It’s always a good time to be skeptical

Thom looks at the Illusory Truth Effect and why its so easy to believe false information

It has often been said that if you say something frequently enough it becomes true.

Of course, that in itself is not true in empirical terms, but can be true in practical terms.

There is even a name for it: The Illusory Truth Effect.

It has always been used, particularly in the political realm, either intentionally (propaganda) or unwittingly (misinformation).

The term was initially coined in a study by Villanova University and Temple University that found when people are assessing whether something is true or not, they rely heavily on whether some new piece of information is in line with their current understanding or feels familiar. When something is repeated over and over again, it is undoubtedly going to feel familiar whether it is true or not.

I got thinking about this when I saw a meme on Facebook quoting Albert Einstein as saying: “The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.”

It is a great quote. And Einstein is certainly one of the most quotable humans to have ever lived. It certainly felt right that this is something Einstein might have said. But, being eternally skeptical, I decided to check it out.

The Internet exacerbates the effect. The quote has been attributed so widely to Einstein now that a quick Google search seems to verify the attribution as true. You have to dig a bit deeper to find out that, in fact, there is no evidence to suggest Einstein ever said anything of the sort, unless he was perhaps paraphrasing Alexandre Dumas fils (son of the author of the Count of Monte Cristo) to whom the following quote was attributed in the 1865 Great Universal Dictionary of the Nineteenth Century:

“Une chose qui m’humilie profondément est de voir que le génie humain a des limites, quand la bêtise humaine n’en a pas,” which might be translated as “One thing that humbles me deeply is to see that human genius has its limits while human stupidity does not.”

Perhaps the most famous of those who perpetuating the misattribution of that quote is Donald J. Trump. The irony should not be lost on anyone.

Of course, a misattributed quote is on the low end of the Illusory Truth Effect spectrum.

It does illustrate the need for vigilance, though. We are all vulnerable.

As Carl Sagan, one of the greatest skeptics of all time, wrote:

“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”

When is a good time to question the veracity of something?

All the time.

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