We live in an amazingly connected world where information propagates into every nook and cranny across the globe in an instant, something we could never have imagined just a couple of decades ago.
There are approximately 7.5 billion people on this planet (Worldometers, 2017) and about 4.8 billion mobile phones (Statistica, 2017). We now have the ability to access a never-ending digital river of news, and many of us do to the point of obsession. There are about 330 million Twitter users in the world, an ideal platform to comment and express opinions on-the-fly, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Donald Trump has around 40 million followers on Twitter and wins the prize for the most followed world leader (USA Today, 2017).
Out of this social media revolution, a new and toxic kind of confidence has emerged. Suddenly, it appears that everyone is an expert on everything. Trump fires missiles into Syria. A million ‘armchair generals’ get to work on social media, in the pub, at the supermarket and around water fountains in offices all over the globe, telling anyone who will listen what the US military should be doing next. In February 2016, the then UK Prime Minister David Cameron announces that there will be an in/out referendum on EU membership in June that year. What happened next it etched into political history, forever. Out of the Brexit referendum vote, a new wave of ‘global economic affairs experts’ have emerged, and they have been offering their opinions on the pros and cons of leaving the EU ever since.
Now, we have 2 more monumentally important moments in political history being played out. Monumentally important for animal welfare, that is –
- On the 8th November, 2017 the Scottish Government announces that it will not ban the use of electric shock training collars for dogs (Kennel Club, 2017).
- On the 17th November, 2017 the UK Parliament rejects pleas to carry over current European Union animal welfare legislation – recognising animals as sentient beings – into UK Law after Brexit. That is, after March 2019, politicians across all political parties will reject the currently accepted position, enshrined in EU Law, that animals feel pain and experience emotional states like humans do (BVA, 2017a).
As you might have guessed, there is an ongoing tsunami of ‘expert’ opinion – for and against – permeating through the multimedia ether on both of these political outcomes.
The purpose of this article is not to try and unravel the complexities of these political decisions, what do I know, anyway? Nor am I going to wade in with yet another article about how bad these political decisions potentially are for animal welfare, there are plenty of those out there for you to read already.
Rather, using an evidence base of the best scientific information available, our goal is to try and answer a few fundamentally important questions –
- How dangerous is ‘Fake News’? Was it to blame for the political decisions made on the 8th and 17th November, 2017?
- Need we always have to have an opinion on just about everything, like the master of opinion himself, oozing self-confidence from every pore of his body, Mr Trump?
- What are the cognitive processes that underpin the formation of our opinion on something?
- What is the nature of the relationship between confidence and competence, are they just different words that describe the same thing?
‘Fake News’: Is it dangerous?
Yes, according to Jonas De keersmaecker and Arne Roets in a recently published paper, ‘Fake News’ is very dangerous indeed (De keersmaecker and Roets, 2017).
The researchers split 390 randomly selected participants in their study into 2 equal groups. The control group was given a photograph and a short biography of a young woman called Nathalie with details about her family, where she lived and her job as a nurse. The test group was given the same story, except with an added paragraph at the end revealing that Nathalie had been arrested for stealing drugs from the hospital where she worked and then selling them to fund her desire for designer clothes. After viewing the photo of Nathalie and reading her story, both groups were given a questionnaire where they were asked to evaluate the woman using a series of statements that they were asked to score.
At this point, the control group were put aside as their task was done. The test group, however were again given the photo of Nathalie, along with her biography, but this time the paragraph about the thefts and designer clothes was crossed out. In addition, the participants were explicitly told that this was because that information was false and it never happened. In other words, it was ‘Fake News’. Finally, the participants were asked to fill in exactly the same questionnaire again as they did before.
The results of the 3 sets of questionnaires, which effectively revealed the opinions of the participants on Nathalie’s character as a human being, were analysed. The results from the control group were used as the baseline of opinion, based on her accurate biography, without contamination with false information. A fundamentally decent and honest human being, someone you would be happy to leave your house keys with when you went away on holiday.
