Internet a Petri Dish For Denialism?

At Scienceblogs, Razib Khan mentions an interesting-sounding new book called Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives, by Michael Specter. I liked this:

The totally rational life, where all acts and opinions are subject to deep and thorough criticism, is not the human life… . But, serious problems emerge when our intuitive prejudices push themselves into the scientific domain. Natural science has over the past few centuries proven itself to be a marvel not by extension of our intuition, but contravention of that intuition resulting in an even closer fit to reality (contrast Newtonian physics with “folk physics”).

Indeed, what Khan calls the “genre of argument from intuition and plausibility derived from an emotional response” sounds very familiar. Is “denialism” of various stripes becoming more and more common, or does it just seem that way?

If it is becoming more and more common, it may be the internet’s fault. Science has long known that dividing people into like-thinking groups causes them to settle more and more firmly into their beliefs. According to this New Yorker review of Cass Sunstein’s On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done, the internet-“which makes it easy for extremists to chat with their soul mates”-only exacerbates this tendency.

There is virtually no opinion an individual can hold that is so outlandish that he will not find other believers on the Web. “Views that would ordinarily dissolve, simply because of an absence of social support, can be found in large numbers on the Internet, even if they are understood to be exotic, indefensible, or bizarre in most communities,” Sunstein observes. Racists used to have to leave home to meet up with other racists (or Democrats with other Democrats, or Republicans with Republicans); now they need not even get dressed in order to “chat” with their ideological soul mates.

At one point, the reviewer gently mocks “the assumption that people turn to the Web for information.” It seems to me we’d all avoid a lot of frustration if we could learn to distinguish between people who are truly seeking knowledge, and people who are merely interested in confirming that their suspicions are correct.

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