Sometimes the war against misinformation seems to be both endless and hopeless. Despite being massively contradicted by just about everything we know about physics, chemistry and biology, homeopathy continues to stay alive despite over 200 years of criticism. Fake news stories pop up faster than they can be debunked. Anti-science activists abuse thousands of studies per day to prop up their dangerous nonsense. Americans spend at least 34 billion dollars on fake alternative medicine products every year. Cranks and quacks regurgitate the same stale claims that have been debunked over and over in the past. Sometimes it seems that things are stuck and nothing ever gets better.
However, we must never forget what and who we are fighting for. We must never forget that skeptical activism boosts the signal and pushes out the noise of misinformation. We must never forget that we provide ammunition to allies and create cascade effects. Even if the war against misinformation rages on, we have and continue to win thousands of fights and battles every year. If you had helped to save a friend or family member from a cancer quack or a fake psychic, you would remember and cherish this success for the rest of your life. Do this even if they person you helped save lives on the other side of the planet and is completely unknown to you.
Remember what and who you are fighting for
You are fighting for a women dying of cancer who got scammed for over 77 000 USD by pH quacks who injected her with baking soda. You are fighting for thousands of autistic children who are forced to take bleach enemas by parents who falsely believe autism is caused by non-existing intestinal parasites. You are fighting for people with mental illness who are misled by anti-psychiatry activists. You are fighting for people with HIV/AIDS who are being denied antiretroviral medication based on the flawed conspiracy theories believe by ignorant politicians.
You are fighting to save children who die from outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases because parents bought into anti-vaccine nonsense they read on Facebook. You are fighting for endangered species being decimated by the alternative medicine industry. You fight against alleged psychics and astrologers who con people for their life’s saving. You are fighting to ensure food security for billions of people as the world suffers from loss of arable land. You are fighting for the future of our civilization against the looming threat of global warming and climate change.
You are fighting for children who risks severe complications or death from failed home births. You fight against anti-LGBT bigotry that abuse psychological research to enforce dangerous political policies. You fight for children who need medication. You fight against genocide deniers who would pervert historical facts for their disgusting political ideology. You fight against creationists who threaten to undermine education, research and health care.
If your skeptical activism has helped to save just a few people from getting harmed by pseudoscience, it makes it all worth it. If you have helped to save just a few people from dying from cancer for refusing science-based medicine, it has all been worth it. If you have helped to save just few people from getting their life’s saving wrecked by a scammer, it has all been worth it. If you have helped to save just one child from getting their intestines corroded by bleach, it has all been worth it.
If you have helped just a single person with HIV/AIDS to get out from the claws of AIDS deniers and get treatment, it has all been worth it. If you have helped just a single person with severe depression to get treatment instead of being tricked to drink worthless fungus tea, it has all been worth it. If you have helped save just a single baby from dying from pertussis, it has all been worth it.
Many people are less affected by tragic events that happen very far away geographically than things that happen a lot closer. In much the same way, people are often much less affected by beneficial events that happen in other parts of the world. This is aggravated by the distance that the Internet creates. If you knew that you had helped save just a single friend, family member or coworker from any of the above fates, you would probably remember and cherish it for a lifetime. Whenever you are feeling that the war against misinformation is endless and hopeless, remember the ones you have helped to save as if you had saved a friend.
Remember that you boost the signal
There is so much nonsense on the Internet. By being an active scientific skeptic online, you help to boost the signal of reason and evidence against the noise of misinformation. Even if it feels hopeless to argue against cranks on Twitter, you boost the signal and confront the noise. Try to avoid thinking of it as a black-or-white situation, but more of a gradation. Each tweet you send, each video you make, each article you write and each meme you post boosts the signal and pushes out the noise.
The noise does seem overwhelming at times, but remember that it too is produced by humans. Humans that can get tired and exhausted as well. Noise can be fought and pushed away. This might not always be permanent, but it can be done so often that a great many people are protected from its harmful influence.
Remember that you provide ammo to allies and create cascade effects
When you make video, write an article, post a meme or interact on social media, it can often seem that your efforts are tiny and insignificant. However, it must be remembered that the stats you see and feedback you receive almost exclusively come from the people who are directly reached by your material. This ignores secondary effects or cascade effects whereby people who came into contact with your material use those insights in their interactions with other people.
You do not see how people who have viewed your material use that knowledge the next week during lunch conversation with colleges, talking with strangers, in comment fields on videos or blog posts, or with friends and family. For every person you persuade, there are likely many more people who are convinced by your arguments that you do not see because of the nature of how interpersonal social networks function.
As a scientific skeptic, ask yourself the following: how often have you used material you have learned from other people and sources in your exchanges with others? The answer most people will come up with is “very often”. When thinks look hopeless, remember these secondary cascade effects. You are not merely preaching to the choir, but you also provide a lot of ammo to allies.
Remember that you win a lot of fights and battles
Doctors fight a very powerful enemy that can never be truly defeated. Everyone dies eventually with a probability of 100%. No human is immortal. However, that does not mean that doctors who get patients with a broken leg or bacterial pneumonia just throw their hands up in despair and refuse to offer treatment just because the patient will die eventually anyway. Doctors deliver the treatment and the person gets many more years worth of life quality.
Perhaps we should not concede just yet that it is impossible to win the war against misinformation. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that we can and do win thousands and thousands of fights and battles even if the large-scale war effort is fraught with difficulty. Commemorate all victories for science and reason, no matter how superficial, small or insignificant they might seem in the grand scheme of things. On the level of individuals, those victories might just mean everything.
Never forget this.