The interesting part of this study is what the researchers found in the results of the 2 test participant scores. As you might expect, when Nathalie’s story included the paragraph about her dishonesty, her character was scored as that of someone you really would not want to leave your housekeys with. When the test group repeated the questionnaire for the second time, with the new knowledge that the paragraph about Nathalie’s dishonesty was ‘Fake News’, all participants adjusted their scores positively. However, across the entire test group, Nathalie never achieved the glowing character references that she enjoyed with the control group.
Think about this for a moment –
The common belief is that, if we are given false information about someone, a work colleague for example, that was subsequently found to be wrong and then corrected, our attitudes towards that person would not be altered. That is, we would believe that our attitudes towards our work colleague would be the same as it would have been had we been given the correct information in the first place, and never knew about the errors.
This study shows that this assumption is incorrect, and it confirms the results of many other similar studies dating back to the 1950’s.
This is the scary bit –
Once a false belief has been ‘implanted’ into our minds, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to subsequently remove completely. Even after it has been exposed for what it is – ‘Fake News’ – and corrected, it lingers on sub-consciously in the background of our minds influencing how we subsequently processes that information. This is perhaps why the National Bureau of Economic Research, an organisation that carries out research on economic behaviour and the effects of government and public policies in the United States, believes that a single fake news story could have been more effective than a television commercial in influencing the 2016 American presidential elections (Allcott and Gentzkow, 2017).
‘Fake News’: How is it so dangerous?
Manufacturers and retailers of goods – from cars to cat-litter – pay advertising agencies, consultants and behavioural psychologists millions of pounds every year in their quest to influence the way we make decisions and therefore our behaviour as consumers. Political parties do the same thing of course to try and influence the way we vote in elections. Apparently, even foreign governments are up to it, as alleged in the news stories of Russian interference in the American elections, and also those of other countries such as Britain.
Although studies on how we make decisions go back to the 1950’s, the first studies that had a ground-breaking impact on our understanding emerged in the early 1990’s. Most quoted today are the various studies by David Dunning and Justine Kruger – together, alone and with others. The seminal findings are summarised succinctly in Dunning et al. (2003). If you want to study the abilities of a diverse group of people, college students make really good subjects. Usually, they come from a range of diverse backgrounds, they remain together for a reasonable period of time and they undergo a lot of standardised tests that capture their levels of expanding knowledge and understanding spanning across the diverse range of subjects they are being taught.
Dunning and colleagues describe a study where they asked students immediately after taking an exam how well they thought they had done and how well they thought they had mastered the subject matter they were being tested on. What they consistently found is summarised in the figure below.
|IMPORTANT NOTE: The findings described below have nothing to do with todays’ kids. The flaws in the education system and testing of kids abilities is now well-known, with recognition of different learning styles and a better understanding of dyslexia, autism etc. We summarise Dunning et al. results here, bearing in mind that the studies were carried out using adult consenting psychology students.|
Within any class of students, there are always some that seem to learn what they are being taught really quickly, and they sail through tests and exams, scoring high marks with apparently little effort. Then there are those at the opposite end of the spectrum that seem to struggle and have to work really hard just to scrape through tests and exams. Then there are those in between, that are often labelled as unremarkably average.
The horizontal axis in the chart above shows the spectrum of exam performance of all the students, with those that tended to struggle and scrape through on the left and those that seemed to score top grades with little effort on the right. The vertical axis shows the students depth of knowledge and understanding of the subject being examined.
The blue line on the chart shows how the students rated their mastery of the subject immediately after completing the exam. The red line shows their actual levels of understanding, as measured by their exam scores.
Nearly ALL the students over-estimated their depth of knowledge and understanding. However, the small number of students in the class that sailed through their exams, always scoring high marks, under-estimated their actual levels of knowledge. This is shown where the 2 lines intersect on the top-right of the chart.
The significance of this chart is that it is universally applicable across every walk of life. It influences important decisions made in business and politics. It also influences our own attitudes and behaviour.
No one would argue with the idea that, in order to get the best out of life, we should take advantage of our strengths, while at the same time recognising our weaknesses. However, the chart above tells us that this is not how things work. It tells us that individuals who are located on the left hand side of the chart in terms of cognitive ability and flexibility are unable to recognise their weaknesses. In fact they may actually see them as strengths, based on their over-estimation of their depth of knowledge and skills. So, they make mistakes, but because of their lack of knowledge, they don’t recognise that they are making them and are therefore unable to change their approach and correct them.
