Shock-and-chaos, disinformation, and the ontology of truth

In April 2019 Professor Stephan Lewandowsky from the University of Bristol came to speak about his research into the psychology underlying the spread and use of disinformation, acceptance of science, and belief in conspiracy theories. In particular, he focuses on the psychological mechanisms explaining why people often embrace beliefs that are sharply at odds with the available evidence.

These topics are especially relevant in the world today; as Lewandowsky pointed out, the status of evidence and facts in our current political discourse (especially in the US and the UK) is of concern to many. The word “post-truth” was word of the year in 2016, only to be replaced by “fake news” in 2017, and (to take just one example) Donald Trump has issued more than 8,000 false or misleading claims since assuming the presidency.

In his talk, Lewandowsky presented research exploring the effects and causes of this sort of rampant lying. His work explored how people’s beliefs in specific claims were related to their voting intentions and feelings for a political candidate, as well as how likely they were to revise their beliefs if those claims were retracted. One conclusion was that in the United States, unlike Australia, a reputation for truth-telling affects belief in specific claims but has little effect on people’s estimation of candidates. Lewandowsky also reported an analysis of Donald Trump’s tweets to show how they can successfully distract the public from topics that are potentially harmful to the president. He interpreted these results in the context of people’s na├»ve ontology of truth and its knowability.

The talk was thought provoking and very well received. We thank Professor Lewandowsky for his presentation and his visit to the University of Melbourne.