Saturday, September 6, 2014

On truthiness, celebrities, and math

File:Time Saving Truth from Falsehood and Envy.jpgKaty Waldman recently published an article discussing how people's minds tend to grasp at the "low-hanging cognitive fruit" in daily life. She describes how sometimes we accept ideas as facts according their "truthiness" (a term coined by Steven Colbert in 2005). It's an interesting article and I recommend reading it. It makes me wonder about the role of truthiness in health-related behavior.

Colbert has described the notion of truthiness:
It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty. . . . Truthiness is "What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true." It's not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There's not only an emotional quality, but there's a selfish quality.
Waldman surveys some of the evidence for truthiness: how people, instead of analyzing data critically to draw conclusions, sometimes accept ideas based on seemingly unrelated criteria, like the aesthetic presentation of a written message or the familiarity of a message bearer's name.

Within the realm of health behavior, truthiness can be devastating. In epidemiology, for example, it is often said that people who suffer from a condition tend to look for and find a cause, whether one exists or not. Truthiness reminds me of Jenny McCarthy's views on vaccination and autism, which she described during an interview on The Oprah Winfrey Show:
Winfrey: So what do you think triggered the autism [in your son]? I know you have a theory.
McCarthy: I do have a theory.
Winfrey: Mom instinct.
McCarthy: Mommy instinct. You know, everyone knows the stats, which being one in one hundred and fifty children have autism.
Winfrey: It used to be one in ten thousand.
McCarthy: And, you know, what I have to say is this: What number does it have to be? What number will it take for people just to start listening to what the mothers of children who have autism have been saying for years? Which is that we vaccinated our baby and something happened. . . .
McCarthy: Right before his MMR shot, I said to the doctor, I have a very bad feeling about this shot. This is the autism shot, isn’t it? And he said, “No, that is ridiculous. It is a mother’s desperate attempt to blame something on autism.” And he swore at me. . . . And not soon thereafter, I noticed that change in the pictures: Boom! Soul, gone from his eyes.
The post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy of the passage has a high truthiness to many, even though scientific bodies have debunked the notion that vaccination causes autism.

How do "truthy" fringe ideas persist and grow in the general population? Deffuant and coworkers in 2002 published a study applying agent-based modeling to analyze the propagation of extremist views. Nigel Gilbert's book describes the study succinctly:
In Duffuant et al's model, agents [individuals] have an opinion . . . and a degree of doubt about their opinion, called uncertainty . . . An agent's opinion segment is defined as the band centered on the agent's opinion, spreading to the right and left by the agent's value for uncertainty. Agents interact randomly. When they meet, one agent may influence the other if their opinion segments overlap. If the opinion segments do not overlap, the agents are assumed to be so different in the opinions that they have no chance of influencing each other. If an agent does influence another, the opinion of one agent (j) is affected by the opinion of another agent (i) by an amount proportional to the difference between their opinions, multiplied by the amount of overlap divided by agent i's uncertainty minus one. The effect of this formula is that very uncertain agents influence other agents less than those that are certain.

 . . . The model shows that a few extremists with opinions that are not open to influence from other agents can have a dramatic effect on the opinions of the majority . . .
In the case of vaccination and autism, the high truthiness (to some) of the idea that MMR vaccine causes autism produces a group of people very certain in their beliefs. Duffuant et al, working within the context of political ideas, show that such a group can impact the opinions of others, thereby propagating their ideas.

Perhaps similar dynamics apply to the case of vaccination, and potentially other health-related memes such as the raw milk movement. I also wonder about the truthiness of the local myths surrounding Ebola and how those might spread more widely, potentially affecting public health in outbreak areas adversely.

(image source: Wikipedia)

No comments:

Post a Comment