Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Uncharted waters

There's a scuba diving site off the coast of Belize called the Blue Hole.  It's a circular limestone sinkhole in the middle of Lighthouse Reef.  You're swimming along in water that's 30 to 35 feet deep, and quite suddenly the bottom drops out from underneath you -- as you pass over the edge you get the feeling that you've been launched into space.  It's disorienting; there are accomplished divers who have reported that they couldn't quite bring themselves to swim over the edge.  The bottom is invisible, 480 feet beneath you, but the sensation is that there is no bottom, that the depths keep sinking away beneath you forever.

The Blue Hole [image courtesy of the USGS]

I had something of the intellectual version of that experience while searching for a topic for today's post.  On days when nothing in the news presents itself, I usually just snoop around online until something comes up.  The keywords "weird news" are usually fruitful in this regard, and within short order I had found a possibility -- a website about Cadborosaurus, a mythical dinosaur species that supposedly accounts for sea serpent sightings off the coast of the Pacific Northwest.  (At first I misread this as "Cadburysaurus" and wondered if they were hatched from chocolate creme eggs, but sadly, this was not the case.)  But while I was reading about various sightings of the mysterious sea serpent, I was distracted by a link on the Cadborosaurus article to another site, which was called "Psychic Sasquatch Revisited."

Now, that sounded more interesting than sea serpents, so I clicked on the link.  I was brought to an article by a fellow named (I am so not making this up) Kewaunee Lapseritis, which to me sounds like the name of an obscure gastrointestinal disorder.  Lapseritis has written a new book, entitled The Sasquatch People and Their Interdimensional Connection, and the website acts as if this book is some kind of cross between Earth in the Balance, Chariots of the Gods, and the bible. Here's a brief excerpt from the preface, written by a guy named Christopher Murphy:
He [Kewaunee Lapseritis] elaborates on why they are humanoid beings and their purpose here is based on 32 years (out of the 55 years researching them) interacting with the giants (and ETs).  Kewaunee draws information from 187 witnesses who also experienced telepathic communication.  Quantum physics that describe the reality of mental telepathy, invisibility, inter-dimensionalism, and other PSI phenomena, actually juxtapose psychic Sasquatch and ET behavior.
Not only that: on this website you can purchase your very own SasqWatch, a wristwatch with a band shaped like a huge, hairy foot.

So I thought, "Wow, this is pretty fertile ground. Plus, I really enjoy saying 'Kewaunee Lapseritis.'  I bet I could make a blog post about this."  Then I noticed a link on that website for yet another website.  This link was entitled, "Mayastar: Pleiadian DNA Clearing." So I clicked on that, and was brought to a website for the "Mayastar Academy of Natural Healing and Spiritual Development."

Here is only the very first paragraph of their mission statement:
The Pleiadian DNA Clearing & Activation Attunement Programme is a series of 7 attunements facilitated by the Pleiadian Light Beings of the Star Alcyone.  These activations work on an etheric level to awaken and develop the full 12 strand DNA system that is the inheritance of all humans.  This awakens additional spiritual healing capacities and talents within us which can assist us and enhance our lives in many ways.  This system clears any blockages and activates the dormant elements of your DNA coding in order to fulfil [sic] the potential of your spiritual energetic blueprint.
Sort of spiritual Ex-Lax, is how I see it.  But maybe I only say this because I'm not a Pleiadian Light Being With Twelve-Stranded DNA. 

So unfortunately for me, I began to snoop around on the website.

I very quickly found out that to go through all of the nonsense on this website would take days -- there are books for sale, crystals (of course) for sale, instructions for mystical rituals regarding "focusing energy from Ancient Egypt and the Pyramids," courses on using Norse runes for divination, something called "Rainbow Sequence Healing Techniques," and... and... and enormous amounts of other stuff.  I know that sounds lame, but I was just overwhelmed.  I was faced with a source from which I literally had too much material to write a coherent post.  I think that was the point where my brain gave a little kick with the old mental scuba fins and zoomed right out over the edge of the Blue Hole.

