More and more people are becoming aware of the problem with fake news and bad news reporting after the 2016 U. S. general election. This is a welcome development for scientific skeptics who have been warning about the impact of misinformation online about important issues such as vaccines and GMOs.
Mainstream news organizations such as CNN have published guides on how to uncover false news items on social media. After the election, Facebook was at first dismissive of the influence of fake news, but has recently reversed their position and are now looking into ways of fighting it, both with Facebook tools and denying ad revenue to fake news websites. While we in some sense have been taken over by the post-fact tsunami, this might be a turning point if many other large entities follows suit.
However, there is a deeper issue. Most people can probably identify some forms of fake news on issues that they are well-informed about. If you understand how vaccines work and why assertions by anti-vaccine activists are flawed, you will probably not fall for the next conspiracy theory about vaccines. But they might fall for pseudoscience in some other area, believe things that appeal to their fears and emotions or things promoted by their favorite celebrity and politician or issues related to their own ideological tribalism.
Debunking Denialism has in many ways focused on “safe” discussions. Most reasonable people understand that forcing children to drink bleach is not an effective treatment against cancer, that staring into the sun won’t actually allow you to use astral projection, that eating harmful fungus will not cure severe depression and so on. However, a large obstacle is selective skepticism, whereby someone can e. g. accept that vaccines are effective, that GMOs are safe and that climate change is real, but then be a completely fanatical white supremacist or a gender separatist, apparently without noticing the obvious methodological contradiction. Or accept that anecdotal evidence has no weight when it is refuted by multiple, large-scale studies that converge on the same general conclusion but still insist that spanking is safe and effective because they were spanked and turned out alright. These individuals would surely never defend tobacco companies and claim that smoking does not cause lung cancer because they had an aunt who smoked for 60 years without getting it. Yet when it comes to a sensitive area, reason and evidence apparently goes straight out the window.
For the longest time I have thought that if we teach the general approach of scientific skepticism (checking sources, be aware of the warning signs for pseudoscience, logical fallacies and cognitive biases) via “safe” material, then they could apply those techniques on their own to areas that were more controversial for them or that those issues would never come up in the first place. Now, I am not so sure anymore. In fact, I am leaning towards thinking that this was a somewhat naive view of things. Cognitive dissonance, irrational fears and the willingness to believe are powerful factors that can often defeat reason. So I am going to take a stand.
It does not matter what political candidate you defend or what ideology you profess. It does not matter if you identify as a liberal or a conservative. It does not matter if you are a “natural health” activist or a scientific skeptic. When you promote pseudoscience, you are crossing a dangerous line. If you sacrifice reason for ideology, no matter how well-meaning you are or how good this ideology seems to you, then you are part of the problem. You have let yourself become corrupted by nonsense because it appealed to your beliefs and cognitive biases. At this point, it is perfectly reasonable to fact-check your claims, no matter how much or how little we share other values. This does not mean that all groups or positions are equally prone to being undermined by false information, but it means that the choice between comforting delusions and harsh realities is a choice we all have to make. We should strive to make the decision that is the most rational and the most well-supported by evidence.
I do not care how many times some men’s rights activists call me a “beta male” or “cuck” for exposing their conspiracy-mongering and statistical illiteracy. I do not care how many time I am labeled a “cultural Marxist” or a “self-loathing race traitor” for patiently explaining how anti-immigration activists abuse rape statistics or how white supremacists mischaracterize human genetic diversity. I do not care if gender separatist get offended when I debunk the ludicrous idea that all men are brain-damaged or genetic defects or point out that women are not actually “estrogen-based parasites”.
I do not care how many times anti-psychiatry activists charge me with “supporting genocide” just because I accept the existence of mental illness and that many treatments can be effective. I do not care how many times anti-GMO activists accuse me of with being “in bed with Monsatan” when I tell them that genetic engineering involves smaller, more precise and more well-known changes than traditional plant breeding and that GMOs are not made with syringes. I do not care how many times climate deniers dismiss me as a “catastrophic warmist” for accepting mainstream climate science. I do not care how many times anti-vaccine cranks or HIV/AIDS denialists call me a “shill” for explaining basic immunology.
I will never apologize for applying scientific skepticism to questionable claims.
I will never apologize for standing up for science.
I will never apologize for fact-checking.
Fuck your tribe.