposition has shown itself to be extremely flexible and adaptable on the battlefield.
    What would happen if scientists said, “We understand your concerns over genetic engineering, and we understand why you want to see labels on GMO food. We also understand that your concerns may fall into any number of categories – social, economic, political, agricultural, philosophical, religious, environmental, etc. Although we do not believe your concern has scientific merit, we do believe that you should have the right to choose, and that it is not up to us to judge your rationale for choosing one food over another”. You might be surprised at how quickly you will win over the opposition.
    Thus far I’ve run into three Pro-GMO scientists who have (in so many words) said that to me. I consider them friends and allies, and I respect their Pro-GMO position. Funny how that works.
    As for me, I’m out of this debate once GMO food is labeled. I’m not Anti-GMO, but Pro-GMO labeling. The right to regulate technology lies with the American people (all of us), and labels are one effective form of regulation.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Vettlore Vexit

    I support science and to say that anybody that dis agrees with big pharma and GMO’s is anti science …. well that is true conspiracy talk and Journalism. I dis agree with the mis-use of science for profit and power. lets consider the anti-flouride move ment. You don’t need science to say that this stuff should not be ingested. Most toothpaste labels say it for us. its poison don’t swallow. If your a child for sure don’t swallow. The fluoride put in our drinking water is an industrial byproduct of the aluminum and fertilizer industries. Not the naturally occuring Flouride in the ground. The stuff they put in also contains many other industrial byproducts that we should not be drinking. So is their any real science to say this junk is good for us. None we can trust that is payed for by that same industries that want to get rid of the stuff for free or probably payed for my tax dollars.
    I’d rather trust mother nature and her real idea of untainted water. When it comes to science and nature, look around you man can not even compete.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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