I've made the statement before that the the credulousness of the public and the greed of the purveyors of sham worldviews seem to be boundless.  The bottom of that Blue Hole apparently doesn't exist.  I find it astonishing that anyone would look at this website, regardless of his/her level of education, background in science and critical thinking, or philosophical stance, and not guffaw and say, "wow, what a load of bullshit."  But evidently "Mayastar" is a successful business enterprise, to judge by the fact that the "Academy" has had over 700 students, and their website has been "liked" on Facebook over 2,000 times.

And that's what I mean about swimming out over the edge, and the disorientation that results.   Because after reading about Mayastar, I'm thinking that Kewaunee Lapseritis's studies of psychic communication with interdimensional quantum Bigfoots sound by comparison like they're pretty well grounded in reality.  And from there, it's only a short step to believing in Cadborosaurus, even if they were hatched from chocolate creme eggs.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Weighty matters

Despite all of the daily litany of depressing and/or fury-inducing news, I'm pleased to say that the scientists are still hard at work showing us more of the internal workings of the universe, giving us better insights into the nature of the cosmos even as most of the rest of us focus on the minuscule doings of one species on a tiny planet around a completely ordinary star in the edge of a spiral galaxy that is one amongst billions.


Not to denigrate my fellow humans, of course.  I rather like being human, and I'm awfully fond of the little floating green-and-blue sphere where I live.  But it's nice to know that while we focus on our petty concerns, we have people who are looking outward, not downward.

The discovery I'm referencing is the observation by LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) of the collision of two neutron stars.  Neutron stars are the phenomenally dense cores of exploded giant stars; their matter is so compressed that, in the famous comparison, one teaspoon of neutron star-stuff would weigh as much as Mount Everest.

What is stunning about this observation isn't just the thought of what it would be like to see two such dense objects collide; in fact, the collision itself is just part of what's fascinating about this event.  Other amazing features are:
  • In the moments before the collision occurred, the two stars were circling their center of mass at a rate of a thousand times per second.
  • The collision not only created gravitational waves and a burst of light across the spectrum, it's thought that such events are what create a lot of the heavy elements in the periodic table.  So yes: the gold in your ring was very likely formed in a cosmic cataclysm.
  • It is possible that the combined mass of the two stars exceeded the mass limit for a neutron star, and after the collision the stars immediately vanished -- became a black hole.  That point isn't settled yet.
The coolest part of all of this, however, is that the light and the gravitational waves from the collision arrived at detectors at the same moment -- showing that gravitational waves do indeed travel at the speed of light, which is one of the predictions of the General Theory of Relativity.  Put simply: Einstein wins again.  

If that doesn't put relativity into the "proven beyond a shadow of a doubt" column, I don't know what would.

The result was a flurry of papers being published, including one in Astrophysical Journal Letters that had 4,500 authors from 910 different institutions -- which surely must be some kind of record.

Daniel Holz, astrophysicist at the University of Chicago, who worked on the LIGO project, said, "I can't think of a similar situation in the field of science in my lifetime, where a single event provides so many staggering insights about our universe."

So maybe it's time to take a step back from the dreary ongoing march of political news and think a little bit more about the bigger picture.  I mean, the really big picture.  The one that encompasses the entire universe in which we live.  And now, because of a cataclysmic event 130 million light years away, one piece of which we are now able to view with greater clarity and understanding.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Merry Christmas mandate

Last week, Donald Trump addressed the "Values Voter Summit," a group of people whose Values apparently include supporting a thrice-married serial philanderer whose main claim to fame is embodying all Seven Deadly Sins in the same person.

Notwithstanding the mindblowing irony of someone like Trump addressing issues of morality, the Values Voters were wildly enthusiastic about the speech.  The part that got the most rousing round of applause was when he informed the Values Voters that he was going to make it legal to say "Merry Christmas" again:
America is a nation of believers, and together we are strengthened and sustained by the power of prayer.  George Washington said that “religion and morality are indispensable” to America’s happiness, really, prosperity and totally to its success.  It is our faith and our values that inspires us to give with charity, to act with courage, and to sacrifice for what we know is right.

