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people inside an ambulance

Everybody is in the wrong (at least a little)

Video version of this blog post

Here’s one way to summarize American politics these days:

We have the truth. It’s those other people that are completely full of it.”

There aren’t many slight differences of opinion, where people can see each other’s points and calmly discuss the nuances. Nope. For many, it’s all extremism, all of the time.

This is in part because of a psychological phenomena known as confirmation bias. In short, when we get new evidence, we tend to use that information to confirm what we already believe, rather than evaluating it independently.

That’s what happened last week when a local TV station in Oklahoma City released a segment about the current state of the pandemic. Here’s the headline and the lead sentence:

Patients overdosing on ivermectin backing up rural Oklahoma hospitals, ambulances

A rural Oklahoma doctor said patients who are taking the horse de-wormer medication, ivermectin, to fight COVID-19 are causing emergency room and ambulance back ups.


Almost everything in that statement is not factually true:

  • There is no backup in hospitals or ambulances caused by people taking ivermectin.
  • A doctor didn’t make this claim, at least not based on the quotes that appear in the video.
  • Ivermectin is an anti-parasitic medication that is used both in humans and in a variety of veterinary settings, including in horses, dogs, and reptiles.

Again, it’s not true. But it sure feels true. That’s because there have been all kinds of other stories in the news related to these topics. People have been taking this drug recently. There is some indication that it might be helpful against COVID-19. And ivermectin can be purchased over-the-counter without a prescription, including from farm supply stores as well as online retailers.

From there, the story only gets worse. Rolling Stone magazine ran a piece using the KFOR article as their source. MSNBC picked it up too. So did lots of other commentators, especially those on the Left for whom the idea of “hospitals backed up due to people taking horse medication instead of following expert advice” feels like a true story.

It’s confirmation bias. People tend to take new information and assume it supports what they already believe.

But this story is false. And guess how those on the Right responded? By claiming this is “another example” of media dishonesty. And they note that there isn’t much of a response to their critique: Rolling Stone made an update, but not a retraction. KFOR has been silent on the matter. Few of the high-profile commentators have apologized for spreading false information.

Thus, we are probably at the end of this news cycle. By the time you read this, the world has moved on to being angry about other things.

And maybe it will be the Right who makes the error the next time. Maybe they will fail to double check their sources. Or even act with intentional malice, as some claimed happened this time.

Either way, it’s the confirmation bias that is eating us up, bit by bit. We have to stop believing things because they sound like they are true.

Because “sounds like true” is not the same as actually true. Even if that seems easier to believe.

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