Science Against Obscurantism

Factoids and Links: Deceiving with the Truth

Are we entering a new golden age for obscurantism? Truth seems elusive at times in public discourse. But the pursuit of it is receiving a great deal of attention. So we have social media enterprises exploring ways they can slow the spread of misinformation. In response, folks who persist in spreading it are becoming more clever about it. They are using factoids and links – fragments of truth – to deceive. A new analysis by NPR tells us this has become an important tool for the anti-vaccination agenda. Online misinformation is becoming more subtle, reports Miles Parks:

“The findings also illustrate a broader trend in online misinformation: With social media platforms making more of an effort to take down patently false health claims, bad actors are turning to cherry-picked truths to drive misleading narratives.”

Fear-Mongering About Vaccines

Experience with COVID-19 vaccines to date tells us that these are remarkably safe. Testing for the three vaccines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration included close to 100,000 subjects in controlled clinical trials. Post-marketing surveillance for their safety is perhaps the most intense of any program for any medical product in history.

Yet in its analysis of social media content for vaccines, the dominant narrative NPR found was about anecdotal stories of people who died some time after receiving the vaccine. Nearly one hundred million people have received doses. The first to get it have been older persons and people with a high risk of death from other causes. So deaths in this population should be no surprise. It is a fact of life.

No matter. One of the most popular vaccine stories of the year on social media has been about a doctor who died a few weeks after getting the vaccine. There was no link between the vaccine and his death. The article that went viral said so. Nonetheless, this single article received five million clicks on Facebook and Twitter.

Fragments of truth are actually more powerful for deceiving people than outright lies, because people draw their own false conclusions. They own them and won’t let go of them easily.

Links in Obesity and Nutrition

Likewise, links and factoids plague us in obesity and nutrition. Artificial sweetener consumption correlates with obesity. Breastfeeding correlates with less obesity. Vitamin D levels correlate with many things, including lower COVID-19 risk. The list is long and evidence for cause and effect is sparse. But the factoids stick.

Obscurantism Rising

We are not sure that obscurantism has ever gone away. However, it does seem to have new vigor in this age of truth decay. Factoids and links should put us on our guard for truth obscured. Friedrich Nietzsche explained the risk:

“The essential element in the black art of obscurantism is not that it wants to darken individual understanding, but that it wants to blacken our picture of the world, and darken our idea of existence.”

Click here for more on the analysis by NPR, here and here for more on obscurantism.

Science Against Obscurantism, painting by Giacomo Balla / WikiArt

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March 28, 2021