H. Sterling Burnett, writing for the Heartland Institute blog, wrote a revealing post titled: Energy Restrictions, Not Climate Change, Put Civilizations at Risk. In my opinion it is a classic example of misleading propaganda, worthy of deconstruction as a case study.
What Is Propaganda?
I always endeavor to be as clear, thorough, and fair in my writing as possible. I am not saying I always succeed, but that is my goal. I have been influenced by my scientific background where clarity and accuracy rises to the level of obsession in the technical literature. It’s not possible to achieve that level in a non-technical blog, but it is a good ideal.
Propaganda is the opposite of clear, thorough, and fair. The purpose of propaganda is to persuade the reader to an ideological or political opinion, or to impugn or cast doubt on other people or other ideas. Being persuasive in an of itself does not make communication propaganda. In order to rise to that level there has to be a willful distortion of facts, a selective use of arguments and information, and the marshaling of any points that suit your ends, regardless of how fair they are.
Propaganda, like pseudoscience, exists on a spectrum. This further means that there is a demarcation problem – there isn’t going to be a bright line beyond which communication is clearly propaganda.
Burnett’s article shows multiple dramatic examples of what constitutes propaganda, and so should serve as an instructive example. This is not surprising since The Heartland Institute is an ideological think tank. They are not a scientific organization. Continue Reading »
It’s official – 2016 is the warmest year on record, since we have been tracking global temperatures since 1880. This is the third year in a row that the current year has been the warmest, 2014 and 2015 were also the warmest years on record. In fact, 15 of the warmest years on record have all been since 1998 inclusive. The last time we had a coldest year on record was 1911.
That the Earth is warming is now undeniable, but that does not stop people engaged in motivated reasoning from denying it. The graph to the right shows temperature variance from average since 1880. It is visually very compelling.
Here is how motivated reasoning works, however. Someone without ideological skin in the game would fairly assess all the data, acknowledge uncertainty and complexity, but arrive at the fairest conclusion. Motivated reasoning exploits uncertainty and complexity to deny the reality which is causing cognitive dissonance brought about by a conflict between reality and ideology.
As you might imagine, there is a lot of complexity in determining average global temperatures. It’s not as if the Earth has a magical thermostat. There are various places to measure temperature, from surface temperature, high altitude temperature, and ocean temperature. You can also use various methods, including ground stations and satellites. Further, you have to correct for any potential source of artifact. For example, there is the heat-island effect. As cities grow they generate more heat, and if you have a temperature measuring station near a city it will measure this heat.
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As we collectively try to climb out of the smouldering rubble that was “the truth” in 2016 (by which I mean basic intellectual integrity), many people are speculating and trying to wrap their brain around what exactly is happening. Of course, the arbitrary transition to a new calendar year changes nothing. We are still living in the same world that produced the 2016 election.
Many writers have characterized what happened as the “weaponization” of bullshit or misinformation. This is not entirely new, but it did seem to reach new heights, or to cross over some fuzzy threshold to a new level or prominence. The “weaponized” meme is also mainstream; Donna Brazile, for example, is saying that the hacked DNC e-mails were “weaponized” against them.
The two other similar memes that emerged this past year were “post truth” and “fake news.” These were added to older notions of “echochambers” or the fact that many people are living in information bubbles (whether they know it or not).
I think all of these concepts are essentially correct. We are in the midst of a misinformation war (actually many wars on many fronts). Unfortunately, it seems that the side which includes the mainstream media, the experts that provide them with information and analysis, professional journalists and academics, is losing. They are losing primarily because they have not yet adapted to the new battleground – social media. They are like the British fighting in neat rows with their visible red uniforms, while the rebels fire at them concealed behind trees and stone walls.
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A recent neuroscientific study looked at what happens in the brains of subjects when their beliefs were challenged. The study adds a new bit of evidence to our understanding of motivated reasoning.
Before we get to the details of the study, let’s review what we mean by motivated reasoning. Psychological studies have shown that people treat different beliefs differently. Specifically, there is one set of beliefs that are core to a person’s identity and to which they have an emotional attachment. We treat such beliefs differently than all other beliefs.
For most beliefs people actually are quite rational at baseline. We tend to follow a Bayesian approach, meaning that we update our beliefs as new information comes to our attention. If we are told that some historical fact is different than what we remember, we will quickly change our beliefs about that historical fact. Further, the more information we have about something, the more solid our belief is, the more slowly we will change that belief. We don’t just change from one thing to the next, we incorporate the new information with our old information.
This is actually a very scientific approach. I would not easily change my belief that the sun is at the center of our solar system. It would take a profound amount of very reliable information to counter all the solid scientific information on which my current belief is based. If, however, I was told from a reliable source something about George Washington I never heard before, I would accept it much more quickly. This is reasonable, and this is how most people function day-to-day.
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Because I am an activist skeptic I am often asked specific questions about how to be a better skeptic. This is obviously a complex question, and I view skepticism (like all knowledge) as a journey not a destination. I am still trying to work out how to be a better skeptic.
One recent question, however, took a great approach to the issue of practical skepticism – what questions should a skeptic ask themselves when confronted with a news item? Here is my process:
1 – How plausible is the claim?
This is admittedly a tricky question that requires a lot of judgment. The risk is that you will think any claim that already aligns with your beliefs as being plausible and anything that contradicts them as being implausible. This is not as bad as it sounds, however, if your current beliefs are based on logic and evidence. To the extent that your beliefs (by which I mean the model of reality that you construct in your head) are based on ideology and subjective perspective, the notion of plausibility can be self-fulfilling.
