A few days has passed since Dagens Nyheter (DN), the largest morning newspaper in Sweden, published a highly misleading full-page advertisement for the anti-immigration book “Immigration and Cover-Up” written by Karl-Olov Arnstberg and Gunnar Sandelin. As the name sounds, the book promotes a conspiracy theory that Swedish media is systematically distorting, oppressing and covering-up the allegedly horrible effects of immigration on Swedish society. The advertisement made a large number of dubious claims, equivocations and insinuations. I took on these problems in a post called Debunking the “Immigration and Cover-Up” Ad in Dagens Nyheter and it spread like wildfire over social media like Twitter and Facebook.
Naturally, it also received a lot of commentary and criticisms from supporters of anti-immigration sentiments. Because I suspected that the post would attract a lot of right-wing political extremists and because I did not want this blog to be a platform for an endless and unproductive war of attrition between different kinds of political extremists, I turned on manual comment moderation. Looking back at what kind of comments I got, I have decided to decline publication of all past, present and future comments on that post, both supportive and critical. If you want to praise or criticize that post, do it somewhere else.
Nevertheless, I think it is worth to examine and refute the counterarguments I got. This would counteract the cries of “censorship” (you keep using that word, but I do not think you know what it means), provide ammunition to others challenging the pseudoscience of anti-immigration and give the critics what they ask for. The rest of this post will take on every single objection and criticisms that I have personally gotten or seen thrown around on social media websites (I am sure I have missed some). Some are clearly less viable than others, but they are discussed in no particular order.
“Facts cannot be racist” / “The statistics in the ad was accurate”
Facts by themselves cannot be racist, but it is possible to systematically twist and distort facts through various means (such as equivocations, insinuations and deceptive phrasing) so that when they are put together in a certain way, true facts become false and misleading by virtue of the context. If there is no ideological bias behind the presentation, one would expect that the direction of these errors should be random. However, if you read a text were the direction of these equivocations, insinuations and deceptive phrasing are almost always in the same direction (in this case in an anti-immigration direction), it is probably the case that a systematic distortion has taken place.
Consider the following example: more right-handed people are on social welfare than left-handed people. Although this is strictly true (because there are more right-handed people than left-handed people), it becomes distorted if placed in a deceptive context. Let us look at a couple of examples before we look at how this anti-immigration ad does it. These two examples are not meant to be exactly analogous to the anti-immigration situation, but rather to illustrate the general tactic. Imagine if someone published the following hypothetical attack ad:
Deport right-handed parasites!
Did you know that more right-handed people:
– are on social welfare?
– have committed violent crime?
– have no education?
– have less than average IQ?
– steal candy from children?
If you are tired of right-handed parasites, buy my book “Right-handedness and Cover-up” to find out how the media is systematically distorting the horrible effects that right-handed people have on society, the economy and our future.
On their own, all of these claims are true (by virtue of the fact that there are so many more right-handed people than left-handed people). However, when put together in the context of such an attack ad, they become deceptive and misleading. If the writer is careful to stick to absolute numbers and not discuss proportions (taking advantage of the fact that a large section of the public might not understand the difference), he or she can create the illusion that right-handed people are a menace to society. Yet, it is clear that such an advertisement would be misleading and deceptive.
Let us take another, even more deceptive example (this time with more overt ties to pseudoscience). Consider the claim “more vaccinated than unvaccinated individuals get sick from vaccine-preventable diseases“. Most vaccines are around 95% effective (no medical product is 100% effective). This means that around 5% of vaccinated individuals do not develop sufficient antibody titers to be protected against the disease. However, these individuals are protected by herd immunity. Since the proportion of protected individuals is so high, an epidemic cannot get a foothold. Now, because the absolute number of individuals who are vaccinated is very high, 5% of a very large number is itself quite large. Since there are so few people who are not vaccinated, even 100% of this group is a pretty small number. Assume, for the sake of argument, that a disease strikes everyone who is susceptible. That means that 5% of vaccinated individuals and 100% of unvaccinated people will become sick. However, since the absolute number corresponding to 5% of the vaccinated population is so high, the biggest proportion of sick individuals are going to have been vaccinated. Here is a mathematical example:
Number of individuals: 10000
Number of vaccinated individuals: 9990
Number of unvaccinated individuals: 10
Attack rate for vaccinated individuals: 5%
Attack rate for unvaccinated individuals: 100%
Number of infected individuals who are vaccinated: 0.05*9990 = 499.5
Number of infected individuals who are unvaccinated: 1*10 = 10
So even thought more, in absolute numbers, vaccinated individuals are infected than unvaccinated, the risk of getting infected if you are unvaccinated is 20x higher.
