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RS19 - Brendan Nyhan on False Beliefs that Refuse to Die

Release date: October 10, 2010


Ever notice how some beliefs only seem to become stronger, even as they're repeatedly debunked? For example, the belief that Barack Obama is a Muslim, or that Bush banned all stem cell research in the country. Brendan Nyhan tells about what he's learned from his research studies and his experience maintaining Spinsanity, a watchdog blog monitoring political misinformation. Is there any hope of clearing up false beliefs if denials simply make the problem worse? Brendan does offer hope, but it won't be easy.

Brendan Nyhan is a a Robert Wood Johnson Scholar in Health Policy Research at the University of Michigan. He received a Ph.D. from the Department of Political Science at Duke University in May 2009. In 2011, He will join the Department of Government at Dartmouth College as an assistant professor. His research focuses on political scandal and misperceptions. He also conducts research on social networks and applied statistical methods.

Comment on the episode teaser.

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Reader Comments (6)

I am noticing a theme here and not only here but in many books as well and that theme is the necessity of hope. First come the dire warnings and imprecations about the current state of the world delivered with emphatic hand wringing and then at the very end, almost as an afterthought there will be a final - 'but there is hope for the future of our civilization/species/planet if we just do these things..." This reminds me of nothing so much as that cartoon with two mathematicians at the blackboard full of a proof except for a part in the middle which says 'and then a miracle occurs'. And then a miracle occurs and human nature suddenly changes and people start acting altogether rationally (and thus altogether inhumanly) and we are saved. -Cue closing credits-

But as someone with little stake in the future having no children and past the halfway point of my years I think I have a clearer perspective on the future than those with those stakes and I am able to entertain the idea that perhaps the good guys wont win this one and instead we will be steady on the course we are on and the future will be a world filled to bursting with irrational idiots, rats, cockroaches and heavily contaminated with toxic waste. And perhaps, just perhaps the evidence might not support the assertion that there is hope.

October 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThameron

What about teaching about logical fallacies, cognitive biases, and philosophy of science at a young age? After learning about these things, I found it hard not to notice when I was committing logical fallacies myself or falling prey to cognitive biases or faulty evidence. Education in its current form doesn't seem to focus on skepticism and critical thinking skills, which may be why it doesn't have much of an effect on reducing the incidences of irrational beliefs. It makes sense that a more educated person would be able to better defend their beliefs, but I think the problem is that they are not taught how to have a framework under which to form correct beliefs.

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdomokato

Agree utterly with domokato - attempting to shift the entrenched thinking of people who have been taught from a young age to buy into dogmatic hyperbole and one-sided, narrow-minded fantasy is a difficult if not impossible task. We should fittingly apply our rational minds to understand that the long-term view is a much better one to take, and that lobbying to teach children critical thinking and philosophy from a young age will be the most effective course of action. Education's primary role should be teaching children how to think, not what to think.

October 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJesse Richardson

Education seems to have two contexts here: formal education, and education as thinking skills and scientific literacy removed from the baggage of mainstream opinion. Both public and higher education in their current form do not entail the critical thinking skills needed to differentiate fact from fiction. There are clear incentives from both the state and the market to avoid doing so.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew
Why do people keep False beliefs?

Probably because they keep getting reinforced by their own like-minded Groups that together reinforce & support a Larger agenda & Belief System. And at the Top, it's very important to keep these beliefs prevalent so that they can have a sense of Control/Power over their lives and Society at large. Very Worrisome situation for Humanity indeed.
September 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto
Listening to this in 2018, things have gotten sooo much worse.
February 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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