Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

Category Archives: Skepticism

Wikitribune: New Initiative to Fight Fake News

Wikitribune

Basic idea of Wikitribune (CC BY 2.0)

There is a new contender on the block for helping to fight the impact of fake news. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, has decides to create a new initiative called Wikitribune. The goal is to provide a highly credible source of news that is not driven by advertisements or clickbait and thus avoid low quality and misleading content. The core idea is to combine professional journalists with a community of volunteers to ensure that the information is authored, updated and fact-checked and verified in such a way as to provide credible information.

On the Internet, anyone can publish almost anything without regards for what is factual and what is just nonsense. This has brought some great benefits, from anyone being able to post their opinions or find any information they are looking for online. However, there are also some limitations. People can isolate themselves into ideological filter bubbles where they only see and read information that has been skewed and misrepresented in a specific direction in order to provoke intense emotions, including fear and anger. This has recently been weaponized in order to influence world events, from general elections in the United States to pitting different groups against each other. By making stuff up about the news that provoke people (called fake news) and sharing low quality clickbait on social media, these fake news providers are able to make millions of dollars in ad revenue. Even political advisers have deliberately pushed false information as if it was factual by labelling those falsehoods as “alternative facts”.

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Six Hilarious Pseudoscience Contradictions

Sheep

Pseudosciences are the imposters of real science. They attempt to mimic the activities and language used by scientists, but have no intellectual substance beneath their shallow surface. This is likely because science has such a strong cultural authority and has been responsible for many beneficial and exciting discoveries during the past few centuries. Anything that attempts to parasitize on science can potentially steal some of this authority from science.

Yet, because pseudosciences are not based on credible arguments or evidence, they contain a combination of wishful thinking and stuff that is plainly made up. Because critical thinking and scientific evidence plays very little role (in any), it is not surprising that inconsistencies and contradictions have crept into many forms of pseudoscience. These contradictions do not just occur between different kinds of pseudosciences, such as chiropractors claiming that giving birth is a massive trauma and that newborns must get spinal adjustments while natural birth activists think that giving birth in the wilderness is completely safe. They can also be found within a specific pseudoscience and that produces many great ironies that many quacks and cranks seem completely oblivious to. Let us look at six such hilarious pseudoscience contradictions. Read more of this post

Facebook’s “Fake News” Crackdown: Here’s How It Works

Facebook tackles fake news

Fake news is content that attempts to look like real news, but is not based on reality. It contains major falsehoods and errors of fact. It is not merely accidentally misleading, but crafted to intentionally deceive people. Fake news stories often manipulate human feelings, such as anger, sadness and schadenfreude. That way, they are more likely to influence their beliefs about the world and people are more likely to share it on social media. This brings in a ton of ad revenue for the fake news network creators and keeps their operation going.

However, more and more people are reaching the point where they have had enough. Fake news degrades the quality of social media content and has the power to influence human decisions about health, current events and potentially even elections. Giant tech companies like Apple, Google and Facebook are increasingly starting to realize that something has to be done. Suggestions that have been proposed include manual quality filtering of news websites that are included in certain news apps, not allowing the worst fake news offenders to use their advertisement system and others.

Just a few days ago, Facebook began to deploy their mitigation systems against the influence of fake news. What does it consist of? How will it work in practice? Will it work? How could it affect the efforts of fact-checkers, science advocates and scientific skeptics on social media?

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How Social Media Bots Massively Boost the Reach of Misinformation

Social media bots and misinformation

The Internet has brought wonderful opportunities that many people never thought was possible. A large chunk of the scientific, mathematical and historical knowledge mass that humans have collected over decades and centuries can now be accessed by almost anyone with an Internet connection. Want to learn about the digits of pi, details of the Roman empire or chemical data for the noble gas argon? All of it can be found on the Internet from reputable sources that you can trust. However, these riches have not come without a considerable of anti-intellectual pollution.

