Staving Off Sneak Attacks

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Quick quiz:

  • In the biblical story, what was Jonah swallowed by?
  • How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the Ark?

Did you answer “whale” to the first question and “two” to the second? Most people do … even though they’re well aware that it was Noah, not Moses who built the ark in the biblical story.

So wrote Lisa Fazio, an assistant professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, in a recent article titled “Why You Stink at Fact-Checking.” Fazio’s article was published in the very cool and credible online magazine The Conversation and republished last month in The Washington Post.

Fazio says that psychologists call the relevant phenomenon the Moses Illusion. But not long after I read her article, I heard a non-Moses-related variant on NPR. It went something like this:

“A humorous story is a …”

                                                                              “… joke.”

“Where there’s fire, there’s often …”

                                                                              “… smoke.”

“Another word for ‘people’ is …”

                                                                                      “… folk.”

      “The white part of an egg is called the …”




The Conversation article, based on a sizable body of research that Fazio and colleagues have conducted, demonstrates how easy and normal it is for all of us to unwittingly absorb—and share—false information. What’s more, the “negative effects of reading false information occur even when the incorrect information directly contradicts people’s prior knowledge.”

Participants in Fazio’s studies accepted false information even if they’d been “warned that some of the questions would have something wrong with them.” They did so when the factual errors turned up in questions related to their field of expertise. They did so even when the “critical information” was highlighted in red and they were told to pay particular attention to it!

If you’re concerned about your students’ ability to separate information from disinformation when they’re writing papers, I highly recommend you assign them to read Fazio’s article.


Writers beware too

The article got me thinking, indirectly, about “indirection.” Most good nonfiction writers I know consider indirection a fault, whether or not they know that name for it. (I’ve never heard another one.) I learned about indirection from the legendary Eleanor Gould of The New Yorker, but just now I was surprised to find that among half a dozen or so of my go-to writing and editing guides, only The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage discusses it:


indirection is what Harold Ross of The New Yorker called the quirk of sidling into facts as if the reader already knew them. An example is this sentence, in a profile of a college athlete: The 19-year-old also plays the piccolo. The reader pauses to wonder whether the 19-year-old is the athlete or someone else.


The most straightforward remedy is, of course, to get the athlete’s name in there. For example, “Wilson, 19 years old, also plays the piccolo.”

Indirection tends not to raise the hackles of readers who haven’t been trained to look for it—possibly because it’s common and accepted in fiction. For instance, take this opening sentence of a short story that appeared in The Atlantic: “It was Saturday and the house was full of flies again.” I’ve remembered that sentence for decades (although unfortunately I can’t remember or find online the title of the story or the author). It hooked me exactly because it sidles into the situation in a way that made me want to know more.

However, in nonfiction, avoiding indirection strikes me as important in two ways:

(1) Good ol’ clarity. I often advise writers who are trying to make an argument that the goal is to lead readers along step by logical step to their document’s conclusion—which, by the time readers reach it, will preferably seem inevitable. Firmly connecting the content of one sentence to that of the next underpins this step-by-step technique. Not “Wilson is an exceptional athlete. The 19-year-old also plays the piccolo” but “Wilson, at 19 years old, is an exceptional athlete. She also plays the piccolo.” Doesn’t the latter version feel much more grounded and authoritative?

(2) Fighting against the Moses Illusion. Note that both examples of the phenomenon I’ve given in this post present the false information indirectly. They don’t say, “Moses took two animals of each kind aboard the Ark. True or false?” and “The white part of an egg is called the yolk. True or false?” I’ll bet that most readers would catch the falsehoods here. Allowing ourselves indirection can also lure us into making mistakes we’re not even aware of.

The Conversation article concludes:

Detecting and correcting false information is difficult work and requires fighting against the ways our brains like to process information. Critical thinking alone won’t save us. Our psychological quirks put us at risk of falling for misinformation, disinformation and propaganda.


This applies to the psychology of writers as well as readers, I have no doubt. Caveat scriptor. 

Image Credit: Pixabay Image 1351629 by quinntheislander, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

About the Author
Barbara Wallraff is a professional writer and editor. She spent 25 years at the Atlantic Monthly, where she was the language columnist and an editor. The author of three books on language and style—the national bestseller Word Court, Your Own Words, and Word Fugitives—Wallraff has lectured at the Columbia School of Journalism, the Council of Science Editors, Microsoft, the International Education of Students organization, and the Radcliffe Publishing Program. Her writing about English usage has appeared in national publications including the American Scholar, the Wilson Quarterly, the Harvard Business Review blog, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times Magazine.