Skepticism and Credulity on Facebook

I’m increasingly convinced that many (most?) people think in a fundamentally credulous way. By which I mean they tend to assume things are true by default, unless there’s a strongly compelling reason not to.

Here’s an example from a comment on a spammy Facebook event I got invited to:

put your hand in a fist
kiss ur hand 10 times
say ur crush 15 times
post this on 2 events
then look at ur hand

The way these things spread is through credulity: people read it, want it to be true that something will happen if they follow the simple instructions, so they assume it is true and follow through. (Of course, they would probably admit, if pressed, that it’s not really likely to do anything, but they at least believe it’s plausible — despite the absurdity of it.)

I think the core of skepticism isn’t requiring an unusually high level of proof or evidence to believe something, or even requiring any strong evidence at all, but rather thinking about whether or not to believe something in the first place. Once you’ve asked yourself “is this possible based on what I know,” the answer is obvious, but many people don’t ask themselves that question at all. For them, “but what if it is?” is all the convincing they need.

On a related note, the event promised a “Facebook Phone” to the first 10,000 people to spam 100 of their friends with invitations to it. None of the six thousand people to join so far thought to check whether such a phone exists, let alone whether the event was official.

It links to a similar event promising Dr.-Dre-branded headphones. None of the 8,000 people who’ve joined it thought to wonder why Facebook would divulge private information (such as event invitations) to Dr. Dre, or what either party would gain from such as promotion.

This sort of thing goes a long way towards explaining, for example, why we can’t seem to find funding for astronomy, while astrologers rake in hundreds of millions of dollars every year. (For comparison: the world’s largest radio telescope, the Arecibo Observatory, currently has an annual budget of only $2 million and is in danger of closing.)

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