Because almost anyone can put up their own website or start a social media account, the spread of pseudoscience, bigotry and general nonsense is now probably larger than ever before. Flat earthers that use to be a marginalized group of wackos have now expanded their operations with thousands of hours of original materials on video hosting websites and at least tens of thousands of tweets pushing their batshit ignorance of the world. Anti-vaccine and anti-GMO activists have created entire networks of social media accounts, pages and groups to spread their dangerous nonsense to vulnerable people and may have played a role in the outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.

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How Mainstream Media Contributed to the Misinformation Wars

CNN superfoods

There is a current social battle being fought about the nature of facts and reality. Truth is under attack because of ignorance and apathy. Fake news are being spread as real events, misleading millions of people into believing things that never happened. “Alternative facts” are being pushed as equally as legitimate as scientific and statistical facts in a fit of postmodernist relativism. Technological filter bubbles skew the world you see on the Internet and isolate you from information that contradicts your beliefs. There are now even fake fact-checkers who try to leach credibility from real fact-checkers just like pseudoscience parasitizes on real science.

A great deal of this comes from fake news websites, pseudoscience activists, various quacks and cranks as well as other sources. But some of it comes from mainstream media. The mainstream media has spent years being complacent about the threat of misinformation and let low-quality material and bad journalistic standards fester and spread across their own websites and networks. This article looks at four prominent ways this has and continues to occur and proposes five directions that might mitigate some of the problems we now face.

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The “Alternative Fact” Surge

The alternative facts surge

Real facts are statements about the world that we know are true based on overwhelming evidence, such as water molecules consist of one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms or the United States Declaration of Independence was agreed upon in 1776. “Alternative facts” on the other hand, are statements that are not at all true, but have been made up by ideologues that push it as if it was true. It is a form of targeted misinformation, but also the tacit claim that it is somehow possible to disagree with real facts and believe in a set of “alternative facts” that are just as valid as the real deal.

One of the most remarkable deployments of this tactic by political staff in modern times occurred during a Meet The Press segment in late January of 2017 where NBC journalist Chuck Todd interviewed Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway. The topic dealt with the audience size for the inauguration of President Trump and might not seem to be of much importance, but the very fact that the technique was deployed so openly and bizarrely had many people concerned that we might be seeing the rise of government-approved “alternative facts” in a similar fashion to the Orwell book 1984. Recent developments indicate that this was not a simple mishap, but part of a larger and continued media strategy.

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Apple CEO Tim Cook Takes a Stand Against Fake News

Tim Cook versus Fake News

For many decades, science advocates and scientific skeptics have been fighting misinformation on the Internet. False claims about evolution and climate change have spread like wildfire and there are many organizations and individuals out there that take great pleasure in spreading pseudoscientific nonsense about these scientific fields to anyone who wants to listen. The Internet is a great invention and has allowed more people than ever to access the depth of human knowledge, but it also has a dark side. It is now possible to be wrong about a great deal of things, yet quickly find large communities of mutually self-reinforcing discussions that share those misconceptions. So, in a sense, fake news is a not a new problem.

The pervasive problem with fake news came to the attention of the public and the mainstream during the 2016 general election in the United States where a ton of websites and other outlets spread sensationalist misinformation about both Clinton and Trump in order to get as many clicks and as much ad revenue as possible. Unfortunately, this led to a very uninformed population that harbored a lot of false beliefs about the world. In particular, fake news website often published content that aimed to make people upset and angry, because manipulating feelings has been shown to be very effective for spreading a message.

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Mailbag: What’s The Harm?

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry in the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact info on the about page.

Tony recently wrote a comment on the post about six general approaches to refute any conspiracy theory. Because it represents such a common and typical response to efforts to promote scientific skepticism, it deserves to be part of the mailbag series where it can be discussed and dissected in some detail.

It is a combination of the “what’s the harm” gambit, the fallacy of relative privation and the uneasy relationship between those atheism-centric individuals who want to exclusively focus on religion (and ignore everything else) and scientific skeptics who take a broader approach to pseudoscience wherever it can be found.

This response will focus on several questions. What are the harms with pseudoscience and conspiracy theories and why should you care? Are they not just fun and harmless? Why is it not productive to insist that people ignore problems just because some other problem is deemed more important? Finally, why is Debunking Denialism about scientific skepticism and not a generic anti-religion blog?

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