What we learned by examining common misconceptions
Back in July of 2015, we at ClearerThinking launched our Common Misconceptions quiz. Like many of our programs, mini-courses, and tools, the Common Misconceptions quiz aims to provide a fun and accessible illustration of one of several ideas we believe are important to reasoning well and making more rational decisions: it's vital to carefully examine the sources of information you encounter in the media or in conversation, as even commonly-accepted and frequently-repeated "facts" can turn out to be false.
The process of compiling the truths and falsehoods that now make up the Common Misconceptions quiz itself did a lot to illustrate that idea — we found ourselves confronting our own misconceptions at times. As ClearerThinking lead researcher Aislinn Pluta put it:
"It was a frustrating process. I would come up with all these things I was sure were true, only to discover the evidence was mixed or completely nonexistent, or that it was only sort of true and sort of false. It was eye-opening how pervasive false beliefs were in my own mind. Mostly the false beliefs I had were inconsequential — but sometimes I discovered some personal health-related beliefs that I had to abandon, such as the belief that applying white vinegar helps soothe sunburns."
Our efforts illustrated some valuable lessons that we'd like to share with you. Here are some of the most interesting and useful takeaways from our experience assembling the Common Misconceptions quiz:
1. The truth can be slippery, even when it looks like the scientific community agrees on a matter.
For instance, many scientists have repeated the claim that in a given human body, bacterial cells actually outnumber human cells by a factor of ten to one. However, this "fact" actually hasn't been substantiated and can't be considered a fact.
2. When an unvetted misconception or falsehood appears in print or the media, it can create an echo chamber effect in which the false information is repeated so frequently that it becomes impossible to tell where it came from.
This process often produces folkloric beliefs about health or nature that turn out to have no basis in reality and no clear source. The aforementioned claim that bacterial cells outnumber human cells by a factor of ten to one is an example — it dates to a 1972 estimate by an eccentric microbiologist named Thomas D. Luckey, and took on the appearance of broadly accepted fact by sheer repetition.
3. Popular falsehoods often have a kernel of truth, but that truth often gets twisted so as to appear more interesting — even if that means it ceases to be true.
One example of this effect is the oft-repeated claim that lobsters are "biologically immortal" — i.e., they show no conventional signs of aging and could live forever under the right circumstances. It's true that lobsters continue to grow throughout their lives and can live for many years, but they eventually grow too big to survive their traumatic molting periods.
4. Ideas that seem more attractive or "feel" more true often get more traction, regardless of how literally true they are.
Stephen Colbert famously described this emotionally-appealing quality as "truthiness." Its effects are particularly pronounced in the realm of politics, but even apolitical misconceptions — such as the idea that you can cure a hangover by drinking more alcohol — can gain more traction because they seem to make some kind of intuitive or emotional sense. In effect, people believe such misconceptions because they simply want them to be true.
5. The dynamics of Internet-age journalism can reinforce all of these effects.
There's a powerful incentive for internet-based publications to post stories that will surprise, shock, or outrage readers — such stories drive more traffic, thereby earning the publication in question more money. Internet publications also face pressure to post their content as quickly as possible, for fear of other publications beating them to the punch and scooping up more of the available readership. These incentives decrease the likelihood that web-based journalists and bloggers will properly vet and fact-check their stories...which, in turn, increases the likelihood that they'll repeat misconceptions and falsehoods.
Don't forget to try the Common Misconceptions quiz itself if you haven't — it's a fun way to brush up on some surprising facts (and surprising non-facts!), and it can also help you discover more about how well your confidence in your own knowledge matches your real level of knowledge. Click here to give it a shot.