The danger of mass media

We’re living in an era where a vast library of information can easily be accessed with a flick of our fingers. In comparison, we’re consuming more information at a rate that is unrivaled by any of our predecessors, which is primarily due to the advancement in technology and the way we receive news and media.

Although it has become easier to access any information we desire on the internet, many of us still end up with the wrong information due to our lack of motivation to seek the truth. Often, most information that floats around the internet nowadays are little more than repetition of soundbites. Therefore, it’s more crucial than ever before to equip ourselves with some sort of mental tool that would help us filter out the signal from the noise.

Fact or fiction

Last week, I stumbled upon an article on Quora that kick-started this whole essay.

It was about a 14-year-old student named Nathan Zohner who made a compelling argument on how a certain chemical should be banned, due to its toxic nature to human, during his school presentation in 1997.

During the presentation, he managed to convince his classmates by presenting scientifically accurate facts on why “Dihydrogen Monoxide” poses a threat to human lives while listing its many disadvantages. It was so convincing that he got 43 out of 50 students to vote “Yes” on banning the chemical from its everyday use. Dihydrogen monoxide as it turns out is simply an unusual term for water also known by its chemical name H2O.

Of course, it was never Zohner’s intention to ban water! It was just an experiment to show how easily people can be manipulated by skewing scientifically and mathematically proven facts. In fact, journalist James K. Glassman dubbed the phenomenon “Zohnerism” to refer to “the use of true fact to lead people to a false conclusion”.

The point of the story is that we as humans can easily be fooled when things are presented in an unfamiliar way. The scariest part is how common similar events occur, particularly with the news that we receive on a daily basis.

Beware of statistics!

Think of how many times you have come across a news article which utilizes statistics and numbers that convinces the public on a particular topic, only to be proven false much later. Statistics are ubiquitous and persuasive, which is why many businesses, institutions and even governments like to use statistics when it comes to making important decisions.

To quote Nassim Nicolas Taleb, “It is a mistake to use, as journalists and some economists do, statistics without logic, but the reverse does not hold: It is not a mistake to use logic without statistics. Logic does not require empirical verification.”

Therefore, our first reaction when we first come across any article with statistics should be to tell ourselves that we probably don’t know what we’re looking at. As our mind is strongly biased toward causal explanations and does not deal well with “mere statistics”. 

Let’s take a famous case of UC Berkeley gender bias as an example. During a graduate school admission to University of California, Berkeley in 1973, men’s applications were more likely to be admitted than women’s. The difference was so large that it was unlikely to be due to chance.

UC Berkeley student intake 1973

Upon first look, this set of data would raise a lot of eyebrows. The statistics clearly show that men are more favored than women when it comes to admission. However, the numbers tell a different story when they’re broken down into individual departments. As it turns out, women were more likely to apply into competitive departments with low rates of admission such as English majors, whereas men tended to apply into less competitive departments with high admission rates such as Engineering and Physics.

This is a case of Simpson’s Paradox, where the same set of data can appear to show opposite trends depending on how it’s grouped. This goes to show how incredibly misleading a given statistic can look to a layman, especially when the causal relations are not appropriately addressed in the model.

“Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”

– Aaron Levenstein

Heuristics and biases

We as humans are creatures that never stop learning and one of the ways we learn is through trial and error. From a young age, we were taught to learn from our mistakes and make better decisions based on our experience and knowledge from past mistakes, for better or worse. However, it’s important to note that once we have accepted a theory and used it as a tool in our thinking, it is extraordinarily difficult to notice its flaws.

Which is why many of us fall victim to biases when it comes to making decisions and/or consuming news and media. In a way, we think with our emotions rather than logic. On top of that, our actions are not quite guided by the parts of our brain that dictate rationality.

Imagine how people can usually be divisive with their reception of a news story when it breaks out. There will be those who are for it and vice versa. It seems as if we are incapable of agreeing on anything. However, it all comes down to where we get our news from as it plays a crucial role in how we interpret the story. There will undoubtedly be a divide between one another when people are being fed different versions of the truth.

Remember that we are swayed by the sensational. Listening to the news on the radio every hour is far worse for you than reading a weekly magazine, because the longer interval allows information to be filtered just a little.

As humans, we’re naturally drawn to easy and simple narratives that help us better understand the situation at hands. On top of that, we tend to look for evidence that supports our narrative when we search for the truth. Therefore, we become more entrenched in our view due to confirmation bias.

Yes, we’re flawed beyond repair by nature. However, there’s a couple of things we can do to minimize the damage. First, we need to acknowledge the fact that we don’t know as much as we’d like to think. The second is to avoid coming to a quick conclusion upon receiving the first set of third-person information and be more open-minded when it comes to listening to opposing narratives.

“Maintaining one’s vigilance against biases is a chore — but the chance to avoid a costly mistake is sometimes worth the effort.” 

– Daniel Kahneman

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