Social media have brought fake news front and center, but why are humans attracted to “alternative facts?”
“People reject expertise now because it’s almost like self-actualization, it’s empowering,” said Tom Nichols, who recently published a book titled The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.
“It feels good to say, ‘you’re not going to tell me what to do,’ even if it’s something that you know you should do,” he said.
Associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London,Tali Sharot, agreed.
“People really value control. One of the things the brain is trying to do is control its environment to get as much good stuff and to avoid the bad stuff,” she said. “So control, in and of itself, is rewarding. We feel good about it.”
When people give the experts the opportunity to make decisions for them, “they feel like they are losing control,” according to Sharot.
Nichols started to notice that expertise is losing its power long before the last election cycle, but these notions intensified during the 2016 presidential race.
President Trump actively dismissed experts during the campaign. “They say ‘oh Trump doesn’t have experts.’ Let me tell you, I do have experts but I know what’s happening,” he said a year ago to a cheering crowd. “I’ve always wanted to say this – the experts are terrible!”
Sharot, who studies bias in the way people process information, said humans gravitate toward people who who tell them what they already believe in. “The brain is less likely to process something we don’t want to hear than something we do,” she said.
And, given the current flow of information online, if someone doesn’t like what they’re hearing from one expert, they can always easily find “alternative” information.
The Emotional States of America is To the Point’s ongoing series looking at the fate of science and critical thinking in an increasingly irrational age.
(Photo: Photo: Brittany.lee2)