Dec 29 2015
Yesterday I wrote about types of misinformation online. I left one out – skeptics or scientists creating false information to show how easy it is for people (or specifically the press or journal editors) to be fooled.
I have never personally done this for several reasons (as tempting as it may be): I think it’s important to protect my integrity as an honest broker of information and opinion, and that would be sullied by a deliberate hoax, no matter what my intentions. I also worry about adding to the pile of misinformation out there, while the lesson would be largely lost. Also, it can be a lose-lose situation. If you pull it off well, it can backfire. If you don’t pull it off well, you look silly.
Case in point – in 2012 a Portugese-language blog created the false conspiracy theory that Avril Lavigne killed herself after her first album, and was replace by a doppleganger who took over her career. However, the replacement dropped subtle clues in lyrics and elsewhere, revealing the conspiracy.
The conspiracy theory took off, with some fans believing Avril was dead. The blog authors then issued a reveal, which was largely ignored. They proved their case, but did not quite have the outcome they were hoping for.
This episode now gets added to the pile of examples of how easy it is for people to backfill a narrative. This is one more reason not to attempt skeptical hoaxes – you don’t need to. There are enough real-world examples.
The process should be familiar to regular readers here. Once you have an idea in your head, confirmation bias kicks in and can be incredibly powerful. The human brain is well constructed for pattern recognition. We can unconsciously sift through incredible amounts of information looking for associations. When we find them, they seem impressive and we assume it is unlikely that the associations are a coincidence. This is because we literally are not aware of the millions of possible associations we had to choose from.
We also readily engage in anomaly hunting, looking for tiny details that don’t seem to fit. It’s easy to give innocent or quirky anomalies a sinister interpretation.
Finally we weave all this into a compelling narrative. We falsely feel as if our ability to explain something is evidence that the explanation is real, and support the explanation further with cherry-picked details, coincidences, and anomalies.
My favorite example is a satirical take on the first Star Wars movie. The conspiracy theory argues, from the perspective of a citizen of the Empire who is not in-the-know, that blowing up the Death Star was in inside job. How could one X-wing, flown by a farm boy, blow up the most fortified station in the galaxy? It turns out the head of security (Darth Vader – who miraculously escaped) was his father.
The Avril Lavigne story is not even new. There was a similar conspiracy theory that Paul McCartney was dead and replaced by a look-a-like. Fans looked at clues on the album covers and in the song lyrics.
Recently (sorry for the second Star Wars reference) a theory popped up on the internet that Jar Jar Binks was actually a Sith Lord conspiring with Palpatine the whole time. Was his apparent dumb luck throughout Episode 1 just bad comedy on the part of Lucas, or a sign that Jar Jar was hiding incredible skill behind a bumbling facade?
Fiction rewrites also reveal the process. You can reimagine Lord of the Rings with Aragorn and his side as the bad guys, fighting for mysticism against the rise of science and technology.
There is also a popular meme that the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy were somehow mystically linked. Proponents cherry pick coincidences between the two (both were killed on a Friday, etc.) while at times tweaking the facts to fit the narrative. It can seem impressive because we have a hard time conceptualizing large numbers, and don’t intuitively realize the number of details proponents had to choose from to find their alignments.
All of these examples are ridiculous or fictional, but they serve as an illustration of the process of starting with a narrative and then finding supporting details, anomalies, and coincidences. This process plagues human thinking, and has many much more subtle manifestations.
Even trained scientists can fall into the trap of this kind of thinking, looking for facts to support their hypothesis and being overly impressed by its ability to explain things.
Rather, it is better to put such ideas through a fine skeptical filter. You should question every supporting detail – what does it really mean, and how likely is it for such details to be found? The ability of a hypothesis to predict new information is much more telling that its ability to explain known information.
Further, it is important to consider alternate hypotheses – do they equally account for the available information? Which one makes better predictions.
Without the skeptical filter, the default process of human reasoning will latch onto narratives because they are available, common, or comforting and them backfill the evidence in a way that can be overwhelmingly compelling but lack reality.
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