The fact I’m blocked on Twitter by the current President of the United States of America is a fairly consistent source of cred at dinner parties. There’s an interesting lesson I learnt from that experience. Come, be seated. Let me tell you the tale.
In 2013, in the heady, early days of penning late-night missives in the quiet hours of shift work in a wind farm monitoring centre, I wrote a post about anecdotal evidence.
“[Anecdotal evidence is subject to] confirmation bias, the tendency to ignore evidence that disagrees with one’s beliefs, and to place too much weight on evidence that agrees with one’s beliefs”.
The example I used was a gigantic list of symptoms attributed to a mythic ailment, “wind turbine syndrome” – a list that invariably balloons as soon as you discard hard evidence and focus solely on personal stories. I drew up a little graphic to illustrate my point, and interspersed it with quotes about anecdotal evidence:
I forgot about it pretty quickly, but I saw my graphic a few months later whilst cruising Twitter, on an account you might recognise:
Yep. Donald Trump, who’d been tweeting anti-wind farm content for months due to his opposition to an offshore wind farm near a planned golf course in Scotland, had chanced across my graphic and instantaneously assumed it was a sincere listing of the dangers of wind turbines. He also appended the hashtag #FACTS. At the time, I wrote on my blog that
“Trump tweeting my infographic shows, quite beautifully and comically, that he’ll even quote evidence that directly demonstrates the fallacy he’s adopting. I’m a little proud to be the originator of this ironic morsel of accidental accuracy”
After I responded to Trump, he blocked me. But there’s no escaping the fact that he still broadcast my graphic to a 2.5 million followers, and that I failed to create that graphic in such a way that made the point immediately clear, even to the most perceptively-stunted of future Presidents.
It’s extremely likely that, due to my efforts, far more people were misinformed than informed. A few hundred people read my blog post – surely, several hundred thousand saw my graphic, and of that, some percentage might have been convinced by their cursory glance (a side note – I also once convinced an anti-wind farm website that my two guinea pigs were suffering from wind turbine syndrome – more people read my blog than the listing though, so that one’s fine).
This all happened soon after I’d started writing publicly, and over time, I drew an important lesson from it – there is actual worth in understanding the political and ideological landscapes that exist before you write a piece and shove it out in the world. Failing to understand the shifting venn circles that define the tribes reading your words will result in far more people misinformed by your work than people who learn from it.
One of the quotes I included in my wind syndrome graphic, which Trump failed to read, was from Michael Shermer:
“Thinking anecdotally comes naturally; whereas thinking scientifically does not”
More recently, Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic Magazine in the US, wrote as an introduction to an article in that magazine:
“Note from the editor: Every once in awhile it is necessary and desirable to expose extreme ideologies for what they are by carrying out their arguments and rhetoric to their logical and absurd conclusion, which is why we are proud to publish this expose of a hoaxed article published in a peer-reviewed journal today. Its ramifications are unknown but one hopes it will help rein in extremism in this and related areas”
This was about a hoax paper submitted to a gender studies journal – touted, as you can see above, as an exposé of “extreme ideologies”.
I wrote recently about why that hoax could have been a clever tool for exposing dodgy publishing practices that are harming peer review. The hoax was universally sold as an earth-shattering take-down of all of gender studies instead, and drew, appropriately, a large amount of criticism.
One curious consequence of their backfired hoax was the inclusion, quite prominently, of climate change. Instead of erroneously stating it took down all of gender studies, an even larger group of climate change deniers took one step further and erroneously perceived it as taking down all of academia. I briefly cited a few examples in my original post, but it’s since ballooned:
(James Delingpole, in case the name sounds familiar, is the guy whose opinion piece in The Australian, labelling employees of the wind industry a ‘paedophile ring’, resulted in the Australian Press Council adjudication against him and the oz)
Most recently, a senator from Australia’s anti-immigration party, One Nation, who was once part of one of Australia’s biggest climate skeptic groups, brought up the ‘conceptual penis’ hoax at Senate Estimates:
“Recently two people in america, at the Portland State University, um, one who’s a doctorate in maths and a background in physics were so alarmed that they published, through a peer-reviewed paper, another hoax, and it’s called ‘the conceptual penis as a social construct’, and in that, they claim that penises cause climate change. So, the point I’m getting at is that that was published, in social sciences admittedly paper but it has credibility because it’s been peer-reviewed. So I’m very concerned about some of the peer-reviewed papers”
There’s little doubt that both authors of the hoax published in Skeptic Magazine have no direct gripe with climate science. But instances in which their work fuels pseudoscience are met with bemused hilarity, rather than any effort to correct the record or contact the misinformers.
