Brandolini’s Law

bullshit meterEver had the frustrating experience trying to correct someone’s obviously un-factual post or meme on Facebook? And found yourself in a swamp of comments all telling you you’re wrong, an idiot, it’s just your opinion, it worked for my friend so it’s true, or you don’t know anything, followed by insults and accusations? Welcome to the backlash from Brandolini’s Law.

According to Wikipedia, Brandolini’s law states that it’s easier to spread bullshit than to debunk it:

Brandolini’s law, also known as the bullshit asymmetry principle, is an internet adage which emphasizes the difficulty of debunking bullshit: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”

We’ve all seen this in action on Facebook or other social media: someone posts some long-debunked conspiracy meme or some pseudoscience claptrap on their timeline and before you can collect the links from Snopes or other de-bunking sites to counter it, a dozen people have already commented on how right it is or how they agree with it and then sharing it on their own timelines. And by the time you have posted a few links to show it’s claptrap, many more have joined the chorus about how wonderful or truthful it is. Your little finger of truth in the dyke of bullshit cannot hold back the tsunami of acceptance for and agreement with something that you know is intrinsically wrong.

In Plato’s terminology, those who attempt to correct the bullshit, are fighting doxa — opinion, common beliefs without the “underpinning of evidence” — with episteme — true knowledge or understanding. And it’s usually a losing battle because while the former appeals to the heart and head , the latter is “wholly cerebral.” And we all know how effectively social media promotes anti-intellectualism and groupthink. *

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The day that reason died

Aliens sort of
I’m not a believer in alien visitations and UFOs, but I’ll bet if an alien did swing by, after an hour or two observing us, checking out Facebook or Twitter, they’d lock their doors, hang a detour sign around our planet, and race off. They’d tell their friends not to visit us because we were all nuts. Scarily, dangerously crazy.

Seriously. What sort of world can be called civilized when it has people touting — and believing — homeopathy? Reiki? Chemtrails? Anti-vaccination screeds? Anti-mask whines during a frigging pandemic? Wind turbines cause cancer? 5G towners spread COVID-19? Creationism? Reflexology? Alien abductions? Crop circles? Astrology? Crystal healing? Ghosts? Flat earth? Bigfoot? Psychics? Ayurveda? Nigerian generals offering us free money? Palmistry? David Avocado Wolfe? David Icke? Gwyneth Paltrow? Donald Trump? Alex Jones? The Food Babe? Televangelists?  Ken Ham? You have to be really hard-of-thinking or massively gullible to fall for any of it. But we do, and we fall for it by the millions.

And that doesn’t include the baseless , puerile crap like racism, homophobia, misogyny, pedophilia, anti-Semitism, radical religion, trickle-down economics, and nationalism, all of which evils remain rampant despite concerted efforts to educate people since the Enlightenment. Little wonder aliens wouldn’t want to be seen here.

Why would they want to land on a planet of such extreme hypochondriacs who one day are happily eating muffins and bread, then the next day millions of them suddenly develop gluten “sensitivity” or even “allergies” right after some pseudo-wellness guru pronounces gluten an evil that is killing them? Or who self-diagnose themselves with whatever appeared in the last illness or pseudo-illness they saw in a YouTube video? Or who go ballistic over being asked to wear a mask for public safety despite its very minor inconvenience? Or who refuse to get a vaccination to help develop herd immunity and would prefer their children suffer the illness instead?

Despite all the efforts, despite science, logic, rational debate, medicine, facts, and common sense (which is not common at all these days) everything has been downgraded into mere opinion. Everyone has a right to an opinion, we say (which is politically correct bollocks), and we respect their opinion (even if it’s toxic bullshit or simply batshit crazy, or in Donald Trump’s case, both). All opinions get equal weight and consideration, especially on social media, where people will eagerly agree with anything that confirms their existing beliefs that the world is out to get them or that makes them feel special.

Who should you believe in this dark age of anti-science and anti-intellectualism: unemployed, high-school-dropout Bob who lives in his parent’s basement and watches porn in his PJs when he’s not cranking out conspiracy videos, or Dr. Fauci, an award-winning physician, medical researcher, epidemiologist, and immunologist who has dedicated his whole life to public health care, with more than five decades experience in the field, who has served as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) since 1984, and is considered one of the world’s leading experts on infectious diseases? But there are two sides to every issue, cry Bob’s followers (by the way, there aren’t: that’s another stupid fallacy) who rush to share Bob’s latest video about why you don’t need to wear a mask during a pandemic, and that you’ll develop immunity if we all just cough on one another. What do experts know, they ask. Bob speaks for us; he’s one of us. We trust Bob, not the elitist guy with the string of degrees. And even if we do get sick, we can just drink some bleach because or president said it will cure us.

Doomed. We are so fucking doomed when wingnuts like Bob (or Trump) get any traction. But there’s Gwyneth Paltrow doing a Netflix series to promote her batshit crazy ideas about health and wellness, and women shovelling their money at her to buy her magic stones to stuff into their vaginas. Bob is just a small, sad voice compared to the commercial money harvesting machines that Paltrow, Wolfe, and Vani Hari are. Doomed, I tell you.

While a lot of hokum has been around for ages, I’ve often wondered if there was some recent, seminal event that caused it to explode as it has into every corner of the world. Sure, the internet is the conduit for most of the codswallop these days, but was there something before that that started the tsunami of ignorance, bile, anti-intellectualism, incivility, and bullshit? Was there a tipping point when reason sank and cranks went from bottom-feeding fringe to riding the surface?,

Maybe — I think I’ve found it: August 22, 1987.

