What is the value of a local graduate in Malaysia? According to a professor from Harvard University, about the same as secondary school dropouts in some other countries. Or rather, according to a headline and report on an online news portal.

Because a few days after the story first broke, a retraction was published by the portal clarifying that the professor had “never stated this”. The esteemed gentleman had sent them an e-mail saying that he did not say local graduates in Malaysia were not good but rather that he had no data on Malaysia and that somebody had to do a study to find out.

I think the real headline here is “Sound waves miraculously transform between professor’s mouth and reporter’s ears to mean completely opposite thing”.

Despite the clarification, the damage may already have been done because retractions just don’t work that well. A group of researchers in Australia (tinyurl.com/star2-study) found that once a reader had been “primed” with an idea (in their study, a fictional news story about a fire caused by gas cylinders negligently stored in a cupboard), it was difficult to overturn that idea (for example, by publishing a retraction that said the cupboard was empty).

This is why this new phenomenon of fake news is so damaging. If a reader believes the first report, even if other news outlets publish refutations, it’s very likely that the original false idea will stick.

Take for example what was done by the media (or to the media?) during the Second Gulf War. The rationale for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was based on the idea that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Vice president Dick Cheney even claimed in 2002 that Saddam was “actively pursuing nuclear weapons at this time”.

In 2006 a survey found that between 20% and 30% of Americans believed Iraq possessed WMDs. However, this seemed to overlook the fact that no such weapons were ever found.

It was this very failure that Trump pointed to recently when he criticised the CIA for supposedly not telling the truth about his relationship with Russia.

What is interesting is that Trump is using a similar strategy employed by George W. Bush’s administration during the Second Gulf War of repeating something until it becomes “true”. Repeating a claim makes it more likely that people will believe it over time.

The difference now is that Trump’s administration is not spinning the press to his point of view; he’s accusing the press of lying. The phrase “alternate truths” has been bandied about when “lying” or “wrong” seems more apt.

The world view that Trump wants to implant in his supporters is that the media cannot be trusted.

It’s kind of a genius move really, because, firstly, it means his supporters will stop believing whatever bad press he gets. And, secondly, it’s an accusation that’s difficult to overturn. If you lie, whatever you say in your defence might not be true.

In one fell swoop, the notion of a free press for approximately 46% of the US public has been undermined by a playground defence of “they’re lying!”

The press is meant to provide a check and balance to whatever individuals claim their version of the truth may be. But if the press is cut out of the loop, then who can we trust?

Perhaps we can start by not trusting ourselves. We are naturally biased creatures.

There is a phenomenon where if somebody with a strongly-held belief is presented with evidence that contradicts that belief, the person ends up with their belief strengthened, not weakened.

There was that study (tinyurl.com/star2-study2) in 2013 when anti-vaxxers – people who think vaccination is dangerous – listened to and understood the counter-arguments to their belief. The study showed that these people became even more strongly anti-vaccination after learning this new information.

This entrenchment is the mind’s defences at work: A strongly-held belief is being threatened, and I have to dig in to protect it.

Research into how to overcome this issue is far-ranging and varied. But one method that works is to simply remind people that the information that they hear may not be correct or complete.

In short, be aware that every time you meet a new idea, there is a possibility it could be false.

But why do we need to be told to be sceptical before we read something, and to be open-minded after that? Shouldn’t we be doing that already?

I put it to you that the problems of the world are not a result of populists manipulating the masses but rather that the masses willingly go along for the ride.

Yes, we love the roller-coaster ride of emotions but let me plead this case with everyone: There is greater value in seizing your freedom to decide for yourself how to think about something instead of letting others do it for you.

I don’t know for sure what happened with the story published by the news portal that I mentioned at the beginning of this column. But I suspect that the reporter had a hypothesis in mind and, when he didn’t get the answer he wanted from the professor, he somehow rationalised that what was meant was what he wanted anyway.

It is to the professor’s credit that when confronted by the question, instead of saying “yes” or “no”, he said we have to study this more. He’s quite right.

If at the very least we are open to deeply-held ideas being wrong once in a while, then there is always a chance we can make ourselves better. (And if we are talking about our graduates, that they aren’t that bad after all.)


Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions.