Last year on this show, we did three episodes about the backfire effect, and by far, those episodes were the most popular we’ve ever done.

In fact, the famous web comic The Oatmeal turned them into a sort of special feature, and that comic of those episodes was shared on Facebook a gazillion times, which lead to a stories about the comic in popular media, and then more people listened to the shows, on and on it went. You can go see it at The Oatmeal right now at the top of their page. It’s titled, you are not going to believe what I am about to tell you.

The popularity of the backfire effect extends into academia. The original paper has been cited hundreds of times, and there have been more than 300 articles written about it since it first came out.

The backfire effect has his special allure to it, because, on the surface, it seems to explain something we’ve all experienced — when we argue with people who believe differently than us, who see the world through a different ideological lens — they often resist our views, refuse to accept our way of seeing things, and it often seems like we do more harm than good, because they walk away seemingly more entrenched in their beliefs than before the argument began.

But…since those shows last year, researchers have produced a series new studies into the backfire effect that complicate things. Yes, we are observing something here, and yes we are calling it the backfire effect, but everything is not exactly as it seems, and so I thought we should invite these new researchers on the show and add a fourth episode to the backfire effect series based on what they’ve found. And this is that episode.

Advertisements

Our guest for this episode, Will Storr, wrote a book called The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science.

In that book, Storr spends time with Holocaust deniers, young Earth creationists, people who believe they’ve lived past lives as famous figures, people who believe they’ve been abducted by aliens, people who stake their lives on the power of homeopathy, and many more – people who believe things that most of us do not.

Back in the early 1900s, the German biologist Jakob Johann Baron von Uexküll couldn’t shake the implication that the inner lives of animals like jellyfish and sea urchins must be radically different from those of humans.

Uexküll was fascinated by how meaty, squishy nervous systems gave rise to perception. Noting that the sense organs of sea creatures and arachnids could perceive things that ours could not, he realized that giant portions of reality must therefore be missing from their subjective experiences, which suggested that the same was true of us. In other words, most ticks can’t enjoy an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical because, among other reasons, they don’t have eyes. On the other hand, unlike ticks, most humans can’t smell butyric acid wafting on the breeze, and so no matter where you sit in the audience, smell isn’t an essential (or intended) element of a Broadway performance of Cats.

Now that algorithms are everywhere, helping us to both run and make sense of the world, a strange question has emerged among artificial intelligence researchers: When is it ok to predict the future based on the past? When is it ok to be biased?

“I want a machine-learning algorithm to learn what tumors looked like in the past, and I want it to become biased toward selecting those kind of tumors in the future,” explains philosopher Shannon Vallor at Santa Clara University.  “But I don’t want a machine-learning algorithm to learn what successful engineers and doctors looked like in the past and then become biased toward selecting those kinds of people when sorting and ranking resumes.”

One of the most effective ways to change people’s minds is to put your argument into a narrative format — a story — but not just any story. The most persuasive narratives are those that transport us. Once departed from normal reality into the imagined world of a story, we become highly susceptible to belief and attitude change.

In this episode, you’ll learn from psychologist Melanie C. Green the four secrets to creating the most persuasive narratives possible.