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Statisticians know some great facts about the link between tobacco and cancer (shame about Ronald Fisher, though).

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It seems to me that if you believe in an epidemic of falsehood so widespread that the very ability to separate fact from fiction is under threat, it ought to inspire a state of CONSTANT VIGILANCE, where you obsessively question each of your beliefs.

Yet Harford writes an entire article about a worldwide plague of false beliefs without mustering enough vigilance to see if the relevant studies are true or not.

All this adds up to a depressing picture for those of us who aren’t ready to live in a post-truth world. Trying to refute a bold, memorable lie with a fiddly set of facts can often serve to reinforce the myth.

Important truths are often stale and dull, and it is easy to manufacture new, more engaging claims.

For example, the article highlights a study by Nyhan & Reifler which finds a “backfire effect” – correcting people’s misconceptions only makes them cling to those misconceptions more strongly. But how is this different from all of those social science facts to which he believes humans are mostly impervious?

Second, Nyhan & Reifler’s work on the backfire effect is probably not true.

Third, Harford describes his article as being about agnotology, “the study of how ignorance is deliberately produced”.

His key example is tobacco companies sowing doubt about the negative health effects of smoking – for example, he talks about tobacco companies sponsoring (accurate) research into all of the non-smoking-related causes of disease so that everyone focused on those instead.

I think this is generally a good article and makes important points, but there are three issues I want to highlight as possibly pointing to a deeper pattern.

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