Imagine an anti-vaccine attack ad that included this “fact” among other, equally dubious, “facts”. Even though there is a context in which that claim is true, if you put it into an anti-vaccine context, it is deceptive, misleading and false.
The “trick” used in these two examples is the equivocation between absolute number and proportion. Although this particular trick was not used in the anti-immigration attack ad, it used a similar approach: the equivocation of the term “immigrant”. When Swedish anti-immigration forces speak about “immigrants”, they tacitly refer to immigrants (or more like refugees) from northern Africa and the Middle East. However, when the Swedish Board of Immigration talks about immigrants, they mean something much broader and include temporary guest workers, labor immigration, students, immigrants from other European countries, their relatives and even Swedes who move back to Sweden after living abroad and so on.
Thus, by equivocating these two distinct definitions of “immigrant”, they can artificially inflate the numbers and give the appearance that Sweden is being flooded with 100k north African and Middle East refugees per year. Proponents of anti-immigration is likely to claim that the ad only said “immigrants” and not “refugees”, but the way the figures are presented and the kind of images it is likely to produce for readers indicate that the statement is deceptive and misleading.
“You suffer from fact-phobia”
No, I suffer from a “phobia” towards deceptive and misleading presentation of statistics. The phrase “fact-phobia” is obviously a glib retort in a weak effort parody the usage of Islamophobia and not an intellectually honest argument.
“There is a real cover-up”
This claim is contradictory in two separate ways: (1) the ad claims that all of the statistics used is publicly available (so how can it be a cover-up?) and (2) anti-immigration proponents also claim that this position is not a conspiracy theory, but then turn around and claim that a cover-up exist.
Even if we did not bother with the details, any claim that a cover-up exists has to overcome two potent objections. The first is called the prediction objection and states that secret groups engaged in an actual cover-up would not risk carrying out any action because of the practical unpredictability of real-world events; one slip-up or unintended event could expose them. If publicly available statistics of the allegedly harmful consequences of immigration is easily accessible, there would be a huge risk trying to cover it up like proponents of anti-immigration claims that the media does. The second objection is known as the no-leaks objection: if Bill Clinton (the world’s most powerful man at the time) could not keep his affair with Lewinsky a secret and if the NSA could not keep a global surveillance project a secret, both having enormous incentives to prevent leaks, then how can Swedish media keep their conspiracy a secret? As far as I am aware, proponents of anti-immigration with the conspiracy inclination has never responded to these two objections.
Also, there is as well-known cognitive bias called hostile media effect that shows that people often seem to think that the media is biased against them, regardless of partisan affiliation. This kind of anti-immigration conspiracy theory is likely to be the hostile media effect on steroids.
“I am pissed that you are not allowed to tell the truth in Sweden”
This is a classic example of the denialist debating tactic called playing the martyr card and is very common among anti-immigration proponents.
Tactic: Playing the Martyr Card.
Description: Instead of replying with solid evidence or arguments, denialists often complain that they are being persecuted by the establishment because, in their own view, they are questioning the dogmatic status quo. Comparisons with Galileo or Einstein are extremely common.
Countermeasure: Explain that criticism is not the same as persecution, that science thrive on overturning old ideas and replacing them with ideas that better fit the evidence.
The central cognitive error is that being criticized is not the same as being oppressed. Freedom of speech is not the right to stand unopposed. When proponents of anti-immigration complain that they are “not allowed” to “tell the truth”, what really goes on is that they are being strongly criticized for resorting to deceptive and misleading statements about statistics and lazy stereotypes of immigrants.