The American Founders invoked our Creator four times in the Declaration of Independence -- four times.  How times have changed.  But you know what, now they're changing back again.  Just remember that...  Religious liberty is enshrined in the very first amendment of the Bill of Rights.  And we all pledge allegiance to -- very, very beautifully -- “one nation under God...”  To protect religious liberty, including protecting groups like this one, I signed a new executive action in a beautiful ceremony at the White House on our National Day of Prayer, which day we made official.

We are stopping cold the attacks on Judaeo-Christian values...   And something I've said so much during the last two years, but I'll say it again as we approach the end of the year. You know, we're getting near that beautiful Christmas season that people don't talk about anymore.  They don't use the word "Christmas" because it's not politically correct.  You go to department stores, and they'll say, "Happy New Year" and they'll say other things.  And it will be red, they'll have it painted, but they don't say it.  Well, guess what?  We're saying “Merry Christmas” again.
Okay, just hang on a moment.

"People don't talk about" Christmas any more?  Then explain to me why this year the department stores started putting up Christmas decorations in September.  And I'm going to say this loudly, one more time, as plainly as possible:

I know a lot of liberals, atheists, agnostics, secularists, and what-have-you.  And not a single one of them gives a flying rat's ass if you say "Merry Christmas" or not.  The only two things I have ever heard any of them gripe about, apropos of the Christmas season, are the following:
  1. Saying "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas" is polite because it's an acknowledgement that not everyone thinks like you do.  It's a way of saying, "I realize you may have a different set of beliefs, and that's okay."  It's not a slap in the face to Christians, it's not a way of belittling or eliminating Christmas from the national consciousness (hell, the retailers wouldn't let that happen anyhow), and for cryin' in the sink, it's not an "attack on Judaeo-Christian values."  It's simply saying, "I recognize that my beliefs and attitudes are not the center of the whole damn universe."
  2. For the same reasons outlined in #1, Christmas displays should not be put up at the expense of taxpayers.  No one has any objection to privately-owned businesses, much less homeowners, putting up Christmas displays using their own money.  Hell, I'm about as atheist as they come, and I don't care if you want to put up a Christmas display so garish that it interferes with air traffic and then stand on your roof wearing nothing but a Santa hat shouting "Jesus is the Reason for the Season!" at the top of your lungs.  Whatever floats your boat, you know?  But if you're using tax money -- i.e. money collected from all American citizens, regardless of their beliefs -- you shouldn't be putting up displays promoting one religion (or, honestly, any religion at all).
And the whole "America is a nation of believers" thing is more than a little troubling.  What does that imply?  That by not being a believer, I'm not an American?  Or that I should just pack up and leave?  If you think that last bit is just me being alarmist, only two days ago I saw a post of a photograph of a sign in a shop window (don't know where it was taken) that said, "Here, we are ONE NATION UNDER GOD.  We say Merry Christmas.  We defend ourselves.  We salute the flag.  We worship Jesus.  And if you don't like it, LEAVE."


To which I'd respond, if I had the chance: I don't honestly care what you do.  You can live at the church and surround yourself with American flag wallpaper and salute it 24/7 with a gun in each hand, if that's what you want.  But if you imply that I'm not an American -- if, in fact, you're saying I don't have a right to live here -- because I don't do the same thing, I think you're sorely misunderstanding both the Right to Free Speech and the Separation of Church and State.

What it boils down to is that 99% of non-religious people don't object to, or even care, what others believe.  They're more concerned with not having a requirement of belief rammed down their throats. Okay, there are some asshole atheists who do disparage Christianity and Christians, and would love to see religious belief eradicated.  But you know what?  If you think that assholery is limited to the atheists, you aren't looking at other groups very carefully.

But messages of tolerance and live-and-let-live don't sell well to the perpetually outraged members of the Values Voter Summit, who think that Christianity is besieged and that Donald Trump is the Second Coming of Christ at the very least.  So if any people of that stripe are reading this, allow me to reassure you.

Relax.  Chill out.  We atheists have no intention of doing to you what you'd like to do to us.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The shadow knows

One of the most terrifying sleep-related phenomena is sleep paralysis.

