Zachry Wheeler, Science Fiction Novelist

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Fake News and the Plague of Cognitive Dissonance
Posted on February 3, 2017
Category: Zeedub Musings
Zachry Wheeler, Science Fiction Novelist

After the most grueling and exhausting election in my lifetime, I can no longer open a news website without immediately facepalming myself. Day after day I resist the urge to rage-punch my screen while screaming “what the hell is wrong with people?!” This is, after all, an exercise in futility. No one does battle with cognitive dissonance and comes out a victor.

“Excuse me, kind sir, but what is this cognitive dissonance you speak of?”

Great question, esteemed reader. And might I add, that shirt looks great on you. Cognitive dissonance refers to the psychological phenomenon where people tend to double down on beliefs when confronted by contradictory evidence. I like to call it the “la la la not listening” effect. Consider the following exchange.

Insane Person: “The Earth is flat.”

Sane Person: “Uh, no, we know the Earth is round based on [pick your favorite fact].”

Insane Person: “That’s just NASA manipulating the data.”

Sane Person: “What? Even amateurs have sent cameras into space.”

Insane Person: (sticks fingers in ears) “La la la, not listening, la la la …”

I pick on the Flat Earthers because, let’s be honest, they’re easy targets. They harbor a bonkers worldview built on a flimsy foundation, one that doesn’t take a whole lot of brain power to dismantle.

At this point, I am willing to bet that any Flat Earther reading this is feeling a bit slighted and defensive. In lieu of applying critical thought, they double down on core beliefs. “This talented and witty writer is scared of the truth!” They refuse to admit the possibility of being wrong, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They just regroup with fellow believers to reaffirm said beliefs (a related phenomenon known as confirmation bias).

Want to see cognitive dissonance in action? Visit the comments section of any YouTube video about a polarizing issue. It’s hilariously predictable.

But today, in post-truth America, all of these knuckleheads are getting air time. It’s such a plague of cognitive dissonance that I have been forced to re-evaluate my own biases. “Could I be the crazy one?” Thankfully the answer is no, based solely on an evidence-based worldview. Even so, I have found it more and more frustrating to navigate the cesspool of disinformation floating out there. You’ve heard it described in many ways, “fake news” being the current nomenclature. The fallacy of content doesn’t bother me as much as the sheer number of people who lack the capacity to see it as such. What should be dismissed as drivel for conspiracy theorists (the ultimate purveyors of cognitive dissonance) is now showing up on major news outlets. It blows my mind. How could a rational brain believe such bunk? I cannot tell you how many times I have opened a news feed only to immediately switch to cat videos to sooth the rage.

I eventually answered my own question. It’s not that rational brains are believing bunk. It’s that rational brains are the minority. Always have been, always will be. I used to think that people, by default, assimilate new information and come to logical conclusions. Nope. All they do is search for information that confirms their beliefs (there’s that confirmation bias again). The only difference today is that crap info has become mainstream info. Combating bias, weighing evidence, and researching sources takes a lot of time and brain juice. Most people refuse to do it. It’s easier to accept everything at face value and move on. It should be noted that journalists used to tackle this for us before they turned into opinion-spewing pundits. But alas, the public’s apathetic attitude is making click-bait sites a shit-ton of money.

The Reagan Administration eliminated the Fairness Doctrine back in 1987. The law, introduced in 1949, required news broadcasters to present controversial issues of public importance in an equitable manner. Dismantling it allowed media empires to enter the fray as entertainment companies. It didn’t matter if the info they peddled was fact-free or blatantly biased because the goal was to make money, not to inform the public. Fun fact: Fox News is actually registered as an entertainment channel, not news (which also applies to most US outlets). And since people seek content that confirms their biases, it was a brilliant business decision. So what if people are misinformed when sensationalism fills the coffers. Is it any wonder that a plague of cognitive dissonance has infected the American public? Seriously, go watch old clips of Walter Cronkite and compare them to today. It’s embarrassing.

So what’s a rational person to do? I can only speak for myself because hunting down reliable info is an annoying scavenger hunt these days. When I want to get a broad understanding of world events, my go-to sites are the Associated Press and Reuters. They both rank high on the reliability index and are generally immune to corporate influence. Nothing is perfect, but these are best we have from a neutral standpoint.

In closing, I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Winston Churchill.

And I shouldn’t need to say it, but that was a joke. (insert uncomfortable laughter)

Read more:  Why I Stopped Watching the News

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