Are we in pursuit of truths, or reinforcement of beliefs?

DOVER — The title of the presentation immediately grabbed this editor’s interest:

“Fake News, Fraud, and Honest Error: The Psychology of Belief.”

Joan DelFattore, whose bio says she is professor emerita of English and legal studies at the University of Delaware and holds a doctorate in English and master’s in clinical psychology from Penn State University, will challenge those who attend the Delaware Humanities event Tuesday night at the Dover Public Library. It begins at 6:30 p.m.

In this age of “fake” news claims, how often do you stop and think about what you are reading.

Is it true?

Or do I believe it to be true?

Who was the gatekeeper?

Do I trust the news source?

What if a longtime friend shared it with me on Facebook?

In this digital world we now live in, all of us are bombarded with news, opinion, half-truths and falsehoods.

“I got interested in this topic because my specialty field as a professor of English and legal studies at UD was the right to free speech, which includes the right to lie except in very specific circumstances,” said Dr. DelFattore. “As a logical extension of that interest, it makes sense to talk about developing critical thinking skills in an environment where so much of what we hear is not true.”

Dr. DelFattore said she purposefully consumes news from multiple sources with differing slants.

Joan DelFattore

The tendency for most people, she says, is to seek reinforcement for their own beliefs.

“That has a lot to do with how sides become polarized, and always has had,” said Dr. DelFattore. “It also relates to another of your questions, about my using my Twitter feed as a way of being exposed to a variety of news sources on all sides, including the English-language foreign press and fact-checking sites.

“I have to remind myself several times a day not to assume that something is true because it conforms to what I already believed, or that it isn’t true because it doesn’t conform.

“Still, given the amount of uncertainty in human existence, and the inability of anyone to fact-check every piece of information that comes at us in a day, we just have to take some mental short cuts, like trusting certain sources.”

Dr. DelFattore might even get into your head a bit Tuesday night.

She cites a study available through Nature magazine that demonstrates how the brain reacts when “one’s cherished beliefs are contradicted.”

“The neural fireworks they recorded explain a lot about the tone of political debate,” she said.

***

You will notice above that this editor wrote, “whose bio says …”

In a March interview for Delaware Public Media, Nancy Karibjanian offered the Dr. DelFattore bio shared by Delaware Humanities and the University of Delaware.

Dr. FelFattore asked if Ms. Karibjanian knew this to be true or simply trusted it.

“She assumed that if UD says I have a Ph.D. from Penn State, I must have one, although she herself didn’t contact Penn State to see if that’s true,” she said. “That’s how I interpret what you said about a trusted news source.

“Given that I can’t double-check everything, there are indeed sources that I trust. If Linda Greenhouse writes something about the U.S. Supreme Court, I assume it’s true — or rather, and this is a big one, I assume that she believes it’s true, and that she’s probably right because, after decades of outstanding reporting from the Supreme Court, she couldn’t be easily fooled.

“But with all the good will in the world, and regardless of the level of expertise, any source can get something wrong. The best we can do is to assess the relative likelihood of error from one source versus another, and hope for the best.”

***

The pace of news should give you reason to pause, too, said Dr. DelFattore.

“Not being able to believe what you first hear has always been an issue, either because news sources are honestly confused in the wake of a dramatic event, or because they’re deliberately slanting or covering up what happened; and of course the 24-hour news cycle leaves even less time for reporters to double-check what they’re told,” she said.

“Add in all the radio talk show hosts, talking heads on television, social media ideologues, and unreflecting people sharing the parts they agree with on their own social media, and it’s a wonder we ever get anything straight.

“Making sense of the news is like taking a burrito out of the microwave: you have to give it time to cool and settle.”

Reach Executive Editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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