Jul 13 2015

Supporting the Narrative in an Echochamber

Dunning, commenting on the implications of the Dunning-Kruger effect, wrote:

An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.

This seems accurate, but I think the situation is actually worse. Dunning is describing a passive process – people become filled with misinformation and faulty conclusions simply by the flawed nature in which we absorb information from our environment. There is also, however, a much more active process in which people expose themselves selectively and seek out specific misinformation all pointing in the same direction.

This more active process has been called the “echochamber effect.” While this has likely always been a problem, the internet and social media has greatly magnified this phenomenon. It is now easier than ever to surround yourself with the comforting reassurance that all your beliefs are simply and unassailably true.

Communities with specific philosophies and beliefs now have their own experts, their own evidence, and their own outlets to disseminate and discuss their chosen facts, to build and reinforce their narrative while attempting to suck in more people to their black hole of conspiracy theories.

I receive sadly frequent reminders of the echochamber effect while browsing online. Here is one I came across today: Genetically Modified Corn contains practically no nutrients but is loaded with Chemical Poisons. The article is not dated, and refers to previous articles dating from 2013 to the present. Following the links back to their source reveals the echochamber web.

One link is to GMWatch and an article by Don Huber. Huber is a plant pathologist who apparently had a legitimate if modest career, but now in his retirement has gone completely off the rails. He lectures on the evils of glyphosate and genetic modification, mixing in some legitimate science that he then overstates, does not present in context, and uses as a basis for while speculation. He also includes some rank pseudoscience and fearmongering. It seems that Huber has decided to spend his twilight years as a crank (a phenomenon that we see occasionally, even in Nobel Laureates such as Linus Pauling).

There is another link to an article on Natural News, which readers here already know is a crank-conspiracy “health” website chock full of utter nonsense. Natural News is a good example of an outlet that is not providing information, but is providing a narrative – information carefully selected, altered, and spun to support a particular view of reality. Let’s just say that Fox News could learn a great deal from Natural News.

That article in turn links to a post from “Moms Across America” – a populist crank anti-GMO site. The article, Stunning Corn Comparison: GMO versus NON GMO, claims:

“Yesterday while on a playdate at the lake, Vince from De Dell Seed Company, Canada’s only NON GMO corn seed company called me to support the march and Americans finding out about GMOs. He emailed me this stunning report, clearly showing the nutritional value difference between GMO corn and NON GMO corn.”

De Dell seed company markets itself as a seller of non-GMO seed. That obvious conflict of interest aside, in a follow up article MAA admits:

“Keep in mind this is a report, NOT a scientific peer reviewed study and I do not have any other information other than what is in this blog.”

In other words, the information is nothing but hearsay from a biased source. As scientific evidence it is completely worthless. However, it supports the narrative, and so it is presented uncritically and breathlessly.

The claims being made in the “report” are also so extreme they are hard to believe. For example, the report claims that the ERGS (the energy given off per gram per second – food is literally burned and the energy measured) of GMO corn is 100 while non-GMO corn is 340,000. This is literally impossible. They are essentially saying that non-GMO corn contains 3,400 times as many calories as GMO corn.

They also claim the non-GMO corn (specific cultivars are not mentioned) has twice the “organic material” as the GMO corn. It’s as if they think that GMO corn is not real corn, or even a real plant.

The comments following the MAA article reveal what anyone who has waded into the comments on such articles reveals – not people genuinely engaged in helpful discussion, but people with different world views promoting their world view. There seems to be no hope of bridging the gap.

This does not mean there is equivalency to different world view. The scientific process has real validity because it follows a process that questions assumptions, questions the underlying world view, tests ideas against reality, is open to refutation and independent replication.

In this case we have a “report” provided by some guy at a seed company with a conflict of interest, never scientifically reviewed or published, with highly implausible claims. On the other side, we have hundreds of peer-reviewed studies, many of them independent.

Conclusion

The echochamber effect, facilitated by social media and the blurring of lines between genuine science, experts, journals, and consensus with “the cheap imitation,” has created a situation in which the average person (without a high degree of understanding of science and critical thinking) has little defense against an organized campaign to promote and maintain a specific narrative.

I don’t think there is any simple solution. Persistent education, especially if you get to people before they fall all the way down the rabbit hole, is helpful but lacking.

 

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