by Eric Samuels

During the closing credits of 1984′s This Is Spinal Tap, front man David St. Hubbins proudly exclaims “I believe virtually everything I read, and I think that is what makes me more of a selective human than someone who doesn’t believe anything.

I couldn’t help but think of this quote while recently investigating a number of internet false-facts in the process of researching a presentation. I was specifically intrigued by misinformation which, despite having been disproven countless times, continues to circulate as fact.

Here’s one of my favourites:

Everything that can be invented, has been invented.”

This quote is most often attributed to Charles Duell, Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office in 1899.

However, neither Charles Duell, nor anyone else connected with the U.S. patent office, ever said anything of this nature. In fact, in 1899 Duell appeared before the U.S. Congress and brazenly announced that the future of American success depended on invention.

And yet this completely false quote continues to appear on thousands of web sites, in myriad powerpoint presentations, and in countless conversations, to support various theses, as an example of a boneheaded comment of historical magnitude. Why?

It would be easy to explain this as laziness; a lack or desire or effort to properly research a topic. But there’s much more to it than that.

Consider this – not that many years ago, doing any form of research generally required a physical trip to a library. There, someone in a hurry, could head straight for the encyclopaedia section, open a Britannica, and hope to find what they needed.

Suffice it to say, with the advent of the internet, research trips to the library have all but disappeared, as a quick Google search for Dumb Quotes, for instance, can instantly yield over 4 million hits. And while Encyclopaedia Britannica employs dozens of editors and thousands of fact checkers (and was still accused in early editions of getting facts wrong), the vast majority of web sites have absolutely no obligation to get things right.

So, in a world where it may sometimes be convenient to think like David St. Hubbins, the internet provides no end of misquotes, urban legends, and flat-out erroneous information.

So, why do we allow ourselves to be so consistently misinformed? Often, it’s because fiction plays better than fact. I recall a former co-worker describing someone as “not wanting facts to interfere with his opinion.” And, while funny, this characteristic is a lot more common than you might think.

Consider politicians, masters of misinformation and partial truths. Politicians quickly learn to focus on whatever piece of information supports their point of view, no matter how insignificant it may be in the grand scheme of things, while completely ignoring all the facts that contradict their position. And with careful and consistent repetition, the pseudo-truth can quickly become the talking point of anyone who supports their ideology.

Why? Because our brain is so overwhelmed by information and choices, that we actually filter out whatever doesn’t fit with our needs and/or point of view. And this process actually occurs at a neurophysiological level – in our pre-frontal cortex, as our brain has the remarkable capacity to selectively filter out information that doesn’t fit what we already believe to be true!

For this reason, debates between those with established opinions on any number of socially volatile issues, from climate change to abortion, intended to persuade the other side to even consider an alternative to their position, generally only serve to further the divide. In fact, the vast majority of any such efforts are often solely intended to convince those on the sidelines who may not have yet formed an opinion.

Which is why we often accept what we read without question – provided it supports our existing point of view or needs. In this regard, David St. Hubbins seems to have gotten it right.

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