Contradictheory: When 'your news is not my news' becomes dangerous


  • Living
  • Monday, 30 Apr 2018

I was trying to talk to a friend about quantum computing. Google had recently announced a new quantum computing chip with 72 quantum bits (qubits). This is absolutely amazing news, I told my friend, and if it really works, some things will never be the same.

My friend’s response was to ... well, kind of ignore me. I have to admit I was disappointed. Hey, it’s cool tech full of mind-bending concepts that will change the world. What’s not to like?

Of course, it was a little presumptuous of me. After all, I’m not interested in everything other people are.

Take today’s news feed on my social media platforms, for example. I see the following: Eight seats in a Malaysian state are vulnerable, a Marvel comics icon is accused of sexual assault, and Google will be overhauling Gmail.

Only the Gmail article caught my attention. It’s about something I use every day, and if the changes really work, it will be good for all e-mail users everywhere. Of course, if you’re not tech-inclined, you would just skim an article like that.

But what about the other two pieces of news? Why did I ignore them?

Consider news from a variety of sources, says Contradictheory
The theory is that more information should lead to better decision-making, so conversely, denying information is only hurting ourselves.

Well, honestly speaking, I am just about election-news’ed out by now. And I don’t live in that state in question, I don’t know any of the MPs involved, and I suspect the definition of “vulnerable” is based more on opinion than fact (I checked; it is). So this is an example of a piece of news that you are not interested in because you don’t think it applies to you, or because you believe it has nothing new to offer.

Which brings me to that last piece of news: The 95-year-old Stan Lee has been accused of sexual misconduct. My initial reaction was to ask, “Really?”, followed by an assumption that this is gossipmongering. After all, Stan Lee is the man responsible for many of the Marvel Comics that I grew up on. The recent success of the Marvel films has fanned the flames of nostalgia and increased his stature in my eyes.

So of course I don’t believe the accusations. And as a result, I find myself not wanting to click on the article and read the details. This is called information avoidance. It’s when people have the opportunity to learn something new, but decide not do it because it looks like it might contradict their beliefs or opinions.

What’s interesting, given that I knew it’s irrational to avoid it, is that I still found it very hard to read the article. I had an uncomfortable feeling on my skin.

In an experiment done at Mercer University in the United States, people were made to listen to lectures either affirming or denying the link between smoking and cancer. However, the speeches were masked by a white noise machine that participants could turn off by pressing a button. Unsurprisingly, smokers listening to the lecture affirming the smoking-cancer link were less likely to switch off the white noise.

This is clearly not good. The theory is that more information should lead to better decision-making, so conversely, denying information is only hurting ourselves.

In the era of social media – especially during the current election season – there’s going to be information overload, of course, and you can’t read everything. But I’m just saying, maybe you should read some of the stuff you don’t want to and not dismiss it outright. Look at it more carefully. It will be uncomfortable, but it should be done.

I’m going to go one step further and say that maybe you should buy newspapers with news that contradicts your beliefs. I know it’s hard. As I write this, part of me is thinking, “Why should I pay good money for bad news?” Well, because otherwise I am blind to half the information out there.

Coming back to my friend. It may be that they just didn’t want to learn about quantum computing not because of the messenger but because of the subject. Or they had other things on their mind. Or they just don’t like the word “quantum”.

This may seem trivial to you. But science is an area of study where the facts matter, and should matter, above other things. This is why it’s dangerous to mix politics and science (or maths). You end up ignoring facts because they don’t fit your beliefs.

One more warning: It works the other way around as well. For example, it is obvious that climate change believers will support the views of a scientist who presents evidence of global warming. But the big problem is that this belief is maintained, whatever the scientist’s actual qualifications are. The thinking is that believers filter out information that may result in a disagreement with people of their own “group”.

Currently, I am an active supporter – and believer, I suppose – of quantum computing becoming something real and consequential. This despite having no formal training in the topic. But the scientists say this is true, and I believe them, so that’s all good, right?


In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at star2@thestar.com.my.


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