Sunday, January 29, 2017

On Silence in the Face of Alt-Facts

I think part of the reason we're swimming in crap is because we care more about being friendly than we do about spreading accurate claims. There are courses out there to learn how to detect bullshit, but maybe we also need to learn how to call something out without looking like a jerk.

The news media production of garbage is one part of the problem, but another important part is the widespread silence taken as acceptance of some claims that have no evidence to back them up. Sure there are the blindly obedient group, but my focus here is skeptical few who stand quietly by while others peddle their beliefs because it's seen as mean to question facts right to someone's face. It's seen as antithetical to forming allegiances, which has always been baffling to me. I think some of the closest friendships can be formed over a few good debates about facts and possibly differing interpretations. But people take offence when their beliefs are attacked, and all too often people are conflating their beliefs with misunderstood information.

In school, I sometimes see very academic classes question claims significantly less than in weaker classes likely because the high-achieving students have got their eyes on the final goal of a high mark, and arguing with the teacher might work against that goal. Some weaker classes can have fantastic debates because they're interested in figuring out what's right, not what will get them the marks. Polite conversation can fall into that former camp, smiling and nodding to questionable claims, then calling them out only when the purveyor has left the area. But that only ever educates the congregation instead of actually helping potential believers see the light of reason.

These days, anything that looks remotely insulting to anyone is questioned and apologies demanded (see Bill Maher's take on that), which is a problem in itself, but a bigger issue is that it's seen as offensive, as an insult, to question or scrutinize any claim made with confidence. I mean, we all hate that guy who jumps on Google whenever someone mistakenly uses the wrong word or gets an actor's name wrong in conversation. Nobody needs that level of policing. But the other extreme allows false claims to be circulated without comment.

This applies to many situations, but today I'm specifically ranting about homeopathy and questionable supplements and magical formulas. People have come out of the woodwork to tell me about the best ways to heal cancer, and it's giving me the heebie jeebies that so many believe so much with so little evidence. I completely accept that if there's a plant that people have found to have positive health effects, then absolutely let's test that claim out. But when we can't find any evidence, then we have to surmise that the effects were a mere coincidence. Anecdotal evidence has got to be held to further scrutiny, and only then the appropriate dose can be determined and the products regulated and marketed.

Part of the issue is the demonization of the medical community. Yup, Big Pharma is trying to making a buck and will market unnecessary drugs directly to consumers, and it's possible some doctors are getting a kickback for suggesting one drug over another. The field is not without potential for abuse. But that's not to say every doctor is in it for the cash grabs, and it's also not proof that the alternative health care field is free from gold diggers. They're also regular people just as likely to get sucked into the love of money. Just because they listen well and seem so caring, doesn't mean their products are healthier nor their motives more altruistic.

I have a relative who's a pranic healer by trade, and she was sure to call after I got home from the hospital to warn me about the deception in the medical profession. Luckily her naturopath suggested she get mammograms just in case because of our family history or she might have taken me to task for that as well. She believes that alcoholism is due to a past lives hanging around, and she was quite sure my mother had moved in with me after she died because I had a dream about her. She makes unsubstantiated claims that could affect people's health and well being. If someone opts for Bach remedies instead of necessary antibiotics, it could prove fatal, yet we all sit and listen and smile and nod politely. It would be too awkward to argue with her.

I've tried out some harmless claims myself. I have a skin issue that hasn't been helped by standard treatments, so many laypersons have talked me into considering coconut oil. But first I traced and took photos of the areas in need. Then I used the oil at regular times three times a day for eight straight weeks. There wasn't any difference in the size, shape, or colour of the affected area, and I'm not convinced the coconut disciples tested it so carefully on themselves. BUT had I seen any improvement, it might have prompted me to continue using it, yet I still couldn't conclude that the oil was the cause of the improvement without a control in the experiment. At the very least, I'd need two similarly affect areas to test - one with coconut oil and one with a regular moisturizer - to see if it wasn't just affected by other lifestyle choices or just got better on its own. Ideally, we'd need a few hundred people to try it out to test the effectiveness in a controlled study. One study of 34 people did just that and found it works no better than mineral oil, so there you go. As far as we know, it's not the miracle cure many tout it to be.

