Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Stop me if you've heard this one before

Michael Shermer has an interesting post over at Scientific American, but there's one paragraph I'm not too happy about.
Cognitive dissonance may also be at work in the compartmentalization of beliefs. In the 2010 article “When in Doubt, Shout!” in Psychological Science, Northwestern University researchers David Gal and Derek Rucker found that when subjects' closely held beliefs were shaken, they “engaged in more advocacy of their beliefs ... than did people whose confidence was not undermined.” Further, they concluded that enthusiastic evangelists of a belief may in fact be “boiling over with doubt,” and thus their persistent proselytizing may be a signal that the belief warrants skepticism.
I'm way out of my field on this one. My knowledge of psychology is limited to an undergrad intro course and a copy of Cialdini's Influence, but I'm pretty sure that researchers have been finding this sort of thing since the mid-Fifties when Leon Festinger wrote about doomsday cultists proselytizing more the day after the world failed to end and confirming this and related aspects of cognitive dissonance ever since in a large group of studies. (Discover did a better job with the context, though that is comparing a paragraph to a whole post.)

I don't mean to suggest Gal and Rucker were not doing important, original work. I'm sure they were. My beef here is with Shermer and the lack of context. A reader coming on this paragraph cold would be left with the impression that this was a new idea rather than the latest brick in a decades long wall.

I can understand the appeal of the cutting edge. The new stuff is sexier. It gets people's attention. The trouble is, those cutting edge studies often collapse under scrutiny. Some can't be replicated. Others prove to be not that important.

Confirmation, on the other hand, is not sexy. It doesn't drive traffic. It's harder to fit into a paragraph. In a way, though, it's more interesting because it has a high likelihood of being true and fills in the gaps in big, important questions. The interaction between the ideas is usually the interesting part.

Of course, this may be awfully picky given that we're talking about a single paragraph, but this is a recurring issue. New developments are frequently reported in a vacuum, and the result is often a badly misled reader. In these situations a few lines of context can go a long way.

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