I say this only from hearing about the experiences of others; I have never had it happen to me.  But the people I've talked to who have had episodes of sleep paralysis relate being wide awake and conscious, but unable to move -- often along with some odd sensory experiences -- such as feelings of being watched or having someone in the room; hissing, humming, or sizzling noises; a tingling in the extremities that feels like a mild electric shock; a feeling of being suffocated; and (understandably) the emotions of fear and panic.

The reason all of this comes up is an article that appeared over at the site Mysterious Universe last week about "shadow people."  The piece was by Nick Redfern, whose name should be familiar to anyone who is an aficionado of cryptozoology; Redfern has been involved in a number of investigations of the paranormal, and is the author of books such as The Roswell UFO Conspiracy, Shapeshifters: Morphing Monsters and Changing Cryptids, The Real Men in Black, The New World Order Book, and a variety of other titles I encourage you to peruse.

So Redfern has a pretty obvious bias, here, which is why I was already primed to view his piece on the Shadow People with a bit of a jaundiced eye.  Let me let him speak for himself, though.  Redfern tells us that there are these entities that we should all be on the lookout for, and then tells us the following:
Jason Offutt is an expert on the Shadow People, and the author of a 2009 book on the subject titled Darkness Walks: The Shadow People Among Us.  He says there are eight different kinds of Shadow People – at least, they are the ones we know about.  He labels them as Benign Shadows, Shadows of Terror, Red-Eyed Shadows, Noisy Shadows, Angry Hooded Shadows, Shadows that Attack, Shadow Cats, and the Hat Man.
Shadow Cats?  Why only cats?  Cats, in my experience, are already conceited enough that they don't need another feather in their caps.  Of course, the positive side is that Shadow Cats wouldn't be very threatening.  My cats specialized in two behaviors: Sitting Around Looking Bored, and Moving Closer To Where We Are So We'll Appreciate How Bored They Are.  If their Shadow versions are no more motivated, it's hard to see why you'd even care they were around, since Shadow Cats presumably don't eat, drink, or use a litter box.  They'd kind of be a low-impact paranormal home décor item.

On the other hand, I'm just as glad there are no Shadow Dogs, because then we'd have yet another source of the really obnoxious noise that dogs make when they are conducting intimate personal hygiene, a sound my wife calls "glopping."  Our two dogs glop enough, there's no need for additional glopping from the spirit world.

But then there's "Hat Man."  On first glance, that seemed fairly non-threatening, but Redfern tells us that Hat Man is the scariest one on the list:
I sat and listened at my table [at a conference, speaking to an attendee] as he told me how, back in July of this year, he had three experiences with the Hat Man – and which were pretty much all identical – and which were very familiar to me.  He woke up in the early hours of the morning to a horrific vision: the outside wall of his bedroom was displaying a terrifying image of a large city on fire, with significant portions of it in ruins. It was none other than Chicago.  The sky was dark and millions were dead.  Circling high above what was left of the city was a large, human-like entity with huge wings.  And stood [sic] next to the guy, as he watched this apocalyptic scenario unravel from his bed, was the Hat Man, his old-style fedora hat positioned firmly on his head.  The doomsday-like picture lasted for a minute or two, making it clear to the witness that a Third World War had begun.  On two more occasions in the same month, a near-identical situation played out.  It’s hardly surprising that the man was still concerned by all this when we chatted at the weekend.
So he talked to some other people, and more than one person mentioned seeing Hat Man, and always associated with images of doom and destruction.  Toward the end, he mentions the fact that one of the people who'd seen Hat Man suffered from sleep paralysis... which kind of made me go, "Aha."

