«Who should I trust?»
The struggle to survive fake news.
Fake News is the new mantra. Apart from the hype, the problem is real, and we all have good reasons to worry about it; whenever we take decisions on wrong premises, we face unexpected consequences. If these consequences involve our health, the outcome can be tragic.
So, we need to sort out reliable information from a flood of bogus claims coming from legions of Improbable Folks, storming the media with dozens of narratives so much captivating as they are unsubstantiated.
Let’s consider, as an example, the Gerson Therapy: a kind of wired diet which is said to be able to cure almost any kind of cancer. It’s true that when it was first tested, the patients who followed it scored somewhat better then those who didn’t. But it’s not the whole story.
I checked it, and I discovered that Gerson Therapy was actually tested quite seriously in both US and Australia; it’s not that surprising because, as improbable as it may looks, one never know if there is something good in something, without a deeper look. But all researchers who tried GT eventually came out empty handed. We now know why: tumors need a lot of nutrients to grow, so it’s no surprise that if you starve yourself with whatever wired diet, your tumor will slow down somewhat, at least in the very beginning; hence the first apparently encouraging results.
But starvation is not a good strategy to cure cancer: benefits are very small at best, lasts very short, and you are going to starve much sooner than your cancer anyway. Just stick to a healthy and balanced diet, and you’ll have all the benefits of the GT, without the inconveniences.
But I could check GT quite fast because I have a specific training in medicine, and quite some experience in debunking: I know what to look, where to look, and how to look. I can even access and read (and actually understand what I read, which is not that straightforward) original research, if needed, and also evaluating if a research is sound or not.
But all this means that we still haven’t solved our first problem.
We are not all supposed to have specific training in medicine (and in geology, and in atmospheric sciences, and in physics, and in chemistry, and in engineering, and… ). It’s not humanly possible, and even if it would, we still would not be supposed to, anyway.
We all have a life to live.
So, most of the time, we must relay on analysis and opinions of others, of those we call experts. More generally speaking, we must take some kind of cognitive shortcut to deal with the overwhelming complexity of reality.
Here it is where things start to become quite messed up.
We have to resort to cognitive shortcuts (sometimes called heuristics) in almost every aspect of everyday life. When we need to change our car’s tires, we look for a place with the proper sign telling us we’ll find a professional. Nonetheless, we could sometimes stumble in an incompetent mechanic, still not out of business, ending up with ruined tires after just a few miles.
Or much worst could happen, if the incompetence is related to our health.
Inside our need for cognitive shortcuts, the Improbable Folks mentioned above found their natural environment, spreading their captivating but unsubstantiated narratives. Some of this Improbable Folks also get the proper piece of paper claiming they have some kind of expertise, and even manage to infiltrate the scientific community. Some of them are so good at imitating competences and authority, that by the time they start spreading their improbable narratives, they can have reached important positions in respectable scientific societies, universities, institutions and science-related companies (like pharmaceutical or energy firms).
When they reach so high, the damage they do is double-faced: they not only spread their dangerous narratives from some kind of high ceiling fan, but when they are finally called out for their wrongdoings, they end up undermining the very credibility of legitimate institutions and scientific societies, and sometimes of science and scientific community as a whole.
Also, Improbable Folks started to organize themselves to produce fake scientific publications (known as predatory journals: publications that accept every kind of bullshit, as long as someone pays for it), fake scientific events, and even fake scientific institutions.
Here we are, at the very core of the problem: who should we trust? Improbable Folks have learned how to fake competences in such diabolically perfect ways, they can sometimes disguise themselves into the very scientific community, which is still largely unprepared to deal with such a subtle but pervasive attack.
So, even if the best we can do is still to relay on institutions and established scientific societies’ analysis, this specific cognitive shortcut looks the more and more as an unsatisfactory solution. Scandals are a real thing, and have real consequences.
Scientific community is already working on the problem, but it just started to tap on this horribly complicated subject, and there seems to be no obvious way out at the horizon. As of now, we do not have any reliable receipt to easily sort out scams from sound stuff, even if some sensible advice can already be found.
If the scientific community will eventually find a way to keep Improbable Folks at bay and to help us spotting them before it’s too late, they will let us know for sure.
Provided they can also find a way to be noticed, and to look credible, in the ocean of fake news we seems we are submerged into.
I wrote this piece following a discussion I had, on my Facebook wall, with a dear friend of mine from the other side of the Atlantic. To her goes the not small merit to have pointed out the very core of this complicated subject: the question in the title is hers. Thank you Terri! And this is the reason I wrote this in English, even thought it is not my mother language.
(And also, yes. Sometimes Facebook can generate something good and useful.)
Pubblicato il 17 giugno 2017, in A Little Bit of This and That, Comunicare la scienza, Parlando di scienza con tag Cognitive shortcut, fake news, Gerson Therapy, Science, scientific community, trust. Aggiungi il permalink ai segnalibri. Lascia un commento.