Comment on Kloor – Trusted Influentials – Rising in the reasonableness ranking

Science journalist Keith Kloor, has an article up at his blog Collide-a-Scape at the website titled: Trusted communicators who shape the GMO Discourse.  Kloor seems to be a fairly sensible fellow, and is a journalist who is generally rising in the Meme Merchant’s quality blogger index.

Lately, KK has been on a sort of anti anti-GMO tear, that is trying to roll back some of the fear, hysteria and disinformation that is surrounding the entire anti-gmo movement.  In today’s case he talks about the role of people he terms “influentials” in shaping the debate within the anti-GMO movement:

Influentials are the information brokers that have major media platforms and big receptive audiences. For example, on the GMO issue, top influentials include Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Dr. Oz, and Vandana Shiva. Each of these influentials have been responsible for spreading or endorsing nonsense about GMOs via social media and other highly trafficked venues.

Its not the point of this blog post to take on the topic of Genetically Modified Organisms in general, or even the anti-GMO movement in particular.  I am much more interested in the notion of “Trusted Communicators”, why do we trust them?  And why do we continue to trust them even if they have been demonstrated to be wrong on many occasions about what they are saying?

Trusted is not the same as trustworthy, as I’m sure we can all agree – at least in principle.  But when it come to your own cherished beliefs however…

Kloor quotes Princeton social scientist Linda Fiske:

People trust people they think are like themselves. This is human nature. They trust people who they think share their values and goals.

I would paraphrase Ms Fiske slightly, ‘People trust people who think like themselves’. People like having their world view reinforced, its very natural.  People don’t like cognitive dissonance, they don’t like doubt or uncertainty.  An excess of doubt or uncertainty can make decision making difficult, or even day to day functioning.  People walk out the door every day with the expectation that they will not be run over by the bus or a planetesimals will fall out of the sky and wipe out civilization.  We tend to reserve doubt for critical situations, and ones where we expect to need it.

In particular, Kloor makes examples of Dr. Oz, and Vandana Shiva:

Shiva travels around the world spreading the lie about farmers committing suicide because of GMOs and repeats the lie in prestige outlets like the Guardian. Because she is much admired in the environmental community, many take her word for it. Shiva is a charismatic speaker and a perceived champion (in green and social justice circles) for the downtrodden. She’s been a globe-trotting information broker for decades. If Shiva says GMO cotton has driven hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers to suicide–and says it over and over again–it must be true, right? Remember, environmentally inclined journalists and writers view her as a credible voice; they attach importance to what she says. They certainly don’t question any of her claims, though some will use her in a typically false balance manner. And yes, it’s because of her that a documentary based on an urban myth got made and then was publicized widely (at places like Huffington Post and Grist,) perpetuating the Indian farmer suicide/GMO myth.

In a similar vein, Dr Oz serves as a vessel of misinformation on genetically modified foods by providing a platform for anti-GMO activists to peddle nonsense. (See Michael Specter’s recent New Yorker piece on the latest example.) Millions of health-conscious people respect Oz and look to him and his highly watched show for guidance on what foods to eat and avoid. That he lends his credibility to junk science is maddening.

People, naturally, arrive at their world views, or beliefs on any subject because they think it is correct, and is the most reasonably, or even the only reasonable view.  Most people do not change their reality schemas like they do their underwear.  Most people change their underwear at least once in their life, few change their basic reality schema, and of those who do, even fewer change from a paranoid to a non-paranoid schema.

It’s a little like the incumbent advantage in politics.  Every couple of years we reelect the same old people, sometimes over and over again for decades, why? we thought they were the right person four years ago, why vote for someone different now?   So, in order to change our position about what candidate to elect we have to either: believe that the alternative candidate will be significantly better than the the incumbent, or the incumbent suddenly got worse.  Implicit in this train of reasoning is that we were wrong the last time in choosing the incumbent.  Nobody likes to be wrong.

Most people don’t think like scientists [apparently this includes some scientists].  People, in general, are highly resistant to having their minds changed.  Some people in particular are possessed with enormous, and unwarranted self-confidence in their convictions, even in areas where they have no real training or expertise.  If they thought of it it, therefore it must be true, correct?  I have a twelve year old niece like this, can’t quite tell the difference yet between a hypothesis of hers and a fact.

Kloor quotes this old canard:

There is a classic position in the science communication literature which goes, roughly, if you meet resistance to science, throw facts at those who resist. If that doesn’t work, throw more facts at them, and throw them harder.

This approach, though roundly debunked, is unfortunately still a common default.

People who have an open-minded world view and are non-paranoid, can be persuaded by facts.  Most other people the best you can do is gently provoke the idea that they may have biases and filters to information about what they hold to be true and who they trust.  Incidentally never try this during an issue oriented discussion.

People who are paranoid, have a paranoid world view and are hypo-psychotic can almost never be persuaded to adopt a non-paranoid position.  I will add that the hypo-psychotic and paranoid can be incredibly charismatic and persuasive.  People like people with enormousness self-confidence – that they agree with.

Then of course, there are the truly sociopathic , who lie without remorse and continue to lie and deceive until they meet the yawning grave, or an arranged visit to the penitentiary.  What categories do Dr. Oz and Ms. Shiva fall into?  Who knows.

People love to be persuaded into what they already believe.  The “influentials” love to fill the role.  Once an “influential” has fallen to spreading disinformation, by what ever path, it becomes almost impossible to reverse their position, even if they aren’t hypo-psychotic, paranoid or sociopathic.  Its the nature of the pedestal we’ve put them on.  People want certainty, people want to be correct, there are many only too willing to oblige.


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