I’ve tried several times, rather unsuccessfully, to write about confirmation bias. It is something we suffer from now and again. Unfortunately it often clouds our judgment and informs our world view. STEVEN SCHLOZMAN, M.D. has just published an article in the New York Times that in my humble opinion, is the best argument on the effects of confirmation bias. I just had to share it with you.
Published: October 25, 2013
Roughly two years ago, one of the most popular radio programs in America finally alerted the country to the coming zombie apocalypse. The weekend host of the radio program, Ian Punnett, was interviewing me, a Harvard Medical School physician and national expert on the compelling world of zombie neuroscience. Punnett asked me to help make sense of a new and terrifying threat to our planet, and I told him what I had learned from a discovered manuscript penned by a doctor from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who had succumbed to a zombie plague while studying its origins. The newly uncovered disease was called Ataxic Neurodegenerative Satiety Deficiency syndrome (A.N.S.D.), I explained, and the C.D.C. expert worried that the disease had been engineered by nefarious hedge-fund managers, in hopes that the stock market would plunge and become vulnerable to manipulations as the chaos spread.
I am in fact a physician, I do teach at Harvard and I’m also a fiction writer. It was in this last capacity that Punnett had me on his radio show. In 2011, I wrote a novel titled “The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks From the Apocalypse.” The novel presents a zombie scenario that (I hope) feels real and plausible despite the fact that it’s clearly made up. The radio program I was appearing on was “Coast to Coast,” and Punnett and I chatted on the air from about 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. E.S.T.
Punnett had done this before — taking a creepy work of outlandish fiction and interviewing the author as if what he’d written were actually true. I wasn’t even the first zombie author to be featured: Max Brooks discussed his novel “World War Z” with Punnett in much the same format. The “Coast to Coast” broadcasts are immensely entertaining and not a little unsettling; the late-night venue probably adds to the verisimilitude. Everything is just that much easier to believe when you’re listening alone in the dark.
I knew all this going into the show. I knew that we would play it real for a while, and then we’d let listeners know that we were just messing with them. I also naïvely believed that most listeners would realize this as well. After all, even if you weren’t familiar with the format of the show, you might be skeptical of zombie news relayed through a radio broadcast in the wee hours of the morning, with commercial breaks for lawn fertilizers and auto insurance. If the end really were upon us, you’d think that, in a zombie scenario, you weren’t also going to worry about maintaining a lush, green lawn.
Instead, the show generated a ripple of genuine concern. E-mails showed up in my in-box, and I got questions along the lines of: What’s the best medicine to stave off the zombie infection? How do I keep my house safe from the zombie onslaught?
Some people who contacted me — and realized that we were fooling around — were furious that I had even toyed with such an idea in a public venue. One person went so far as to suggest that I had violated my Hippocratic oath. I had to answer for my appearance to my peers and to my boss, some of whom felt I acted irresponsibly. As for me, I felt pretty bad — and also somewhat surprised. I was, after all, talking about an exceedingly well known, undeniably frightening but nevertheless entirely fictional pop-culture phenomenon. I didn’t really expect anyone to take me seriously.
If you like history and popular culture, then you’ll note that what happened to me has a familiar ring. On Oct. 30, 1938, Orson Welles performed a dramatic adaptation of the H. G. Wells classic “War of the Worlds.” It was the night before Halloween, and the young Welles wanted his dramatization to create all sorts of fun, so he played it straight. His program was “interrupted” with an announcement from “Intercontinental Radio News” that there had been a series of strange gas explosions on the planet Mars. From there, the world proceeded to end.
The show set off a wave of scattered but intense panic. And when listeners found out the invasion wasn’t real, boy, were they mad. More than a thousand people wrote to the CBS network to complain, and the newly created Federal Communications Commission fielded more than 600 letters and telegrams. Paul Morton, the city manager of Trenton, demanded in a letter dated Oct. 31, 1938, that the F.C.C. “make an investigation and do everything possible to prevent a reoccurrence.”
Nearly every lawmaker who played a role in the discussions asked essentially the same thing: What can we do to prevent this from happening again? Some suggested that all future radio dramatizations be vetted by the F.C.C. before airtime. This tactic was deemed too intrusive, and eventually others recommended a more news-oriented approach: ensure that the people are given additional, accurate information so that they can independently check and verify what they think they may have heard.
In other words, give them something like the Internet — at least in theory.
