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How we fool ourselves (and what to do about it)

Posted in the following categories: Personal Development

My battery is low and it’s getting dark.

Those were the final words of the Martian rover Opportunity as reported by numerous media outlets. The rover, lovingly nicknamed Oppy, fell silent in June 2018 after it was stuck in a massive dust storm. NASA officials beamed up hundreds of commands to the little rover, asking it to call home, but with no success. Oppy was officially pronounced dead in February 2019.

But what got most people’s attention wasn’t the fact that Oppy operated on Mars for 14 years—well past its 90-day lifetime. Nor was it the record-breaking 28 miles it traversed on the red planet—far more than any other extraplanetary rover.

No, what took the world by storm was the rover’s final transmission to Earth, reported with a tweet from a journalist.

My battery is low and it’s getting dark.

The tweet went viral, generating a media deluge across the globe. One guy even got a tattoo of Oppy’s final words on his back.

The message resonated with the public in part because we all feel, from time to time, like our batteries are low and it’s getting dark out there. To have the same sentiment expressed by a non-human gave us all the feels. For 14 years, this little rover dutifully obeyed her humans’ commands, while getting whipped around by fierce Martian winds and the type of intense dust storms that left Matt Damon stranded on the planet’s surface. As the dust slowly swallowed Oppy, she beamed to Earth a final goodbye that summed up the courage of the little rover that could.

My battery is low and it’s getting dark.

Here’s the problem: The story is false.

Right before it went silent, Oppy beamed a bunch of routine code to Earth that reported, among numerous other things, its power levels and the outside light reading. A journalist—who didn’t let facts get in the way of a good story—took this random code, paraphrased it into English, and tweeted to the world that those were “basically” the rover’s last words.

Millions of people then hit the retweet button and a chorus of media outlets published stories about the rover’s final transmission—all without pausing, contemplating, or bothering to ask, “How does a remote-controlled space robot spit out fully formed English sentences designed to tug at people’s heartstrings?”

I spent four years serving on the operations team for Oppy, building stuff that went to Mars onboard the rover. Yet, for a brief moment, even I fell for the story. When I first read Oppy’s supposed final words, I let out an instinctive “Awh!” and began to scroll through the press coverage digging for more. Then, out of nowhere, Richard Feynman’s famous adage jolted me out of my trance: “The first principle is you must not fool yourself, and you’re the easiest person to fool.”

Stories are powerful stuff. They create order out of chaos, clarity out of complexity, and a cause-and-effect relationship out of coincidence. These mentally vivid images strike a deep, lasting chord with us.

Stories can be used for good—to move people and to instigate change. But they can also be used for bad. “Old George Orwell got it backward,” Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club, writes. “Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat.” He’s telling you powerful stories that overwhelm you, until your imagination becomes “as useful as your appendix.” We fall for the story, throw logic and skepticism to the wind, and rush off to get matching Oppy tats.

Fake news isn’t a modern phenomenon. Between a good story and a bunch of data, the story has always prevailed. A mountain of data dispelling the fraudulent study that links vaccines to autism isn’t interesting. Jenny McCarthy explaining how her son developed autism after getting a vaccine (and then being miraculously cured through a dietary intervention) is endlessly fascinating.

The remedy? Exercise your skepticism muscles so they don’t wither. The next time you’re tempted to instinctively hit that retweet button or accept conventional wisdom for what it is, pause for just a moment. Ask yourself, Is this right? Am I being captivated by the story? If I had to poke holes in this story, what might I say? Question everything from the supposed emotional appeals of a dying rover to confident claims by a loud-mouthed politician.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go.

My battery is low and it’s getting dark.

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