Feeling validated vs. being correct

It is ironic that one of our greatest technological advances has provided an incomparable boon to scientific illiteracy. I’m referring, of course, to the internet. Prior to the advent of the internet, wacky pseudo-scientific “theories” were relegated to the fringes and had to be deliberately sought out. Now pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo can be widely disseminated.

But perhaps more important than the actual dissemination of misinformation is that feeling of validation that internet communities provide. Pseudoscience can thrive when believers congregate on message boards that validate bizarre beliefs and ban information that undermines those beliefs. They don’t call it validation, though; that’s too clinical. They call it “support.”

Hart et al. explore this phenomenon in their paper Feeling Validated Versus Being Correct: A Meta-Analysis of Selective Exposure to Information. The authors explain:

… Receiving information that supports one’s position on an issue allows people to conclude that their views are correct but may often obscure reality. In contrast, receiving information that contradicts one’s view on an issue can cause people to feel misled or ignorant but may allow access to a valid representation of reality. Therefore, understanding how people strive to feel validated versus to be correct is critical to explicating how they select information about an issue when several alternatives are present. (my emphasis)

Avoiding cognitive dissonance is central to the search for validation:

… According to dissonance theory, after people commit to an attitude, belief, or decision, they gather supportive information and neglect unsupportive information to avoid or eliminate the unpleasant state of postdecisional conflict known as cognitive dissonance.

Minimizing cognitive dissonance requires selective exposure, seeking out information sources that confirm existing beliefs and avoiding sources that undermine those beliefs. For example:

In one of the initial studies testing selective exposure, mothers reported their belief that child development was predominantly influenced by genetic or environmental factors and then could choose to hear a speech that advocated either position. … [M]others overwhelmingly chose the speech that favored their view on the issue.

There is an exception, however. People were happy to view uncongenial information if they felt it was easy to refute.

Internet communities that promote pseudoscience are quite overt in their preference for validation over accuracy. Consider this reminder that appears at the top of the Mothering Unassisted Childbirth Forum:

… This is a forum for support, respectful requests for information, and sharing of ideas and experiences. While we will not restrict discussions only to those who birth without professional attendants, proselytizing against UC will not be permitted…

Mothering is even more overt in its insistence on selective exposure to information about vaccination:

… Though Mothering does not take a pro or anti stand on vaccinations, we will not host threads on the merits of mandatory vaccine, or a purely pro vaccination view point as this is not conducive to the learning process.

They’re not anti-vaccine but they refuse to print a pro-vaccine point of view? Whom do they think they are kidding? Of course, it’s hardly surprising if the primary purpose of the forum is to provide readers with validation, rather than to transmit accurate information.

The authors and publishers of pseudoscience books and websites are quite upfront about their determination to minimize cognitive dissonance by restricting the free flow of information. Only information that supports a predetermined point of view is allowed. Anything else must be deleted. To the extent that any real scientific papers are discussed, they are limited only to those that can be easily refuted. The rest of the vast scientific literature is ignored.

That’s why it is impossible to become “educated” when reading pseudoscience websites.