Fake News and the Plague of Cognitive Dissonance

After the election of perhaps the most, um, unconventional President in US history (one man’s “batshit crazy” is another man’s “delightfully quirky”), I cannot open a news website without immediately facepalming myself. Day after day I resist the urge to rage-punch my screen while screaming “what the hell is wrong with people?!” This is, after all, an exercise in futility. No one does battle with cognitive dissonance and comes out a victor.

“Excuse me, kind sir, but what is this cognitive dissonance you speak of?” Damn fine question, esteemed reader. And might I add, that shirt looks great on you. Cognitive dissonance is the label given to a psychological phenomenon where people tend to double down on beliefs when confronted by contradictory evidence. I like to call it the “la la la not listening” effect. Consider the following exchange.

Insane Person: “The Earth was created 6,000 years ago by a robed man in the sky.”

Sane Person: “Uh, no, we know the Earth is 4.5 billion years old thanks to radiometric dating.”

Insane Person: “That’s just the devil talking.”

Sane Person: “What? I have cold hard evidence right here. Peer-reviewed empirical data. Take a look.”

Insane Person: (sticks fingers in ears) “La la la, not listening, la la la …”

I pick on the Creationists because, let’s be honest, they’re easy targets. To quote Lewis Black, “I can’t be kind about this, because these people are watching The Flintstones as if it were a documentary.” It’s a bonkers worldview built upon a flimsy foundation, one that doesn’t take a whole lot of brain power to dismantle.

At this point, I’m willing to bet that any Creationist reading this is feeling a bit slighted and defensive. In lieu of applying critical thought, they doubled down on core beliefs. “This talented and witty writer is a godless heathen!” They refuse to acknowledge the possibility of being wrong, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They just regroup with fellow believers to reaffirm said beliefs (a related phenomenon known as confirmation bias).

Want to see cognitive dissonance in action? Visit the comments section of any YouTube video about a polarizing issue. It’s hilariously predictable.

But today, in post-truth America, all these knuckleheads are getting air time. It’s such a plague of cognitive dissonance that I have been forced to re-evaluate my own biases. “Could I be the crazy one?” Thankfully the answer is no, based solely on an evidence-based worldview. Take the hot-button topic of evolution for instance. One common refrain is “Do you believe in evolution?” To which I reply, “No.” That usually stumps the religious fundies because all they want to do is regurgitate a well-rehearsed string of biased rebuttals. I continue with, “I accept the mountain of evidence for evolution. Difference.” That doesn’t jive with their preconceived narrative, so I walk away while their eyelids twitch.

But anyway, back to post-truth America. I have found it more and more frustrating to navigate the cesspool of disinformation floating out there. You’ve heard it described in many ways, “fake news” being the current nomenclature. The fallacy of content doesn’t bother me as much as the sheer number of people who lack the critical thinking skills to see it as such. What should be dismissed as drivel for conspiracy theorists (the ultimate purveyors of cognitive dissonance) is now showing up on major news outlets. It blows my mind. How could a rational brain believe such bunk? I cannot tell you how many times I have opened a news feed only to immediately switch to cat videos to sooth the rage.

I eventually answered my own question. It’s not that rational brains are believing bunk. It’s that rational brains are the minority. Always have been, always will be. I used to think that people, by default, assimilate new information and come to logical conclusions. Nope. All they do is search for information that confirms their beliefs (there’s that confirmation bias again). The only difference today is that crap info has become mainstream info. Combating bias, weighing evidence, and researching sources takes a lot of time and brain juice. Most people refuse to do it. It’s easier to accept everything at face value and move on. It should be noted that journalists used to tackle this for us before they turned into opinion-spewing pundits. But alas, the public’s apathetic attitude is making click-bait sites a shit-ton of money.

The Reagan Administration eliminated the Fairness Doctrine back in 1987. The law, introduced in 1949, required news broadcasters to present controversial issues of public importance in an equitable manner. Dismantling it allowed media empires (cough cough Rupert Murdoch) to enter the fray as entertainment companies and disseminate any info they wanted. It didn’t matter if the info was fact-free or blatantly biased because the goal was to make money, not to inform the public. Fun fact: Fox News is actually registered as an entertainment channel, not news (which also applies to most US outlets). And since people seek content that confirms their biases, it was a brilliant business decision. So what if people are misinformed when sensationalism fills the coffers. Is it any wonder that a plague of cognitive dissonance has infected the American public? Seriously, go watch old clips of Walter Cronkite and compare them to today. It’s embarrassing.

So what’s a rational person to do? I can only speak for myself here because hunting down reliable information is an annoying witch hunt these days. When I want to know what is going on in the world from a general perspective, I check out the BBC. The network is regulated as a public service, belongs to the people, and is immune to corporate interest. It’s far from perfect, but it’s the best we have from an unbiased perspective. It’s a strange disconnect using a British news source to find out what’s going on in my own damn country, but it’s a necessary avenue in order to see how our actions are impacting the global community. Then, if a particular topic peaks my interest, I travel down the rabbit hole of source verification. Whether or not I emerge with anything useful is a total crapshoot.

In closing, I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Winston Churchill.

… and what truly frightens me is that many of you are nodding with zero irony.