stephen colbert

The Real Science of Truthiness

This piece has gone somewhat viral, and while the basic message is important, it gets some of the facts wrong. So I thought I would use this platform to share my concerns and see if you agree. Maybe it is me who is wrong.

Truthiness is “truth that comes from the gut, not books,” Colbert said in 2005. The word became a lexical prize jewel for Frank Rich, who alluded to it in multiple columns … Scientists who study the phenomenon now also use the term. It humorously captures how, as cognitive psychologist Eryn Newman put it, “smart, sophisticated people” can go awry on questions of fact.

If truthiness is an “intuitive, not always rational feeling” – does that mean it is less likely to be correct than deliberate, rational thinking? There is a lot of research demonstrating that intuitive thinking is more effective in many domains, especially when one’s conscious working memory doesn’t have the capacity to consider all of the options and attributes that matter. This includes everything from Klein’s Recognition-Primed Decisions to Dijksterhuis’ unconscious thought theory and deliberation-without-attention. Katy doesn’t say explicitly that it is never better to think intuitively, but I think the implication is pretty clear.

A similar implication comes through when she says that less effort leads to a greater confidence in a statement’s accuracy. Does less effort imply that it is really less accurate and so the process is biased? Again, the opposite is often true. When a concept is easily mapped to existing schema and scripts, this could be an indication that it is more accurate and so the process is beneficial.

So while I agree that these processes, pejoratively called truthiness by a famous Stephen Colbert episode, can lead us astray. But too generalize these phenomena too strongly is also a mistake. What we need is some metacognitive focus that helps us decide when to be deliberative and when to be intuitive.

Image credit: “Stephen Colbert 2” by David Shankbone used under CC BY-SA 3.0

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