Recently I was in a captive audience listening to a talk about staying healthy this winter. Some of the claims were harmless and likely useful: exercise regularly and eat your vegetables. I was surprised that sleeping well and washing hands frequently wasn't mentioned; that's a curious oversight. But then a few questionable claims were made that got my attention. GMOs were lumped together as one entity that makes us less healthy, which is a highly contentious claim. But we'll let that go. Then there were big cheers for oregano oil even though there's no clear evidence of its effectiveness:
Despite the hype, there is no persuasive evidence to demonstrate that oil of oregano does anything useful in or on our bodies. And while it is popular, there is no science to support the use of oil of oregano for any medical condition. Suggesting that this herb can effectively treat serious medical conditions like diabetes, asthma, and cancer is foolish and dangerous.
But more disconcerting was the suggestion that we need supplements because food doesn't have enough vitamins anymore, and the supplements at regular drug stores aren't regulated so they can be all filler without any active ingredients. The presenter didn't say what to do with this dilemma, but offered that there are better products out there and further answers could be sought individually with her. Her evidence was that, with these better products, she's happy all the time and never gets sick. My counter: with the exception of recent genetically-determined issues, I could say the same thing and credit it to a weekly ritualistic imbibing at the local pub.

So I took the bait and asked about her claims and her sources. She's pretty convinced that vitamins are classified as food and therefore not at all regulated beyond not being harmful. Except that's wrong. They're a sub-set of drugs because they're not taken to increase caloric intake, and, as such, their labels must indicate medicinal and non-medicinal ingredients by weight. They can't legally just be filler. She countered that to check that the actual amount of Vitamin A uniform in each tablet is almost impossible, which isn't remotely true, and uniformity is actually legislated.

Her source? People she knows who work in the supplement industry. Of course my questioning all led to finding out the better product alluded to in her initial presentation, which, by some coincidence, she happens to sell. Imagine that! But hang on: even if we take all her claims as accurate, these products are under the same jurisdiction as vitamins sold at the pharmacy, so we shouldn't trust them either. The problem here is threefold: a misunderstanding of the scientific method in general, an inability to google reputable websites for facts, and an inability to understand how logic works in making a persuasive claim.

But here the thing: I have nothing against the presenter: she's a sweetheart, and I admire her desire and ability to spread her beliefs in such a persuasive way such that none of her claims were openly questioned, but actually praised. I wish I could have been so convincing with my crazy facts about climate change twenty years ago, but I still can't convince colleagues to go paperless or to at least use good-on-one-side paper, or to stop using single-use cups, or to ditch the office mini-fridges and A/C units. Maybe I'm just jealous at her ability to reach the masses. That must be it. Going paperless actually decreases physical contact with students, so it's good for your health too! Apparently that's the angle to take to be heard.

We don't like to cause conflicts, even when information is spurious. But a room full of people forced to listen to this spiel were silent in the face of very questionable information. Including me.

I also say nothing when it's someone I really admire, though. The documentary Cowspiracy claims that 51% of GHG emissions are from agriculture (scrutinized here). Every other report on emissions has much lower numbers, including the IPCC, which puts it at 24% (see the pretty graph below). It's still up there, and it's definitely something we should act on by eating way less meat, but that 51% number seems to be seriously questionable. Documentaries need fact-checking too.

But then Chris Hedges started praising the documentary and citing that number as fact. Yes, even the great Chris Hedges doesn't have time to fact-check everything he sees, and his bullshit meter must have been subdued from all the footage of suffering animals. When facts are reported inaccurately, but they help the cause, it's harder to be motivated to correct them. But it doesn't make them any less inaccurate.

I don't think we can stop some from being convinced of alternative facts, but it will help if the critical thinkers in the crowd are willing to risk being seen as impolite for the benefit of sharing accurate data. Or maybe we need to perpetuation a new type of kindness that says: I care too much to let you continue making this mistake.

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