Dunning and colleagues call this –
“The double curse of ignorance of incompetence“.
Here is a purely fictional, but realistic example of the illustrate this double-curse in action.
|For as long as he could remember, Walter had been surrounded by dogs. His Mum used to breed and show Border Collies and Walter used to accompany her to dog shows, where he sometimes had the opportunity to handle one of the dogs in the ring himself, which he really enjoyed. After leaving home, life took a different path for Walter. He lived in the city and his work meant that he had to work long hours and also do a lot of travelling, which meant that having a dog was not an option for him. Walter had now recently retired into the country where he lived alone, and the first thing he did was to buy a Border Collie puppy, which he called Ben.
7 months later, his dreams of going for long walks in the countryside with Ben were not going according to plan. Ben had become unpredictable and aggressive and Walter was unable to let him off-lead. In fact, walking him in the local park had become a nightmare, and as time went on, Ben's walks got shorter and shorter.
Walter felt frustrated and embarrassed with his failure to sort out Ben's problems himself. After all, he had a lot of dog-training experience under his belt from his childhood, and he carried the confidence he gained in handling dogs in the show ring with his Mum through to his career in senior management, where he was responsible for a team of 30 members of staff. Walter described his management style as "Firm but Fair", and he had carried this approach through to training Ben. "Young and cocky", that's how Walter described Ben, just like many of the young women and men coming into his department at work.
As Ben grew up it was clear that we was trying to assume top-dog position in the household, and Walter had applied all the training methods he had learned as a boy to ensure that Ben knew who was boss. Despite his best efforts over the last few months using choke chains, ear-pinches, alpha rolls etc., Ben's dominant behaviour continued to get worse. Along with wanting to kill every dog he saw when out on his walks, the dog had now started to fight back during his training sessions by growling and snapping at Walter. Walter had therefore decided that he was now going to buy a shock collar, which he hoped would finally bring Ben to his senses by knocking him down a peg or two.
Walter's double curse
The knowledge and skills Walter needed in order to make informed and reasonable choices in how he set about training Ben at the beginning are the same knowledge and skills he now needs to self-evaluate the accuracy of those choices, and then to make appropriate adjustments to ensure the outcomes he wants for Ben.
A couple of months ago, Walter had been approached by a dog walker in the local park who saw him shouting at Ben as he barked and lunged at her and the dogs she was walking. The dog walker offered to help, suggesting that Walter's own behaviour was making Ben's worse, and he should be using rewards - not negative reinforcers and positive punishment - to train Ben. Walter was irritated by this remark and told the dog walker to mind her own business.
Walter simply did not recognise that, despite his own failure in training Ben, it was his approach to training that was at fault. Furthermore, he was unable to recognise that the dog walker's knowledge about dog training was superior to his own. Specifically, in relation to training dogs, Walter's failure was a failure in metacognition - the ability to evaluate his approach, and the different approaches of others, as correct or incorrect.
Walter therefore remained confident in his own dog-training abilities, despite the fact that he suffered the double curse of ignorance and incompetence as a dog trainer.
Bottom line (and a call to action?)
So, we have 2 decisions being made on our behalf by 2 governments –
- The Scottish government’s decision not to impose an outright ban on the use electric shock training aids in dogs
- The UK government’s decision not to include anima l sentience in the EU Withdrawal Bill.
Out of all this we can – with some degree of confidence – present 2 statements, only one of which is true, and apply it to each of these decisions.
|STATEMENT 1: Like the dog walker, the MP's collective decision was based on robust metacognitive processing, thereby avoiding the double curse of ignorance and incompetence.
STATEMENT 2: Like Walter, the MP's collective decision was based on faulty metacognitive processing, and was thus flawed by the double curse of ignorance and incompetence.
In a democracy we elect politicians to make complex decisions on our behalf. We assume that they take full advantage of the pool of resources at their disposal in order to collect together the most authoritative experts – both for and against – the decision under consideration. We assume that the decision that is finally made is indeed based on all this advice.
With regard to decision 2 above – The UK government’s decision not to include animal sentience in the EU Withdrawal Bill – the BVA released another statement on the 22nd November, 2017 that opens with the following paragraphs –
“MPs vote ‘that animals cannot feel pain or emotions’ into the Brexit bill”, shouted the Independent.