In a paper by Walther and Schulz back in 2004 entitled, "Recurrent Isolated Sleep Paralysis: Polysomnographic and Clinical Findings," it was found that people who suffered from sleep paralysis showed abnormal patterns of REM and non-REM sleep, and (most interestingly) fragmentation of REM.  REM, you probably know, is associated with dreaming; suppressing or disturbing REM causes a whole host of problems, up to and including hallucination.  Another paper -- Cheyne, Rueffer, and Newby-Clark, in 1999, "Hypnagogic and Hypnopompic Hallucinations during Sleep Paralysis: Neurological and Cultural Construction of the Night-Mare" -- has another interesting clue, which is that during sleep paralysis, cholinergic neurons (the neural bundles that promote wakefulness and REM) are hyperactive, whereas the serotonergic neurons (ones that initiate relaxation and a sense of well-being) are inhibited.  This implies that the mind becomes wakeful, but emotionally uneasy, before the brain-body connection comes back online.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The problem here is that if you're in sleep paralysis, or the related phenomenon of hypnagogic experiences (dreams in light sleep), what you are perceiving is not reflective of reality.  So as creepy as Shadow People are -- not to mention "Hat Man" -- I'm pretty certain that what we've got here is a visual hallucination experienced during a dream state.

Not sure about the Shadow Cats, though.  I still don't see how that'd work.  Given my luck at trying to get my cats comply with rules such as "Stay The Hell Off The Kitchen Counter," my guess is that even feline hallucinations wouldn't want to cooperate.  If you expected them to show up and scare some poor dude who was just trying to get a good night's sleep, they'd probably balk because it wasn't their idea.  Shadow Dogs, on the other hand, would be happy to climb on the sleeping dude's bed and glop right next to his ear.  They're just helpful that way.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Permafrost permayouth

You might have heard about people consuming pills of dried shark cartilage as nutritional supplements.  They're still widely available, in fact.  It's supposed to be anti-carcinogenic.  Why, you might ask, did people get this idea?

Because, the purveyors of shark cartilage pills say, sharks don't get cancer.  So if you grind up shark parts and consume them, you won't get cancer either.

There are just two problems with this practice:
  • Sharks actually do get cancer, something that has been known since at least 1908.
  • Shark cartilage has been tested and found to have no beneficial therapeutic value whatsoever.  It is, however, kind of critical for the shark itself, and the practice of killing sharks for their cartilage has led to widespread decline in sharks in many parts of the world.
This did not stop two of the most prominent cartilage shark spokespeople, I. William Lane and Linda Comac, from writing a book called Sharks Don't Get Cancer When the book was completely trashed by scientists and other reviewers, Lane responded by writing a second book four years later called Sharks Still Don't Get Cancer.

His publisher wisely recommended that Lane eliminate the subtitle he was planning to use, which was So Take That Nyah Nyah Nyah Nyah pfffttptbtbtbtbtb.

As usual, we have people who aren't letting little things like evidence and facts stand in the way of their claim.  You can still buy shark cartilage pills in many pharmacies, including a brand called, I kid you not, "BeneFin."

I bring all this up because yesterday I ran across a story about a woman who is doing something even stupider than consuming shark cartilage to prevent cancer; she is injecting herself with bacteria so she won't age.

It's not just ordinary, garden-variety bacteria, either.  These are bacteria that had been frozen in the permafrost of Siberia for, by some estimates, 3.5 million years, and now have been resuscitated by the thaw.  A Russian professor of geology named Anatoli Brouchkov noticed that the Yakut people who live in the area have a reputation for long lifespans, so he decided that (of course) it had to be because they were drinking melted permafrost water that had the bacteria in it.

Couldn't be genetics, or diet, or anything.

So he treated some plants, fruit flies, and mice with the bacteria, which has been dubbed "Bacillus F."  Brouchkov that they "seemed to have a rejuvenating effect," although gives no details about how he knew.  How do you distinguish between a rejuvenated houseplant and a tired, listless one?  Do non-rejuvenated fruit flies fly about in a dejected fashion?

Be that as it may, Brouchkov is certain enough of his claim that he's drinking water with Bacillus F in it himself.  But an actress who calls herself "Manoush" has gone a step further; she is now injecting herself with the bacteria.

