Why Even Smart People Fall for Bad Science
Our natural biases make us focus on scary news, but that doesn’t mean you have to live in fear
We all do it about a hundred times a day: Open our preferred news app; read a terrifying headline about scary new health research; experience that now-familiar anxiety level spike. Consume too much media and it can feel like the world is ending every day. Trust me, I get it.
As a doctor, I get my medical information from validated scientific sources. But when I want to catch up on the latest “health tips” that my patients might be seeing, I check my Facebook feed. Unfortunately, I often see friends and family sharing content that ranges from misleading to straight-up deadly.
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In the weeks and months (and probably years) ahead, it’s going to be really important to be able to read health and science news without panicking. But even smart, savvy people can get sucked in by dramatic headlines — especially in the midst of a legitimately scary public health crisis. Here’s what to keep in mind when you’re scrolling:
Our brains want our thoughts confirmed
We’re all prone to confirmation bias: We like to read things that agree with what we already believe and tend to immediately ignore things that we disagree with, rather than stopping to see if we need to change our thinking.
Confirmation bias can lead to some big problems. When a recent report from the WHO said people with Covid-19 who are “asymptomatic” are not as contagious as previously thought, people who hate wearing masks — there are a lot of them — took it as justification to take those masks off.
But that report was meant for scientists and health professionals who were aware of the many studies showing that masks dramatically reduce the spread of the coronavirus. It’s hard to understand how a public health organization could have communicated so poorly to the public. What did they think would happen when…