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When It Comes To Politics and 'Fake News,' Facts Aren't Enough

The myth that vaccines cause autism has persisted, even though the facts paint an entirely different story.
Renee Klahr
The myth that vaccines cause autism has persisted, even though the facts paint an entirely different story.

In today's political climate, it sometimes feels like we can't even agree on basic facts. We bombard each other with stats and figures, hoping that more data will make a difference. A liberal might show you the same climate change graphs over and over; a conservative might point to the trillions of dollars of growing national debt. We're left wondering, "W hy can't they just see? It's so obvious!"

Certain myths are so pervasive that no matter how many experts disprove them, they only seem to grow in popularity. There's no shortage of peer-reviewed studies showing no link between autism and vaccines, for example, but these are no match for an emotional appeal to a parent worried for his young child.

Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, studies how our minds work and how we process new information. In her upcoming book, The Influential Mind, she explores why we ignore facts and how we can get people to actually listen to the truth.

Tali shows that we're open to new information – but only if it confirms our existing beliefs. We find ways to ignore facts that challenge our ideals. And as neuroscientist Bahador Bahrami and colleagues have found, we weigh all opinions as equally valid, regardless of expertise.

So how do we identify the experts, the people who have the correct answer about a given fact? Economist Drazen Prelec and colleagues recently published research that shows how to identify what they refer to as "the surprisingly popular vote" on a given topic.

Still, having the data on your side is not always enough. For better or for worse, Sharot says, emotions may be the key to changing minds.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, and Renee Klahr. Our intern is Chloe Connelly and our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Additional Resources

  • Tali tells us that fear is a powerful motivator for inaction, but positive feedback is a better motivator for action. She talks abouta study in which health care workers were given positive feedback for washing their hands.
  • Tali talks about the ability of strong emotional appeals - and even some powerful speeches - to synchronize brain activity across listeners and between listeners and speakers.
  • Sometimes crowd wisdom fails us - but the "surprisingly popular vote" means that we can still learn the right answer to a question, even if most of the crowd is wrong.
  • Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
    Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
    Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.
    Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor for NPR's Enterprise Storytelling unit, working across Embedded, Invisibilia, and Rough Translation.
    Chloe Connelly