Manoush, best known for such A-list blockbusters as Zombie Reanimation, The Shrieking, Philosophy of a Knife, and The Turnpike Killer, says she started taking the bacteria because like many of us, she's not so fond of the idea of getting old.  "Aging is a disease," she says.  "It is a genetic flaw to me.  Even as a teenager I could never accept the concept of getting older one day.  I don’t care what people think. I will stop at nothing to look and feel younger.  Nothing."

Which, I think we could all agree, would leave us with no option other than injecting 3.5 million-year-old Siberian permafrost bacteria directly into our bodies.

Manoush is absolutely convinced she's now aging backwards.  Me, I'm not sure.  I'm not fond of the gray hair, stiff joints, and crow's feet I've gotten in the past few years, but I don't think the answer is to jump on some loopy idea about anti-aging bacteria.  In fact, injecting bacteria into yourself is kind of a bad idea in general; perfectly normal, ordinary skin bacteria become a serious problem if they get into your bloodstream.  A friend of mine's father, in fact, almost died of a Staphylococcus aureus infection when his thumb got skewered by a rose thorn.

Staphylococcus aureus, I should point out, is a ubiquitous part of our skin flora.  On the surface of your skin, it's harmless.  Inside you, it can result in blood sepsis, which is a quick and spectacularly nasty way to die.

Staphylococcus aureus [image courtesy of the National Institute of Health]

So as much as I'd like perpetual youth, I'm not going to get in line behind Manoush for my bacteria injection.  I'll put up with the gray hair, which I'm told makes me look "distinguished," which isn't as good as "drop-dead sexy," but I guess I'll deal.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The time-traveling drunk from 2048

As if we needed another thing to worry about, today we have: a time traveler from 2048 who has come back to tell us that next year the Earth is going to be invaded by aliens.

According to the story, which I have now been sent 14,398 times, the time traveler is named Bryant Johnson, and he showed up in Casper, Wyoming last week with a dire message for humanity in general, and the president in particular.  (Although it must be mentioned that he asked to speak to "the president of Casper," which is a little peculiar.)  According to radio station KTWO, which broke the story, Johnson was drunk at the time because being drunk helps you to time travel.

Which certainly squares with my experience with alcohol, and also reminds me of the following exchange between Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
Arthur: What are you doing?
Ford: Preparing for hyperspace.  It's rather unpleasantly like being drunk.
Arthur: What's so bad about being drunk?
Ford: Go ask a glass of water.
Johnson being drunk is also why he landed when he did.  Apparently he was aiming for early 2018 and missed.  Just as well; it'll give us more time to prepare for the invasion.

Johnson's not the first person who has ventured into the past to warn us about dire events.  There was John Titor, who back in 2000 and 2001 posted on a number of online bulletin boards that he was a military guy in 2036 who had come back to warn us that there would be a nuclear war in 2004 that would cause the government of the United States to fall, which would be terrifying if it hadn't turned out to be completely wrong.  And it's not like Titor's warning caused us to do anything differently; I don't see any evidence that humanity's overall derpy behavior changed in any way following Titor's pronouncements.

Then there's Håkan Nordkvist, a Swedish guy who was fixing his sink and got transported to the year 2042, where he met himself at age 70 and "had a great time," returning with a photograph of him and himself:


I find this upsetting primarily because nothing nearly that interesting happens to me when I work on the plumbing.

Then, we have the "time-traveling hipster" who shows up in a photograph taken in British Columbia in 1941:


The gist of this one is that he's wearing a style of sunglasses that didn't exist back then, which some researchers looked into and responded, in effect, "Yes, they did."  So while his clothing is pretty casual, there's no reason to believe he wasn't from 1941, although admittedly he could be a time traveler anyhow who changed his clothes so as to fit in.  You never can tell.

In any case, I'm not inclined to worry much about this latest person to show up from the future.  For one thing, it was easy enough to check up on him and see if he actually has a past.  Which he does.  And given the fact that most of us have a significant online presence whether we want to or not, it was only a matter of time before something like this appeared:


So there is apparently nothing to worry about next year, invasion-wise.

