IF YOU’RE a sceptic, congratulations!

“A lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on.”

On the ABC radio national program, Life Matters, Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, Head of the Cognitive Science Laboratory at the School of Psychology in the University of Western Australia was interviewed by Richard Eady about the role of scepticism.

The discussion was very pertinent to contemporary issues - both local and global - and power of media messages

Trying to unravel truth from perception.

More often than not the majority of us continue to believe something we’ve heard or read about, even if we subsequently find out it isn’t true. Interested? Read on. 

Professor Lewandowsky working in the field of cognitive psychology suggests that it is a fundamental human tendency to accept the first thing we’re told and that it’s a property of the way the human memory operates. He sees this as a particular trait of humans to believe the first thing we are told or read about and that we find it difficult “unremembering” or “unbelieving” these entrenched memories.

So, how is this justified within the individual?

Lewandowsky believes it’s fundamental to the way we think and paradoxically people, knowing something is false, still rely on that information and find it difficult to correct their memory or update their knowledge based on new information.

This is where the discipline of scepticism is considered essential for processing information or ‘intelligence’ as it’s presented to us as mass media.

Lewandowsky has researched the variability in the levels of scepticism within communities worldwide; some countries exhibit high levels of gullibility, others are more questioning and sceptical.

During national election campaigns the Media (journalism) has a pivotal role expressing scepticism of policy messages and doing the intelligence analysis (the research). For example Lewandowsky believes that in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq based on the allegation that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, the world media was particularly uncritical.

Generally when there are repeated claims that are proven to be baseless and wrong then this assists generation of widespread scepticism. Lewandowsky says that developing the confidence to be sceptical is a very important starting point for an individual or a community - it’s a critical turning point and usually there’s no turning back.

“A lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on.”

Lewandowsky believes that anyone can function as an intelligence or information analyst; if you keep up to date with current affairs and follow quality news reports, you are a researcher with the important intelligence.

He warns, however, that to ‘process the information’ you need to pay ‘complete attention to the entire message’ as it is portrayed through the mainstream media.

These media messages are sometimes simplistic - sensational yet convenient - using highly emotive language that elicits strong memory responses that are the beginning of our mind’s tendency to believe what we’re first told. Any distraction or lack of concentration when such messages are delivered leads to a tendency to lose the capacity to critically process the information and consider the ‘negation’ or the alternative to the message.

The role of scepticism - as a mind-training disciple - is to allow us to entertain the alternative views to the ones we are exposed to and conditioned to through repetition.

Considering the alternatives is something we can generate ourselves through careful reflection and deductive reasoning; this is particularly apparent when new information (intelligence) or subsequent events demonstrate that the original message is shown to be wrong.

Scepticism is not cynicism. The discipline of scepticism is just a tool to help distinguish between messages that are actually ‘true’ and messages that turn out to be false.

It takes far more effort to be sceptical than to be cynical, because you really need to know and remember the detail; you need to be able to collate the material (research), recall the timelines and remember previous statements on the topic.

Clever politicians, not mentioning any names, are instinctively aware of these matters and they rely on the majority of the populace forgetting past comments or actions.

Sadly gullibility is quite prevalent in western democracies and many individuals continue to believe the first thing they’re told by people in positions of leadership or authority and sometimes it’s notwithstanding the prior track record of those leaders. Invariably over time a community presented with recurrent incidents of deceptive or misleading messages become increasingly sceptical of their leaders.

You can listen to Professor Lewandowsky’s interview by going to the ABC Radio National Life Matters website. 

 

David Obendorf

It takes far more effort to be sceptical than to be cynical, because you really need to know and remember the detail; you need to be able to collate the material (research), recall the timelines and remember previous statements on the topic.  Clever politicians, not mentioning any names, are instinctively aware of these matters and they rely on the majority of the populace forgetting past comments or actions.