Talking to the public

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David Crystal laments on his blog:

it's going to be difficult to dispel the urban myths about texting. Here’s an example of the problem. Txtng came out on 5th July. On the 6th there was a report in Scotland on Sunday headed ‘Professor spreads the word on joy of text’. That sounds good, and the report did summarize quite well the six main points …

At the end, the reporter asked for a reaction from the Headteachers’ Association of Scotland. This is what the spokesman said: ‘Because of the rate in which text-speak is taking hold I shudder to think what letters will look like in 10 years’ time.’

The spokesman obviously hadn’t paid any attention at all to the report.

Not an uncommon scenario. An expert — someone with detailed knowledge in some domain and with evidence bearing on a question in that domain — speaks authoritatively on that question. Some members of the public who have an opinion on the question then simply disregard the expert's testimony. What's going on here?

Part of the problem is that a lot of people see experts as merely offering opinions, no more valuable than any other source of information. Some people seem to believe that experts are in fact less credible than other people, because experts (they believe) have a "special interest" in their area of expertise and speak on that area primarily as a way of furthering their careers.

Another part of the problem is that people trust their own experiences, even though their perceptions of what's going on around them are likely to be seriously distorted by selective attention, confirmation bias, and related effects. No doubt the spokesman for the Headteachers' Association of Scotland was just reporting what he plainly saw as happening around him.

Next, there are usually prominent people — newspaper columnists, for example — asserting the position that the expert is challenging.

Finally, no one takes well to having their beliefs challenged, indeed contradicted.

Given all this, dispelling myths is going to be hard work. Cheers to David Crystal for fighting the evil-texting myth.


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