November 29, 2016
If you aren’t following the dark corners of social media you might not know of something called Pizzagate. Snopes.com calls it a “detailed conspiracy theory.”
The basic idea is that a pizza parlor in Washington DC is alleged to be the center of a major child sex ring that involves top Democrats close to Hillary Clinton. I have labelled this story “not credible,” and that opinion is confusing people because there is a mountain of evidence supporting the allegations.
So let me tell you what a mountain of evidence is worth.
Mountain of Evidence Value = zero.
In the normal two-dimensional world in which we imagine we live, a mountain of evidence usually means something is true. So why am I looking at the same mountain of evidence as the believers in pizzagate and coming to an opposite conclusion?
The difference is that I understand what confirmation bias is and how powerful it can be. If you don’t have the same level of appreciation for the power of confirmation bias, a mountain of evidence looks like proof.
Here’s what I know that most of you do not: Confirmation bias looks EXACTLY LIKE a mountain of real evidence. And let me be super-clear here. When I say it looks exactly the same, I am not exaggerating. I mean there is no way to tell the difference.
That sounds crazy, right?
Suppose dozens of children started coming forth and detailing sex crimes in this particular pizza parlor. Would that prove it happened, or would I call that more confirmation bias?
I would call that more confirmation bias. In fact, the situation would be identical to the famous McMartin Preschool case in the eighties in which lots of kids made similar and untrue claims of abuse. We don’t have to wonder if a “mountain of evidence” including dozens of first-hand accounts can be false because we know it already happened. Moreover, cognitive scientists can tell you that this sort of massive mistake is more normal than you can imagine.
I want to be totally clear here that I’m not saying Pizzagate is false. I see the mountain of evidence too. And collectively it feels totally persuasive to me. It might even be true. I’m not debating the underlying truth of it. That part I don’t know. My point is that what you see as a mountain of evidence that can’t be wrong, I see as something that is far more likely to be confirmation bias. If I had to put a number on it, I’d say perhaps a 20-1 odds the Pizzagate story is false.
Let me put this in a more familiar context. Most of the Pizzagate believers are also Trump supporters it seems. And Trump supporters have watched first-hand as half the residents of the United States concluded that Trump was the next Hitler. Why do tens-of-millions of people believe such a preposterous thing?
It’s because there is a mountain of evidence to support the allegation. Case in point, just yesterday Trump suggested that perhaps flag burners should be punished. That’s clearly dictator talk! (Except that Hillary Clinton proposed that actual law in 2005.)
The argument for Trump being the next Hitler is built on the same type of confirmation bias as Pizzagate. Both allegations are supported by a mountain of evidence. But if you look at each piece of evidence in isolation, none are individually persuasive.
Let me summarize my point by saying that if you were not aware of the McMartin Preschool case you were also not intellectually equipped to judge the credibility of either Pizzagate or the Trump-is-Hitler idea.
People have asked me whether or not an understanding of how persuasion works can protect against unwanted influence. The quick answer is no. Persuasion typically works just as well when you see it coming and you know how it works. But in some specific cases a superior knowledge of cognitive phenomenon can help. This is one of those cases. If you know about the McMartin Preschool case, and you understand the real power of confirmation bias, you might have the tools to avoid believing in either Pizzagate or the likelihood of Trump turning into the next Hitler.
And now you have those tools.
As I told you last year, when a Master Persuader becomes president it will change more than your view of politics. It will change how you view reality itself.
You might like reading my book because this blog has text.
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