Fake News May Be Coming For Your Mind, But Fake Science Is Here For Your Wallet
Today, everybody is talking about the epidemic of fake news and how to fix social media and journalism, often distorting the term in the process. To partisans upset by what an outlet published, anything that fails to echo their dogma is fake news, which is really not what we’re talking about when we invoke the seemingly nebulous term. You see, fake news is not a partisan slant or some edgy op-ed desperate for hate clicks. It’s exactly what the term implies: outright lies to sell a narrative to a target audience, quoting sources who never really said what they’re claimed to have said, citing nonexistent sources, or claiming that what happened never did, or vice versa.
So while you’ll hear this term a lot in the next few years, you’ll very seldom see it used properly, much like the term “bias” was appropriated to mean that a source is lying just because it failed some ideological purity test in its interpretation of actual, verifiable events. But as people once again realize that literally anyone on the internet can get a very professional looking site and pretend to be a legitimate publication with lots of success and a small advertising budget on social media, for scientists, fake news have been a painful problem for many years, and they’re only getting worse.
Long before the influx of clickbait factories on Facebook and Twitter, reports that grossly distorted, or just plain lied about scientific research, to get clicks and eyeballs thrived in what are often generously called science sections of news sites. And when I say distortions and lies, I’m not talking about free spirits rounding a number in the fifth decimal point up or down willy-nilly, I’m talking about egregious errors or outright lies to either sell the story to a target audience, or drum up support for a narrative by cherry-picking actual scientific literature while accusing your critics of doing the same thing.
For example consider, The Daily Fail making up a story about an Australian astronomer detecting alien signals from a newly discovered rocky planet that might have been habitable. In another example, countless popular science outlets claimed that a weird radio signal was proof of alien life when it fact, the paper they referenced threw in the idea just for completeness and almost immediately dismissed it as outlandish. Then, to follow up, many of the very same publications claimed the signal was actually coming from a microwave door opening before the timer was finished and laughed at the whole thing.
Meanwhile the actual research confirmed that it was a very real signal from very far away. Really, we could go on and on about this sad state of affairs, enough to fill almost 20 minutes worth of your time, kind of like this…
Now, while everything John Oliver said is completely dead on, he did miss a huge scourge on the scientific world that makes the terrible reporting about research in the media even worse: fake journals. Well, the journals are real, as in they exist as actual scientific publications, but their contents are what’s called tooth fairy science. While the first link talks about the thriving world of fake journals for alt med quacks, all of these predatory and questionable entities also exist for every field and have been a problem for years.
In a particularly well known case, six years ago, two cranks set up a journal to promote the surprisingly plausible hypothesis of panspermia — which does sound like a really lazy title for a porn flick, but is actually a very real field of science often backed by NASA— with asinine rantings and ravings in the guise of academic and peer reviewed papers. This journal is now long gone, but many others rose in its wake and have diversified and grown, promoting fraud, junk science, and conspiracy-mongering that can be rather difficult for a layperson to detect.
Even legitimate, studious scientists could be taken in by fake journals which maintain a thick patina of plausible respectability. They may be widely cited and highlight respectable sounding papers, but in reality, they’re propped up by cranks and publish junk science to give those cranks a PR boost. They’ll happily take real scientists’ papers and cash, quickly publish them alongside something totally outrageous, and use this to lure in more scientists. It’s a particularly nasty scam that damages reputations, drains funding, and goes to enrich and popularize pseudoscientific, asinine, or even dangerous ideas by sandwiching them in between real, high quality research.
This is why any grad student trying to publish his or her first paper is sternly warned to run the target journals by an adviser to make sure the hard work which went into the research doesn’t just end up lining cranks’ pockets and tarnishing what could’ve been a promising scientific career from the start. And this is a predicament made worse by today’s extreme publish-or-perish culture which gave rise to the dreaded MPU paper. The pressure to publish quickly and in any passible journal that will accept you, is very significant, and a lot of scientists fall for it in an attempt to get tenure.
It’s a little scary to think that the paper finally showing that we found a cure for a particularly nasty and aggressive type of cancer involving nothing more than a laser and two months on a vegan diet published in the very important sounding Global Oncology Research Journal is actually a tool for a quack to sell a bogus cure to desperate patients, claiming to have been published in a world renowned scientific publication, but this might be the case. Consider that after all, the first word in peer review is peer, and if the process can fail spectacularly in a real journal, imagine what happens when all those peers are also quacks with snake oil to move out of their warehouses.
In times when anti-intellectualism is reaching a fever pitch, and experts have become pubic enemies, you literally can’t trust anything you’re told without checking it yourself. Fake science has been around for many decades now, and when combined with fake news, the prognosis for how skeptical we will all need to be of everything we see and hear is rather disturbing. In fact, all of this is currently playing out in the wellness industry, which uses tenuous and questionable studies to create health problems you must have to sell all sorts of expensive remedies only they can provide.
Take Dr. Oz for example. Once the Dr. Strange of cardiac surgery, much like Dr. Strange, he turned to magic and mysticism to enhance his career, and on his much beloved by daytime viewers and much maligned by experts show, acts as a hype man for supplements based on fake science. His supposedly scientific solutions to the problems that ail all of us are backed by studies in low quality journals, with tiny sample sizes, poor to nonexistent controls, a hefty doze of statistical manipulation, and often, major conflicts of interest in a multi-billion dollar industry relying on posing itself as medicine.
Another example is the pair of extremes that is Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand of nonsense, Goop, and Alex Jones’ supplement business. Goop is an intolerably woo-ey, high fashion scam to sell whatever seems like the new wholesome craze to the upper middle class. And when Jones isn’t literally screaming into the mic about Obama and Clinton being demons from Hell, he’s shilling for his line of supplements to supposedly free you from some New World Order’s control. They even sell more or less the same kinds of supplements, just with different branding and context.
Casting peer reviewed, double-blind studies by legitimate scientists as the enemy, they use whatever they can drum up to sell you on the idea that you’re being poisoned by unspecified, amorphous toxins, and they hold a key to saving yourself from the dangers of life, government, and all those evil corporations that compete with them with FDA approved drugs and real, clinically-backed advice. And the government, surprisingly, won’t be rushing to stop them because Utah’s Orrin Hatch and his family are in the supplement business and actively helped write a law exempting the entire industry from any oversight or standard for scientific proof.
So in short, fake science is out there, preying on your wallet, giving frauds and quacks a patina of legitimacy to pitch their placebos and conspiracy theories about real science and medicine, and the powers that be are very much in their pockets. The only tool you can use to help yourself is to be alert and learn as much about basic science as you can. You can tell a bad study from a good one with enough practice, and remember that when you’re being sold a supplement that “boosts immunity,” or “detoxifies,” or provides some other, ambiguous, non-specific benefit, it’s s sign to get your guard up because you may be about to get scammed…
Adapted from my 01.11.2017 post on [ weird things ]