Shortly before our 5th birthday last week I was updating our About Us page to bring it in line with our new approaches and changes that have happened over the last few years (yes, it has been that long since I last updated it).
In working my way through the new About Us page I found myself attempting to briefly explain the philosophy behind rbutr, and in doing that, succinctly summarising the core hypothesis behind our approach. It came out like this:
Our key hypothesis is that continual exposure to high quality critical analyses of all online content will foster a skeptical attitude towards all information and improve critical thinking skills as a result of that exposure.
As soon as I wrote that I realised that I finally had a research project we could actually run to at least get an idea as to whether the long term vision for rbutr is reasonable or not.
The Backfire Effect and Changing People’s Minds
Thanks to recent podcasts on The Backfire Effect by You Are Not So Smart (part 1, part 2 and part 3), and an episode by Freakonomics on The Men Who Started Thinking Revolution I have been primed to think more about how to research on changing minds can be conducted. This priming has paid off and finally given me the (always obvious in retrospect) idea that rbutr’s goals could be tested in a similar way. That we might be able to test whether it is possible to make people more skeptical towards information they encounter online, and better at thinking about that information critically.
Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler did amazing research which established the concept of the backfire effect, while Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman’s research won Kahneman a Nobel Prize for helping the world understand how and why people reach the conclusions they do. I don’t yet know of any research on our ability to influence people towards increased skepticality of the information they encounter online, nor any research which attempts to improve critical thinking skills through repeated exposure to critical analyses. So I think it would be novel research which could yield some valuable results.
Finding Someone to Conduct this Research
I’m keen to find someone who would like to make this research happen. I’ve already started working on potential experiment designs with the support of an academic advisor who has been working with rbutr in another area, and am happy to help get the ball rolling as much as possible.
I believe that if this research yields any positive results, it could really help direct the way forwards in this massive struggle we are currently all witness to online (one which Tim Berners-Lee rates in the top 3 biggest risks to the web), and may attract a lot of public attention because of it.
If you know someone who is interested in research in this are, and would like to help design and conduct this resarch, please share this article with them. If you would like to work with us to carry out this research, then I would love to hear from you.