Now let’s look at my experience with zombie panic and the Internet. Even before the “Coast to Coast” radio broadcast, it didn’t take much to find evidence online that I was already “warning” the nation about zombies. I had written a fake medical paper on the putative virus that causes zombification, so there was ample evidence to confirm your worst fears of zombies — assuming you didn’t read any of the online reports about my paper (which were all in on the joke) too closely.
In fact, Ataxic Neurodegenerative Satiety Deficiency syndrome, the disease that I simply made up, now has its own Web site, and there are supposed photos of A.N.S.D. that you can find through a Google search. (I did not know about any of this until my wife showed it to me.) Drexel University once ran a disaster drill for nurses using an outbreak of A.N.S.D. as a model, and the C.D.C. mentioned A.N.S.D. in its own blog.
So much for using the Internet to defuse panic. In some ways, the same method that our policy makers recommended indirectly back in 1938 has heightened our capacity for social hysteria. You can find evidence for nearly anything that scares you if you simply look for that evidence online. An illegitimate president fudging his birth records? A grand conspiracy to topple the twin towers and blame terrorists? A frightening link between vaccines and illnesses? “Proof” of all this and more is only a Google search away.
Social psychologists note that in game situations, the more outlandish the bluff, the more likely it is that the bluff is taken seriously. The human interpretation of a giant fib seems to be that the apparent mistruth wouldn’t be worth telling — that being caught in the lie would not be worth the risk of being caught — unless the lie were in fact true. As the mathematician Blaise Pascal once said, “We want to be deceived.”
To be sure, conspiracy myths and mass hysteria were not invented with the Internet. But the online world allows a tiny spore of ridiculous conjecture to mushroom quickly into a widely disseminated belief. This happens, in part, because you often go to the Internet to look for information that confirms your pre-existing mythologies. This is what social and cognitive psychologists call “confirmation bias” — the idea that, if you have a preconception, you will selectively examine the available evidence to support that belief. Perhaps worse, you will selectively ignore the evidence that challenges your convictions.
The Internet is in many ways designed to amplify this bias — not just temperamentally but technically. For example, if you use my computer to search the word “food,” the very first jpeg that a Google Images search yields is an electron micrograph of salmonella. But if I were to use someone else’s laptop — someone who didn’t use his computer to write about zombies and infection and food-borne illness — I’d more likely get a photograph of pizza or a salad. To this end, the Internet recycles your own preconceptions, even in the guise of a seemingly random inquiry. It scares you with what it thinks you want to know.
There are other aspects of media-generated hoaxes and panic that are worth noting. Those who studied the “War of the Worlds” fiasco noted that the apparent authority of a well-known figure like Orson Welles, coupled with the modality of radio (the major means by which information was transmitted at the time), lent credibility to what would otherwise have been received as science fiction. (Imagine, by contrast, if a random person ran screaming toward you on the street, saying that Mars was invading Earth.) Additionally, the Great Depression and the looming, free-floating anxiety of World War II proved to be fertile soil for panic. The public was waiting for something in which they could situate their already present fears.
This means that we’re more likely to believe a fictional account told by a reputable source using a modality through which many people receive their news, especially in the context of the uncertainty characteristic of modern times. Voilà! A Harvard physician talks about zombie infection on the radio during a time when we can’t open a newspaper without reading about pandemic flu or the risk of mercury in our fish oil, and then the Internet confirms every fear of zombies that anyone ever harbored, supported by references to the very doctor who was just on the radio.
One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon did not create panic but did dupe a good deal of smart people. Use the Google Trends tool and query “male pregnancy.” You’ll note a fairly impressive spike between 2007 and 2008. This is roughly the time that the first male pregnancy was reported at the world-famous Dwayne Medical Center. Word of this amazing medical achievement spread virally online.
Except there is no Dwayne Medical Center. And of course, there’s no male pregnancy among humans. The entire Web site celebrating the scientific achievements of the Dwayne Medical Center is a hoax. It was created by a multimedia artist named Virgil Wong. He brought to his Web site the very same elements that were associated with public belief that Martians were attacking back in 1938. His Web site for Dwayne Medical Center looks very authentic. It mixes popular modalities of media in an impressively seamless digital montage. The pregnant man, for example, is featured in the Web site on the cover of a doctored U.S. News & World Report.
For those who are Internet savvy, the story of this hoax is old news. Still, it isn’t that hard to show this site to people naïve to the story and get them to believe it. As the noted skeptics Agents Mulder and Scully might suggest, the truth is out there. But when you search for it online, the truth may turn out to be whatever you need it to be.