Me, I'm a little disappointed.  The way things are going, I would welcome our Alien Overlords.  Given the news I read daily, however, I have to wonder why the aliens would want to come here, because as far as I can see, there's no particular evidence of intelligent life here on Earth anyway.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Course correction

I suppose you could say that everything I write here at Skeptophilia has the same overarching theme; how to tell truth from falsehood, how to recognize spurious claims, how to tell if you're being had.  But helping people to do this is an uphill struggle, and just how uphill was highlighted by a meta-analysis published last week in the Journal of the Association for Psychological Science, which had the rather dismal conclusion that we debunkers are kind of fucked no matter what we do.

Of course, being academics, they didn't state it that way.  Here's how the authors phrased it:
This meta-analysis investigated the factors underlying effective messages to counter attitudes and beliefs based on misinformation.  Because misinformation can lead to poor decisions about consequential matters and is persistent and difficult to correct, debunking it is an important scientific and public-policy goal. This meta-analysis revealed large effects for presenting misinformation, debunking, and the persistence of misinformation in the face of debunking.  Persistence was stronger and the debunking effect was weaker when audiences generated reasons in support of the initial misinformation.  A detailed debunking message correlated positively with the debunking effect.  Surprisingly, however, a detailed debunking message also correlated positively with the misinformation-persistence effect.
Put more simply, the authors, Man-pui Sally Chan, Christopher R. Jones, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania, and Dolores Albarracín of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found that when confronting misinformation, a detailed response generates some degree of correction -- but makes some people double down on their incorrect understanding.

So it's yet another verification of the backfire effect, which makes it a little hard to see how we skeptics are supposed to move forward.  And the problem becomes even worse when people have been taught to distrust sources that could potentially ameliorate the problem; I can't tell you how many times I've seen posts stating that sites like Snopes and FactCheck.org are flawed, hopelessly biased, or themselves have an agenda to pull the wool over people's eyes.

It's like I've said before: once you convince people to doubt the facts, and that everyone is lying, you can convince them of anything.

[image courtesy of photographer John Snape and the Wikimedia Commons]

"The effect of misinformation is very strong," said co-author Dolores Albarracín.  "When you present it, people buy it.  But we also asked whether we are able to correct for misinformation.  Generally, some degree of correction is possible but it’s very difficult to completely correct."

The authors weren't completely doom-and-gloom, however, and made three specific recommendations for people dedicated to skepticism and the truth.  These are:
  • Reduce arguments that support misinformation: the media needs to be more careful about inadvertently repeating or otherwise giving unwarranted credence to the misinformation itself.
  • Engage audiences in scrutiny and counterarguing of information: schools, especially, should promote skepticism and critical thinking.  It is beneficial to have the audience involved in generating counterarguments -- further supporting the general idea of "teach people how to think, not what to think."
  • Introduce new information as part of the debunking message: give evidence and details.  Even though "misinformation persistence" is strong even in the face of detailed debunking, there was a positive correlation between detailed information and correction of misapprehension.  So: don't let the backfire effect stop you from fighting misinformation.
It may be an uphill battle, but it does work, and is certainly better than the alternative, which is giving up.  As Albarracín put it: "What is successful is eliciting ways for the audience to counterargue and think of reasons why the initial information was incorrect."

I think the most frustrating part of all this for me is that there are biased media sources.  Lots of them.  Some of them (so-called "clickbait") post bullshit to drive up ad revenue; others are simply so ridiculously slanted that anything they publish should be independently verified every single time.  And because people tend to gravitate toward media that agree with what they already thought was true, sticking with sources that conform to your own biases makes it unlikely that you'll see where you're wrong (confirmation bias), and will allow you to persist in that error because you're surrounding yourself by people who are saying the same thing (the echo-chamber effect).

And that one, I don't know how to address.  It'd be nice if the fringe media would act more responsibly -- but we all know that's not going to happen any time soon.  So I'll just end with an exhortation for you to broaden the media you do read -- if you're conservative, check out the arguments on MSNBC every once in a while (and give them serious thought; don't just read, scoff, and turn away).  Same if you're a liberal; hit Fox News on occasion.  It may not change your mind, but at least it'll make it more likely that you'll discover the holes in your own thinking.