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The Opiate of Public Opinion



On 11/2/2016, the New York Times published an article by Farhad Manjoo on How the Internet Is Loosening Our Grip on the Truth. Manjoo wrote that the Internet, instead of delivering us into a “marketplace of ideas,” has led us into echo chambers dominated by preconceptions and biases. In those echo chambers, we hear only our preexisting beliefs endlessly repeated. Facts get evaluated through the lens of belief, and if they disagree with belief, they get ignored or denied. While not a new problem, he believes that the Internet is magnifying it. If he is right, it represents a serious problem for our democracy, which relies on the judgement of an informed public.

Psychologists and sociologist have known for a long time that we tend to see the world in ways that confirm preexisting beliefs, and they call it “confirmation bias.” There are many theories about why. One of my favorite explanations comes from a study that was done by Drew Westen and his colleagues during the 2004 presidential election. He took equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats and showed them self-contradictory statements by both Bush and Kerry. It took the subjects a moment to process what they had seen, but to nobody’s surprise, the Republicans explained away Bush’s contradiction and criticized Kerry for his. The Democrats did the inverse: they explained away Kerry’s contradiction, but criticized Bush for his. Thus, the subjects seemed to twist what they had seen, almost as if in a kaleidoscope, until it matched their preexisting beliefs.

So far, nothing new, just one of many demonstrations of confirmation bias. However, Westen added a wrinkle: while all this was going on, he had his subjects’ heads in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI). An fMRI measures the uptake of glucose by regions of the brain. Regions of the brain increase their uptake of glucose when they are being used. Thus, an fMRI provides a picture of which regions of the brain are active. The regions “light up” with color on the fMRI display.

Westen expected that while his subjects were busy processing, brain regions associated with thinking would light up. And when they achieved a resolution and spoke their opinion, then the brain would go quiet, at rest. But that is not what he found. He found that while his subjects were thinking, the regions of the brain that lit up were the regions associated with emotional pain. And when they spoke their opinion, the brain didn’t go quiet. Instead, the pleasure centers of the brain lit up. These are the regions of the brain that light up when a person takes a dose of a narcotic.

Thus, Westen’s conclusion was that we experience facts that contradict our preconceived ideas as pain. And when we twist reality to conform to our ideas, the pain goes away, and we get a “hit” of pleasure like taking a narcotic.

No wonder we do it. And those echo chambers that Manjoo mentioned? That’s where we go, like opium dens, to get hit after hit of our favorite narcotic.

That is why Mogreenstats focuses on large-scale studies. I diverge into other stuff from time-to-time, but mostly I focus on statistics about the environment. I see it as an antidote to the propaganda one hears about the environment, whichever echo chamber it comes from. No, these studies aren’t perfect. But I see them as being as close as one can get to actual facts. If we don’t base our public policy on facts, it is not likely to be effective.

Okay, enough opinion. Back to the series on wildfire in the next post.


Westen, Drew, Pavel Blagov, Keith Harenski, Clint Kilts, and Stephan Hamann. 2006. “Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning: An fMRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Partisan Political Judgement in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 18(11), p. 1947-1958. Viewed online 11/2/2016 at http://birc.jaredjustus.com/assets/publications/Westen,%20Kilts%202006%20J%20Cognit%20Neurosci.pdf.

Wikipedia. Drew Westen. Viewed online 11/2/2016 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drew_Westen.


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