“You confuse immigrant with refugee”
No, it is the anti-immigration proponents that equivocate “immigrant” and “refugee”. I have not seen any anti-immigration proponent object to labor immigration, students, immigrants from other European countries and so on. Their problem is, with little doubt, refugees from northern Africa and the Middle east (and their relatives).
“You confuse permanent and temporary residence permits”
Again, this equivocation is performed by the anti-immigration proponents. By combining permanent and temporary residence permits and calling them “residence permits”, they appeal to public ignorance and insinuate that they all represents permanent residence permits.
“Swedes moving back to Sweden after living abroad are not considered immigrants”
The Swedish Board of Migration does consider them immigrants. In fact, returning Swedes are the largest group of all immigrants (~20k) during 2012. Because of the increasing public impact of anti-immigration forces in Sweden, the Swedish Board of Immigration has even written a special article about the myth of mass-immigration.
“The ad was fact-checked”
Apparently “fact-check” means different things to Dagens Nyheter than it does to scientific skeptics. Any remotely competent fact-check would have noticed that the misleading distortions were not in a random direction, but consistently and systematically in the direction of anti-immigration bias.
“Too few immigrants are refugees”
Really? This contradicts the mass-immigration of refugees myth and it is also a very weird argument. This is because the other categories include returning Swedes, students, immigrants from other European countries, guest workers, labor immigration, their families and so on. Few anti-immigration proponents have major problems with these categories.
“You have a political agenda”
What a deliciously ironic case of psychological projection.
“The ad does cite sources”
Stating “I got this data from organization X” is not the same as citing a source. Citing a source involves specifying the author, date, name of publication and so on and explaining exactly what data came from what source.
“Saying 1/3 of relatives are on social welfare is not misleading”
Again, the phrasing is deceptive, especially in the context it was put in. Consistently and systematically angling statistics in a specific non-random direction is not expected on the hypothesis that the presenter is unbiased. Quite the contrary. See “Facts cannot be racist”.
“Arnstberg only paid 115k Swedish crowns for the ad, not 250 000”
The price of a full-page ad in Dagens Nyheter is 250k Swedish crowns. Apparently Arnstberg claims that he only paid 115k Swedish crowns.
“You believe there are fascists around every corner” / “You have been indoctrinated to fight fascists”
This is a classic case of mind reading and appealing to motive i.e. “you have a position counter to mine, that must mean that you represent my stereotype of the individuals that criticizes me”. I almost expected to be called a “cultural Marxist”.
“The total number of permits issues are relevant for administrative costs”
Yeah, the cost of administrative work is what bothers anti-immigration proponents… (irony).
“Criticizing other Nordic countries for not accepting more Syrian refugees is a value-based judgment”
My point was that the “Sweden is taking on this enormous amount, whereas other Nordic countries are just taking in this few” is the same sort of deceptive angling as discussed above. In other words, the authors angle the situation to insinuate that it is Sweden that is taking in too many instead of other Nordic countries taking in too few. Because this is yet another case were the formulation has the same anti-immigration direction (i.e. non-random), it is highly suspect.
In general, it is unclear why decisions by other countries should guide decisions made by Sweden. That would be an appeal to popularity and probably an unwise political approach as decisions about Sweden should be based on Sweden’s situation, not the situation in other Nordic countries.
“Accusing the authors of the ad to be spreading conspiracy theories is silly”
With the word “cover-up” in the book title, and the obsessive ramblings about how the media is allegedly covering up the truth about immigration, this qualifies as spreading a conspiracy theory.
“All temporary residence permits become permanent later without it being included in Swedish Board of Migration statistics”
This argument was actually put forward to me by one of the authors of the book (Gunnar Sandelin). This fails for three distinct reasons: (1) the figures he and his co-author used came from the Swedish Board of Migration, so he is essentially introducing additional categories to attempt to reinforce his shaking house of cards, (2) if the statistics is not available, how does he know? and (3) even under the assumption that statistics for that was available, he has not shown that this is the case for all temporary residence permits.