The Truth Is Out There…Isn’t It? (Ep. 50)
Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “The Truth Is Out There…Isn’t It?” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript.) In it, we try to answer a few fundamental questions: how do we know that what we believe is true? How do we decide which information to trust? And how do we quantify risk — from climate change to personal investments?
The program begins with Stephen Greenspan, a psychologist and an expert on “social incompetence” and gullibility. He knows from personal experience that even the smartest people can be duped into bad risk assessments, especially on the advice of people they trust. You can read more about him here (spoiler alert!).
We also talk with Dan Kahan of Yale Law School and Ellen Peters of Ohio State University, both of whom belong to the Cultural Cognition Project, a scholarly group focused on “how cultural values shape public risk perceptions.” We blogged earlier about their interesting finding:
Greater scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with greater cultural polarization: respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy and numeracy increased.
The authors hypothesize that people who are more numerate and scientifically literate are better at gathering information that confirms their existing beliefs. Kahan believes this happens, in part, for a pretty basic reason: we just want to fit in with our friends. So we work to maintain viewpoints that fall in line with our social group.
You’ll hear from professional skeptic Michael Shermer, who explains the evolutionary basis of funky risk-assessment practices. It all goes back to our hominid ancestors, he says, who needed to be on high alert to protect against predators.
Steve Levitt also chimes in:
If there’s one thing that human beings are terrible at, it’s assessing risk and knowing what to really fear versus the things we actually do fear. And the kind of things that tend to scare us are the things that evolution has bred into us. So, my wife is terrified of snakes, mice, flies, you know, butterflies, everything small that flies or that runs she’s terrified of. What are the chances that any of those are going to do her any harm in the modern world? Virtually nothing. I mean the things that you should be afraid of are French fries, and double cheeseburgers, and getting too much sun for skin cancer. Those are the kinds of things that really end up killing us in the modern world.
And what happens when our normal fears kick into overdrive? We talk to Nick Pope, formerly of the British Ministry of Defence, who for several years investigated UFO sightings for the government. (Some files from the Ministry’s UFO department have recently been made available at the British National Archives.) Since leaving government, Pope has been accused of being part of an elaborate government cover-up. He talks about the futility of trying to change a conspiracy theorist’s mind.
Climate change, hominid ancestors, UFO cover-ups, and smart people making bad decisions: all that and more in this week’s podcast.