The power of Snopes. Or not.

I’ve always thought Snopes, the debunking site run by Barbara and David Mikkelson, is a treasure. Fighting the good fight and all.

Kinda sad, then, but not surprising, to read this:

When reporters interview us about our work, they often ask us to comment on the notion that we’re engaged in a great public service, making the world a better place by “striking a blow for the truth” and stamping out rumor and misinformation by replacing them with facts. Those reporters usually seem to be taken aback or disappointed when I tell them that I don’t really believe our site makes much of a difference in the greater scheme of things; that the responses we get tend to indicate a good many people are determined to believe whatever they want to believe, and no collection of contradictory factual information, no matter how large or authoritative or impressive it might be, is ever going to dissuade them from their beliefs.


  1. The root problem is a failure to teach critical thinking skills to children, which is hard to do if their parents not only don’t have ’em and don’t like ’em, but also don’t want their kids to have none of ’em thangs neither.

    Given that hypothesis, it would be interesting to compare across cultures.

    It is my impression that things have gotten worse, and especially so in America. Others claim that it is a universal and largely insurmountable human tendency.

    This boils down to the “deficit hypothesis” that journalists are often criticizing climate scientists for. Our impulse is to get people to understand the situation, figuring that the outcome would surely be better if there were more understanding. This certainly fits in with our impression that there is an organized malicious effort to ensure that the public maximally misunderstands the situation. The explicit overlap of the opposition with groups that advanced similar misunderstandings about tobacco in the past would seem to support the idea that understanding is the key battlefield.

    The press, perhaps intrinsically somewhat bored with physical and empirical reasoning, has settled on some dubious social science to the contrary, and with a vengeance. “More information” is not relevant they say. Perhaps not, but “better information” (and consequently, less misinformation) has to be central. Which is why many scientists including myself put the responsibility for our current quandary substantially on the press.

    This is extremely important, as democracy depends critically on the critical faculties of a free people. It would seem to be testable with a cross-cultural study, though not easily so.

  2. +1 MT. Is there a good online tutorial on teaching (and assessing) critical thinking?

    And here’s a thought experiment: what would happen to public opinion on climate change if Fox and Limbaugh started accepting and communicating the science?

  3. Dan Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” and Dan Ariely’s book “Predictably, Irrational” talk about these conclusions, accurate or not. The incorrect conclusions come from every kind of human and are hard to overcome. Reviews and links to both books and some other useful stuff are on my web site. I have been trying to understand shortsighted human decisions for a while now. Especially interesting are the different views of the world from private industry and various government agencies.
    A way to put a lot of these insights together is through agent based economics and through insights in organizational behavior such as are found in Christensen’s “The Innovator’s Dilemma” and follow on works.

  4. I always come back to my first career in banking. For a long time I supported the department’s users and as such my office was next to the manager of the biggest unit. She would get an endless parade of people in her office, day after day, problems with this, that and the other thing. It made me realize I don’t have the patience to be an effective manager.

    At any rate, one day after the latest employee in the parade left her office with the same plaints, she sighed and said “people suck”.

    I don’t think that’s quite right. Many do. Not all, but many. The 20% prop up the 80% that are useless. And the 80% seemingly are evenly distributed across the face of the planet.




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