I say “can be” because it does not have to be. This is partly because this first question regarding plausibility is the first question, not the only question. You should not reject implausible claims out of hand. The purpose of evaluating plausibility is to determine the appropriate bar of evidence needed to accept the claim. This is essentially, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
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Stories take on a life of their own. That is the origin of urban legends, myths, and even religion. A good narrative feeds on itself and can be self-sustaining. It evolves and adapts and finds fertile ground in most human hosts (unless they have been inoculated with a sufficient dedication to facts and logic).
Aspartame, an artificial sweetener that was approved by the FDA in 1981, has been the focus of conspiracy theories ever since. The “holistic medicine” and “natural health” subcultures have largely been responsible for spreading misinformed hysteria about aspartame, first through chain letters and newsletters, and now through the internet.
Ever adapting, they have added some new wrinkles to the legend of aspartame, making sure that their baseless fearmongering is making use of the latest buzzwords.
Aspartame is Safe
First for some background, the anti-aspartame brigade claims that this food additive has been linked to cancer, neurological disorders, and a long list of complaints and diseases. They are simply lying, or the equivalent of lying by cherry picking data, dismissing evidence out-of-hand, and making up whatever claims they need to support their position. Continue Reading »
On November 6th Nigel Antony Gray predicted on his Facebook feed:
“Heads Up: On 14th November and a couple of days either side of that date, watch for a major earthquake, and quite possible in South Pacific area.”
On November 13th there was a magnitude 7.5 Earthquake on the south island of New Zealand. So far the death toll is two people. This was a significant quake along a known fault line that runs through the south island.
The internet was apparently very impressed with this prediction. Gray has long argued that earthquakes can be predicted by looking at the lunar cycle, because of the tidal forces of the moon on the earth. He is particularly fond of supermoons – when the moon is at perigee, the closest point in its orbit around the earth.
Tonight will be the most super supermoon since 1948. Last night and tonight the full moon will appear slightly larger than you are used to. You will not notice this difference, however. If you saw pictures of the apparent size of the moon side by side you can see the slight difference, but you would never notice it just by viewing the moon.
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Last week I wrote a response to a NYT article on GMOs. Massimo Pigliucci wrote a critical analysis of my response. I then responded to that piece.
Below is the final round of responses on this issue, one from Massimo and then a final response from me. In this round Massimo changes the focus from GMOs specifically to how the skeptical movement handles such issues.
My (further) response to Novella on GMOs
by Massimo Pigliucci
I promise, this is the last round concerning this particular discussion, at the least on my part. To recap: Danny Hakim, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, published a critical piece on certain aspects of GMO technology; my friend and fellow skeptic Steve Novella responded; I commented critically on Steve’s response; and he responded to my criticism. The current post, however, isn’t going to be yet another blow-by-blow affair, for a few reasons: i) it would be even longer than the last installment, which I fear would severely test readers’ patience; ii) there is a diminishing return to going deeper and deeper and insert more and more qualifications to any argument; and iii) it seems to me that most of what Steve and I wanted to say has been said already.
So let me try to zoom the discussion out a little, shifting attention to what I think are some background issues of which this exchange has been a particular instantiation.
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I always enjoy when someone whom I respect and who cares about using careful and valid arguments disagrees with me. It is an opportunity for me to correct any mistakes I have made, to deepen my understanding of the topic, or at least tighten up my arguments.
Last week I wrote an article responding to a recent New York Times piece on GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Massimo Pigliucci, who is a friend and skeptical colleague, disagrees with my analysis. Massimo thinks that knee-jerk defense of GMOs is a problem generally in the skeptical movement, and uses me as an example. I disagree with him, but will discuss that toward the end.
I want to take the points that I make in my previous post one by one and see how they hold up to Massimo’s criticism, and may expand upon them and include other comments as well.
GMOs should not be considered as one thing.
I wrote in my previous article:
“Any meaningful analysis of GM technology has to consider each application unto itself. Further, the GM trait is only part of the picture – you also have to consider how it is being applied.”
I have consistently taken this position in my writings, and this is also the most common position I encounter when reading other skeptics writing about GMOs. It is not really meaningful to consider GMOs as if they are one thing, and this is a mistake that Hakim makes in the original NYT article.
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Part of expertise comes from doing something for so long, so many times, that you see patterns that might not be immediately apparent. I have been doing the skeptical thing for over 20 years, and one of the things I really enjoy about being an all-purpose skeptic, as I like to call it, is that I can see patterns of thought, argument, and behavior among disparate beliefs.
The anomaly hunting of ghosthunters is the same as the anomaly hunting of 911 truthers.
One very dominant pattern that I see on a frequent basis is the tendency to cite preliminary evidence as if it is rock-solid and confirmed. People will worry about the health effects of GMOs or vaccines because of a few flawed studies. They will promote the health benefits of a supplement based upon a preclinical study that is many steps removed from actual clinical claims. They will accept a new phenomenon as real based on studies that have never been replicated.
To put this into its broadest context, we need to think explicitly about the relationship between levels of scientific evidence and how much we should accept those results. When do we conclude that a scientific finding is probably real? For applied sciences like medicine this has a very practical form – when do we recommend a treatment?
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