“MPs vote to reject idea that animals can feel pain or emotions during Brexit bill discussions”, cried the Yorkshire Post.
These alarming headlines spread across social media and veterinary forums like wildfire after a House of Commons vote on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill last week. Understandably, people were very upset, but what is the truth behind these statements?
The answer is that these sensationalist headlines failed to explain a more complex reality.
Then further down –
But we have to be clear that it was not a vote on whether or not animals can feel pain.
Then, on the 23rd November, 2017, Environment Secretary Michael Gove releases another statement that clarifies the government’s position on animal sentience, confirming that it will continue to be recognised and that further welfare protections will be put in place when the UK leaves the EU. Here is the statement in full –
“This Government is committed to the very highest standards of animal welfare. As the Prime Minister has set out, we will make the United Kingdom a world leader in the care and protection of animals.
It has been suggested that the vote last week on New Clause 30 of the EU Withdrawal Bill somehow signalled a weakening in the protection of animals – that is wrong. Voting against the amendment was not a vote against the idea that animals are sentient and feel pain – that is a misconception.
Ministers explained on the floor of the house that this Government’s policies on animal welfare are driven by our recognition that animals are indeed sentient beings and we are acting energetically to reduce the risk of harm to animals – whether on farms or in the wild. The vote against New Clause 30 was the rejection of a faulty amendment, which would not have achieved its stated aims of providing appropriate protection for animals.
The Prime Minister has made clear that we will strengthen our animal welfare rules. This government will ensure that any necessary changes required to UK law are made in a rigorous and comprehensive way to ensure animal sentience is recognised after we leave the EU. The Withdrawal Bill is not the right place to address this, however we are considering the right legislative vehicle.
We are already proposing primary legislation to increase maximum sentences for animal cruelty from six months to five years, and the creation of a new statutory, independent body to uphold environmental standards.
The current EU instrument – Article 13 – has not delivered the progress we want to see. It does not have direct effect in law – in practice its effect is very unclear and it has failed to prevent practices across the EU which are cruel and painful to animals.
In contrast, here in the UK, we are improving animal welfare standards without EU input and beyond the scope of Article 13. We are making CCTV mandatory in all slaughterhouses – a requirement which goes above and beyond any EU rule. We will consult on draft legislation to jail animal abusers for up to five years – more than almost every other European nation. We propose combatting elephant poaching with a ban on the ivory trade which is more comprehensive than anywhere else in Europe. Our ban on microbeads which harm marine animals has been welcomed by Greenpeace as “the strongest in the world”, and is certainly the strongest in Europe.
Once we have left the EU there is even more we could do. EU rules prevent us from restricting or banning the live export of animals for slaughter. EU rules also restrict us from cracking down on puppy smuggling or banning the import of puppies under 6 months. Article 13 has not stopped any of these practices – but leaving the EU gives us the chance to do much better. We hope to say more in these areas next year.
This government will continue to promote and enhance animal welfare, both now and after we have left the EU.”
(Parliament UK, 2017)
So, it seems that I finish this article where I started it – reminding ourselves about the power and pitfalls of social media. Perhaps Mr Trump will have something to say about this too in due course?
The real question is this –
How can we know which of these statements is true for the decisions made on the 8th and 17th November, 2017? The BVA and Government statements above go help answer this for the ‘animals don’t feel pain’ decision. What about the ‘shock collar’ decision, where do we stand with that?
I leave this here for you to ponder…
© copyright Robert Falconer-Taylor, 2017
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Images used in this article
- We Stand United – NYC Rally on Night Before Trump’s Inauguration (32308533331).jpg. By mathiaswasik from New York City, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
- Maurice Golden MSP. Image Copyright © 2017, Maurice Golden MSP. Used with permission. Maurice hosted the Scottish Government public consultation on 8th November,2017. Maurice supports the banning of shock collars in Scotland.
- The double curse of ignorance of incompetence (after Dinning et al., 2003). Copyright © 2017, COAPE. All rights reserved.
Allcott, H. and Gentzkow, M., 2017. Social media and fake news in the 2016 election (No. w23089). National Bureau of Economic Research.
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