Thursday, January 10, 2008

Starting Something New for the New Year

` For the past few weeks I've been doing solar masses of non-internet-related activities - including festivities, quelling emotional drainage, school, errand-filled days, etc - but I thought I would come forth with an idea I've had since early December....

` Ready for this? It's audacious! It's informative! It's the Corrigendopedia! You know how I loathe misperceptions? This website puts them in their place! And in a really interesting way, different from any other.
` I won't have it up for some time, but I thought that instead of stealing lakes and silly things like that (which I'm too tired to do anyway), I would write more of my 'think again!' articles here, which will not only provide blog content but will be added to the website and later published when I have a large enough collection.
` Here's the introduction:
Learning new things is one of my foremost passions. And when one learns new things, one must often unlearn a number of previously-held assumptions which contradict the new knowledge.

As a critically thinking person, I cannot help but notice that the culture surrounding me propagates many misperceptions about the world, a small but prevalent example being the assumption that the direction water spirals down the drain is affected by what side of the equator it is on.

As I've noted in my entry for the Coriolis Effect, this force does determine the cyclical direction of storms and water currents, but it is virtually negligible when it comes to plumbing; its effect on less-than gargantuan scales can only be glimpsed in carefully controlled laboratory conditions.

You can challenge this myth in real life: If you watch water drain from a sink a few times, it will probably swirl one way just as often as it does the other. However, a flushing toilet flows either clockwise, counterclockwise, or straight back, and this is determined by the angle of the spouts near the rim of the bowl.

However, it is possible that if this is the first time you've heard this revelation, you may yet forget it in the future! Why? Because; I repeated the myth first and corrected it afterward, placing the myth most prominently in one's awareness.

A month from now, which would you remember? The well-ingrained myth that you've heard a hundred times, or that one instance in which you've seen it dispelled (assuming this is the case)? Will you forget it or not?

I've known this general principal for some time, though just prior to this writing I found an interesting article which really exemplifies it. (Shankar Vedantam, Difficulty in Debunking Myths Rooted in the Way the Mind Works, Washington Post, 2007.) It starts out with the description of a psychological experiment:

Norbert Schwarz, a University of Michigan social psychologist, had some volunteers read a flyer issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This flyer repeated many commonly held views about the flu vaccine and labeled which ones were actually true and which ones were common misconceptions.

Thirty minutes later, the older volunteers incorrectly remembered the 'trueness' or 'falseness' of about 28 percent of the statements, as did younger volunteers after three days. Also at three days, the older individuals misremembered about 40% of the statements!

The unsettling thing about this is not just that the volunteers wound up with misconceptions about which statements were true and which were false, but that they believed all of the information (both correct and incorrect) originated from the Center of Disease Control!

That didn't shock me, considering the well-established fact that conscious memories are basically reconstituted from a surprisingly sketchy recording in your brain, resulting in a picture of what you think happened, or what you think you learned. It could be relatively accurate to begin with, but over time you may forget some details and your brain may 'flesh out' the sketch differently - thus your memory changes without your being aware.

This is why people get into arguments over the details of what happened, say, last Wednesday, or what they did on a road trip or sometimes, even, what they learned in physics class! Interesting indeed, and you can rest assured that I have more to say on the subject.

Schwarz's study, which has since been confirmed in peer-reviewed laboratory experiments, shows that reciting a myth to someone - even for the purpose of dispelling it - makes that myth more memorable in the person's mind! If they cannot remember the correction as clearly as the myth, they're more likely to believe the myth is true.

And so, the very fact that many myths are challenged may actually help them to stay around. In addition, according to research by Kimberlee Weaver at Virginia Polytechnic and others, in one's mental perception, a message heard often enough can seem to have been repeated too many times to have come from only one source.

Thus, the sheer number of repeats can mentally 'overflow' from the original source and be perceived as coming from other, independent sources. So if an untrustworthy source says one thing over and over, you might get the sense that you've heard the same thing elsewhere, giving the impression of believability.

Plus, research by cognitive social scientist Ruth Mayo of Hebrew University found that after two things are shown not to be associated, repeating the names of both
things close together in time still create the feeling that they are connected. If I say; "Bill was shown not to have stolen the car," you feel that Bill is associated with stealing cars, don't you?

So, what if you don't say anything at all? According to a recent study by University of Southern California organizational psychologist Peter Kim, when you don't challenge an assertion, the silence is taken as confirmation. I'm not surprised!

The whole point to this is that it can be difficult to ensure you're getting correct information across to someone else if they are also exposed to contrary information.

So you may wonder; what authority do I have to go around shelling out correct information in the first place? That's an excellent question. First of all, I have a deep understanding of what science is and why it is important, and though this knowledge is not common, my aim is to change that.

My education largely consists of college, speaking with professors, my vast collection of science books, as well as periodicals and news from science journal websites to keep me up to date. And, as a general rule, I double-check anything I put forth as being 'true'.

Subjects of utmost interest to me involve most prominently a) biology and b) areas of psychology dealing with conscious awareness, people's perceptions, and the propagation of myths. I am committed to objectivity, accuracy and making sure the point gets through. Though the last one is probably the trickiest of all three, I love a good challenge.

Shall we?
` What do you think, guys? A website that's a better source of information than this blog? It can be done! (No, it's not a New Year's Resolution; I want it to happen!)


Charles said...

Gooferit (Go for it.)

I've said before to always tell the truth. There are many truths. Even immediately following an incident, the perception of what happened is a factor, maybe that's why we have recording equipment. Well, that and to make the RIAA rich.

S E E Quine said...

` Heh heh heh! Indeed! Recording equipment has so many uses! It wasn't until some 150 years ago (as I recall) that people looking for AWOL soldiers discovered they could use these handy little things called daguerreotypes.

G-Man said...

Information for Eggheads!
You know, Adlai Stevenson lost the 1956 election because he was way too smart for the electing public, And he talked 'over their heads'!!
No one is asking you to compromise your natural brilliance though...
You are the smartest chick I know!!
...And you are quite sane!

S E E Quine said...

` Thanks, G-man! It's good some people think I'm sane....