“God is love. Love is blind. Stevie Wonder is blind. Therefore, Stevie Wonder is God.”
As we see conspiracy theories flying around social media and false medical information that has been debunked through scientific method, I can’t help but think of the toxic influence of Cambridge Analytica in 2016. I’m not aware of anything that has manipulated American voters more. And the seeds it planted have grown into deep rooted, aggressive weeds that have continually choked out common sense and effectively undermined public trust. Look no further than the ever deepening divide and incessant arguing among friends and neighbors who can no longer find a corner on a shared page. Are our human values really that different or are we being played? (Look up NPR interview of the Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower and have a listen on your next walk.)
This same tactic has also undermined trust in science. Science has guided humanity to everything from conveniences we take for granted—technologies from computers to transportation, to cell phones. Cures for diseases, the invention of medical equipment and therapies, to advancements in nutrition and agriculture, just to name a few. It grieves—seriously grieves me—to see well intentioned people, manipulated. If you share false information (assuming unintentionally) you’ve been manipulated. Ironically, your first fear was that you’d been manipulated by a trusted authority. That’s why you shared to begin with—your fear that you, and the rest of us have been misled and therefore were in danger. This brings me to the conclusion that many are demonstrating that they’ve forgotten the steps of scientific method. Steps that weed out the bias of the experimenter, to pin down findings we can rely on. Credible findings can be replicated by scientists from around the world. When a conclusion can’t be replicated it comes under scrutiny. When enough scrutiny leads to discovering a study is false, it is debunked. “Debunking itself often suggests that something is not merely untrue but also a sham.” Sometimes great damage is already done because a juicy headline or scary findings cause an emotional reaction of the general public and well intentioned people (who are scared) share the misinformation. Your sharing intends no harm but the person who published a flawed study did mean harm just like a person who crafts a conspiracy theory video does so with malicious intent. This is why credible research and medical scientists, as well as social scientists, sacrifice time and energy to make posts like this one. My husband, who is a regulatory scientist, recently quoted one of his colleagues (who was apparently quoting Stephen Colbert), “God is love. Love is blind. Stevie Wonder is blind. Therefore, Stevie Wonder is God.” And we laughed because given the choice to laugh or cry we choose first to laugh. But this is not really funny. Just for today, I wanted to take my responsibility as a social scientist a step further. I have taken the time in a couple of cases to insert a fact amid a thread of conspiracy theories. So, I am attempting here, to shed a little light on how false information becomes reliably debunked. It’s not simply a matter of arguing our biases devoid of facts. When we argue we must be open to and genuinely seek facts to guide us. Only then can we hold ourselves to the standard of “do no harm”, and beyond that to be on the side of problem solving.
One more thing. Sometimes there’s a scary outlier—a fraction of a percentage of a chance. We’ve all seen theses headlines. This morning, for example, I saw a friend had posted a sad article about two Chinese children wearing masks who had died during gym class. My inner dialogue reaction to seeing the post was something like, “you’re kidding me? While science based direction is giving the guidance to wear masks during a novel Coronavirus outbreak you’re posting an article like this? So what’s the takeaway? Fear the mask at a time the best science says masking up is an important protective measure? Just for me, (and for anyone else in this camp of thought), I want to do my best to share credible information. Taking that a step further, even if a piece of information is true but it represents an outlier that might undermine prudent behavior, we have to ask ourself, “do I want to share this with the power of social media or is this a conversation better served during a 1:1 chat while catching up with a friend?” I hope this is good food for thought, a contribution to the good work many are doing to promote the importance of healthy skepticism, regulating emotion, double checking our facts, and remaining open to learning as we share and engage in important conversations.
“You are not here by mistake. Around the world and down through the ages there has never been another you, and there will never be another you. The miracle of your existence is now in your hands. You are here for a purpose. You have something that only you can give to the world. Take time to consider what that is.”