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A sceptic's guide to politics

By Stephan Lewandowsky - posted Friday, 16 November 2007

The power of politicians, media, advertisers and other professional communicators to influence and potentially distort public opinion is well known.

Take Iraq for example. About a year after the 2003 invasion, roughly 30 per cent of respondents in an American survey still believed that weapons of mass destruction had been discovered in Iraq, and by 2006 that figure had declined only slightly, to 23 per cent. This erroneous belief persisted even though media and governments alike eventually accepted that Iraq possessed no such weapons.

How can so many people develop and cling to such mistaken beliefs in defiance of reality?


Democracy rests on the notion that a free marketplace of ideas is the best adjudicator between promising proposals and shallow silliness. But how can the marketplace function if many people do not remember what actually happened? Fortunately, research in psychology can provide an insight into this problem.

I recently conducted research with colleagues abroad in which we investigated how people processed information about Iraq. We identified scepticism as the key variable that predicted whether or not people mistakenly believed that weapons of mass destruction had been found. People who were sceptical about the motives underlying the invasion tended to be more attuned to the reality on the ground than people who were less sceptical.

Similarly, after it was corrected, sceptics were able to discount the misinformation, whereas those who were less sceptical failed to discount the discredited versions of events. Importantly, scepticism did not interfere with people's ability to remember true events, identifying it as a sharp and incisive tool to differentiate between truth and falsehood.

What does it mean to be sceptical? How can one be suitably sceptical of information presented in the media or by politicians? Is there anything we can do during this election campaign to avoid being misled?

I propose four strategies based on research findings in psychology and cognitive science that can assist us in processing information more judiciously and that may make us more resistant to mistaken beliefs.

First is confidence - an essential ingredient of scepticism. You cannot doubt a politician's statement, especially one based on unspecified intelligence, unless you have sufficient confidence to know that you may know better.


Is there any evidence that citizens may know better than politicians and their intelligence?

Again, Iraq offers a relevant example because few could doubt now that the many millions of people who marched against the invasion in early 2003 had it right, whereas the leaders Bush, Blair and Howard had it catastrophically wrong.

The leaders were legally wrong to launch an invasion that then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called illegal; they were wrong about the expected outcome because according to the UN, torture and violence are now worse in Iraq than under Saddam; and they were morally wrong because the invasion caused hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. It doesn't follow that our leaders are always wrong, or that intelligence is necessarily false, but it does follow that as citizens (the majority of whom in this country opposed the invasion) we have every reason (and every right) to be sceptical.

Indeed, if there is anything positive to be rescued from the Iraq fiasco, it is the reaffirmation of the intelligence of common citizens who disbelieved their leaders' statements and showed more common sense than their governments.

Second, being sceptical means avoiding what George Orwell called the memory hole. Simply put: don't forget what actually happened. For example; George W.Bush claimed at a news conference in March last year that Saddam Hussein had denied weapons inspectors access and thus made war inevitable. Do you recollect that happening? Or do you remember that the inspectors were driven out not by Saddam but by the Americans warning in 2003 that their safety could no longer be guaranteed?

Memory can be a powerful weapon: Remind yourself of what happened, even if leaders suggest that you had better move on and look to the future, as Mr Howard recently implored us to do in connection with rising interest rates.

Third, being sceptical means to consider the track record of politicians and specific media outlets. If their record turns out to be patchy, should you continue to trust them? For example; then British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Howard thoroughly and rather glibly dismissed the famous 2006 Lancet study which estimated that more than 600,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the invasion.

Yet we now know that Blair's own scientific advisers had informed him that the Lancet methodology was scientifically sound and the best technique available. Howard received similar advice from prominent Australian physicians. Does this indicate a good track record?

Likewise, concerning media outlets, it makes for a very interesting afternoon to go to a public library and re-read the articles in your favourite newspaper from the period leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

Ask yourself how much of that information ultimately turned out to reflect reality and how much was the stuff of fairy tales. If the fairy tale quotient comes out high, might it be advisable to apply some scepticism to the same newspaper's current reporting?

Fourth, being sceptical means that you need to focus on the information. We know from much laboratory research that it takes time and effort to process negation; hence, if a report says that weapons of mass destruction were not found in Iraq, chances are you will mistakenly remember this in the affirmative if you are distracted while processing the information. Do not let the dog and the kids get between you and the news if you really want to know and remember what is happening.

The importance of clear, honest, and coherent public information is as important as ever, especially during an election campaign. But equally crucial is our ability to process that information.

Perhaps the most important ingredient to achieve this is by approaching information with healthy scepticism, using the four techniques outlined.

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First published in The Canberra Times on 9 November, 2007.

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About the Author

Professor Lewandowsky is an Australian Professorial Fellow and a cognitive psychologist at the University of Western Australia.

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