There’s been a lot of interest, post-election, in how individuals come to believe statements at odds with the best available evidence. There was probably a lot of interest before the election too, but with Breitbart seeming to be the main source of information for incredible claims by the White House, you can understand the attention. This week, two cognitive scientists published a NYT Op-Ed about their findings on “Why We Believe Obvious Untruths.” The studies they report are interesting, though I’m guessing Andrew Gelman might have a few thoughts about them (that the main study was published in Psychological Science is, at this point, more of a red flag than a marker of validation). But rather than discuss their data or its link to the larger claim, I want to point instead to the opening framing because it actually reinforces a commonly repeated myth. Here’s how the op-ed begins:
How can so many people believe things that are demonstrably false? The question has taken on new urgency as the Trump administration propagates falsehoods about voter fraud, climate change and crime statistics that large swaths of the population have bought into. But collective delusion is not new, nor is it the sole province of the political right. Plenty of liberals believe, counter to scientific consensus, that G.M.O.s are poisonous, and that vaccines cause autism.
While technically true – plenty of liberals do hold those beliefs – the claim at the end of this paragraph makes it seem like there’s an equivalence, that these are issues where liberals (but not conservatives) hold views in contradiction of a scientific consensus. The evidence does not support that claim. For example, 2014 data shows that conservatives, not liberals, are most likely to believe that vaccines cause autism. For GMOs, Pew reports that Democrats and Republicans are equally likely to believe that they pose health risks. I agree that “plenty of liberals” believe these things, but the impression this op-ed creates is that liberals believe these things more than conservatives. This claim is itself, ironically, a widespread, widely-repeated myth “counter to scientific consensus.”
I don’t know why “obvious untruths” are so commonly believed, but I can’t help but think that misleading writing in the service of creating false equivalence must be part of why this particular myth persists.