Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Challenges, Challenges!

Sure, we all learn new things about the world, though do you ever think much about how, in order to learn something, you must often unlearn something else that was contradictory?

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

While a phenomenon having to do with the earth's rotation, called the Coriolis Effect, determines the cyclical direction of storms and water currents, 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. (You can also change the direction with your hand!)
` And one more thing; 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 correct and which ones were actually common misconceptions.

Half an hour later, the older volunteers incorrectly remembered the 'trueness' or 'falseness' of 28 percent of the statements! Younger volunteers misremembered the same amount, except this was after three days rather than thirty minutes.
` As for the older individuals at three days, they falsely remembered 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 their own mistaken perceptions were put forth as fact 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 can forget more and more details, and to compensate, your brain may 'flesh out' the sketch differently - thus your memory changes without your being aware of it.

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 perhaps 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 many 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), a message heard often enough may seem to have been repeated too many times to have come from only one source.

When that happens, 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.
` Apparently, in the absence of a reply, people will still hear what they want to hear!

The whole point to this is; ensuring that I'm getting correct information across to someone can be difficult 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.
` To begin with, I've long been a science enthusiast and have a huge amount of scientific and skeptical understanding from reading the hundreds of publications currently in my possession.
` Secondly, I have more than seventy college credits so far - mostly in science and math - at Everett Community College, though I have not been able to afford tuition since successfully completing Spring 2008.

Someday, however, I will be able to say that I have at least three degrees - in psychology, biology and writing - most likely from Washington State University. You can count on that.

` In the meantime, each day that I go to work at my blue-collar job, I will be pondering the cost of attaining those degrees versus the cost of not having them.


Kingcover said...

Yeah I remember you correcting me quite a while ago when I suggested that water always swirled in the same direction depending on which hemisphere you happened to be on and I remember saying to myself that this woman is nuts. I still believe you are nuts (snicker) but I did Google a few things about the subject afterwards and came to the conclusion that you are indeed a living god. I then Googled 'living god' but couldn't find your name on the list so I guess I got that myth incorrect as well :-P

Bottom line is that I do believe that the water spiral direction is indeed a myth now and I have you to thank for that so please don't change your mind about it in the future otherwise my head may explode with the indecision of what to believe. HA!

Galtron said...

Wow! Now here's a real 'Introspection of a Struggling Mad Scientist!' Maybe you can start an online donation for your college fund? What do you think?

S E E Quine said...

Don't worry there, Gareth, I'm not here to confuse you; I'm just here to brainwash you into submission so that I can go through with my plans to take over the world.
` *rubs hands together* Mua ha ha ha!
` Whoops. I forgot this was a serious blog.

Galtron: That sounds completely insane. However, if there was a way to get enough attention, that crazy plan could work! I've seen it happen before.
` I'll just need thousands of readers, and everything'll be all set!

Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

You have been very, very, very busy since I last dropped by your blogs!

Devotee said...

I feel like I've learned something.

Unfortunately, what I've learned is basically that in two or three weeks, I'm bound to completely misremember what you just taught me.

In fact, I may already be misremembering it.

Who am I, again?

: )

Mona Albano said...

Maybe you should just create a wiki for which only you are authorized.

S E E Quine said...

O my!! I just got my computer hooked up for the second time since I've been here - it's November already!
` It was in hibernation mode, so it saved what I had been doing, and I had apparently been about to post this comment:

Nick: And it's gotten worse!

Devotee: You may have to check your driver's license.

Mona: What's the difference between a wiki made by one person and a website?

Anyway, if you receive this comment in your email, know now that I have my computer back and will be making a few more posts than I have been!