The misinterpretation is put down to the poor reading skills of climate deniers, rather than a failure to consider misinterpretation in the original work. But in the same way that I failed to consider how my wind syndrome graphic would be perceived, their hoax was perfect, ready-made fodder for the ever-roving Sauron-esque eye of climate pseudoscience. I can’t think of a worse time to be shovelling fuel into a pseudoscience garbage fire set to have serious consequences for our species.
These are the hazards of pushing words into the world. There’s a 99.99% chance at least one person will badly misinterpret what you say. But somehow, Skeptic Magazine and Michael Shermer, two sources of my personal education on science and skepticism when growing up, served up fuel for the most influential pseudoscience in the world.
I asked one of the authors, James Lindsay, what the justification for including climate change was, and if they’d tried to contact Breitbart, Senator Malcolm Roberts, or anyone else who’d seen their work as an indictment of scientific investigation, climate science, or peer review in general:
The problem here is simply that communities online tend not to be completely separate. Often, they share goals, ideas and allies, even though they define themselves in opposition to other communities. The Venn circles all overlap, to some degree.
The hazards of colliding Venn circles are a problem for so many people. In 2015, the Atheist Foundation of Australia had to issue a media statement denouncing a ‘Reclaim Australia’ anti-Islam rally. If you criticise the racialised element of Islamaphobia in Australian society, you’ll be subject to barrage of atheists whose personal gripes sit at the other end of the circle, and who cannot fathom this networked interplay of intentions.
But they’re on a unity ticket with subset factions of racists and Christians and Hindus, who all share the same loathing for Islam, all animated by very different engines but driving in the same direction. As David Marr recently wrote in his Quarterly Essay,
“Those of us with negative feelings towards Muslims are twice as likely to object to the size of the [immigration] intake (66 per cent compared to 34 per cent for Australians as a whole) and to be unconvinced that bringing people in from many different countries and cultures makes Australia stronger (41 per cent compared to 67 per cent)”
It happens to scientists, too. With the best of intentions, a scientist released a paper on hearing loss, and within minutes of a press release going out, major international media websites were telling the world that science says wind farms are making people deaf. More recently, the UK’s Telegraph spoke to a guy who purportedly said offshore wind farms were causing mass-whale stranding. Like clockwork, the Telegraph’s expert told Carbon Brief, when asked if he’s blaming wind farms for whale deaths,
“No, I’m not saying that and I never have done. All I’m saying is that my personal opinion is that they could be a contributing factor…..you know as well as I do you might give a media interview…they will pick out of that what they want people to hear.”
The New York Times drew a lot of heat recently for published an op-ed by Bret Stephens – a man with a history of climate obfuscation, who they’ve hired as a columnist. Though this may have been done with the best of intentions, Stephen’s first column has been cited by the climate-denying administrator of America’s EPA, Scott Pruitt.
Prevention is far better than the mammoth task of chasing each individual misinterpretation and pleading for a correction. It isn’t easy, and it’s certainly impossible to forecast misinterpretation with 100% accuracy. My own experience taught me a lot, through the horrible feeling of knowing that I was personally responsible for misinforming many thousands of people. The responsibility lay with me, both to prevent it or to correct it before the misinterpretation spreads.
It’d be silly not to learn from that. I won’t stop calling on the fact I’m blocked by the most powerful man in the world for dinner-party-cred. But pushing back against pseudoscience can only happen when science advocates are keenly conscious of the shifting Venn circles of political and ideological communities.