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How the pandemic defines who we are

Covidiots
Covidiot protesters

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, wrote Charles Dickens in the opening of his novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Those words seem eerily prophetic when read today. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought out the best and the worst in humanity. Every day the news brings us stories of people rising to the challenges to save their communities, to show courage, spine, and care for others; and yet many others falling to their lowest, succumbing to wild conspiracies and imaginary threats, and protesting even the mildest restrictions.

Balanced against the sacrifices made by frontline workers and those labelled “essential” workers who keep our world going while they face greater risks from infection are the acts of the selfish, the conceited, and the downright stupid who protest wearing masks and scream that lockdowns assault their rights to buy doughnuts or get their nails done. And while researchers race to find a vaccine, con artists, Talibangelists, and New Age scammers promote conspiracies, and sell “cures” to enrich themselves while endangering their customers.

Dickens continued,

“…it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way… “

Prophetic.

Anyone who uses social media – and few don’t have at least some connection online – is aware of the madness, the conspiracies, the crazy explosion of paranoia, fear, and pseudoscience on the internet, much of it within political or pseudo-religious (Talibangelist) machinations to further polarize an already confused and divided populace.

Covidiot
Covidiot protester

It strains every boundary of adult belief to imagine a connection between coronavirus, 5G wireless, and Bill Gates, yet there are many so gullible and evidently dim-witted they believe in these impossible fantasies. Yet gullible fools have even burned down 5G cell towers in the UK and burned or torn down other countries because they believe in this codswallop.

It beggars belief that people would be so selfish and stupid as to refuse to wear a mask for a short shopping trip to a local store when they clearly know the risks that not doing so presents to themselves, to everyone they encounter, and to their family and friends when they return. The mind boggles that anyone is so dim and dense as to label the pandemic as a hoax, as if catching it were no more consequential than getting a common cold.

Trolls in state-sponsored “meme factories” and conspiracy-generating operations in Russia, North Korea, and other (mostly autocratic) nations, feed this madness to keep it going and grow the divisiveness and balkanization of Western cultures. And we buy the dreck they’re selling because culturally we’re easily fooled by shiny trinkets.

The pandemic has seen a dramatic rise in hate groups, domestic terrorists, racists, armed protestors, and pro-fascist movements (the anti-antifa movement). While mostly visible in the USA, these far-right/anti-democracy groups even have Canadian supporters. By refusing to denounce these groups, the Trump administration has empowered and strengthened them. 

The pandemic world is increasingly divided by people who care about others and people who care about only themselves. People who wear masks when shopping, people who socially distance (even outdoors), people who accept lockdown restrictions (even when they affect their personal lives), and who show compassion for those have been put out of work from the closures are pitted against those who protest these rules, who demand access to all conveniences, who won’t wear masks or distance, who think more of their own conveniences and pleasures than the risks they pose to others.

We are not merely in the midst of a pandemic: we are in a culture war. The result will define the state of nations in the near future.

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The death of critical thinking or just bad journalism?

Woo hooThere was a recent article on Patheos.com with the scary headline, “Young People Are Choosing Horoscopes and Crystals Over Fundamentalist Religions.” The last part of that might seem good news, but the first part is highly troubling. It suggests a continued descent into the New Dark Ages where science, logic, and reason are replaced by woo hoo.

Let’s be clear from the start: astrology is bunk. Magic rocks are bunk. Guardian angels, reiki, homeopathy, psychic readings, tarot cards, energy healing, reflexology, phrenology, and iridology are all bunk. None are based on anything close to science, reality or fact. At the very least destructive they are mere entertainment, at their worst they are a cultish belief in magic and superstition. But the piece is more sensationalism than fact.

The author of the Patheos article – supposedly a skeptic who describes it as a trend towards a “less violent form of nonsense” – writes,

Believe it or not, I don’t oppose this. We should be moving away from fundamentalist adherence to ancient dogmas, and more toward this type of relaxed take-what-works-and-drop-the-rest approach. And if you can make yourself feel better without hurting anyone, I say you should go for it.

No, no, no. The test for meaning, for benefit, relevance, utility or truthfulness is not whether it makes you feel better. That’s simply being selfish. You can get the same from eating ice cream or splurging on something you want to own. The news is full of politicians – local to federal – doing something to benefit themselves, not the people they supposedly serve. Epicureanism notwithstanding, there ought to be a benefit to more than just yourself.

Not harming anyone is good, of course, but by itself not good enough to make it the sole basis of anyone’s beliefs or practices. Where is the ethical or moral substrate? The greater good? Too easily not harming anyone can become simply avoidance and excuses for not actually doing something.

But who is to determine harm? if children see their parents believing in something, they are likely to follow suit. Nonsense is as harmful to their minds as a religious cult. Believing in magic stones can easily lead to question all forms of science, reason and medicine (hint: New Age anti-vaxxers…)

And for all their faults, fantasies and flaws, at least most religions have a moral and ethical basis – you don’t get that in any form of woo hoo. It’s trite to consider all aspects of religion as “nonsense” just because you dismiss the supernatural aspects of it. 

Furthermore, belief – even in nonsense – spreads like a virus. Look at the anti-GMO and anti-gluten fads, the anti-vaccine wingnuts, the chemtrail and reptiloid conspiracies, and every diet fad. Behind all of these woo hoo beliefs are hordes of con artists, bullshitters and hoaxsters eager to get rich by prying money away from the gullible. Being scammed or conned by them is surely a form of harm.
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GWT treatment a sure cure for NAWHS syndrome

GWT in actionAfter years of research* and development, I have finally worked out the details for the treatment of the viral NAWHS (New Age Woo Hoo Susceptibility) syndrome: GWT or Gullibility Whack Therapy. And I’m going to found my own institute: The Whack-a-Wacko Institute of Common Sense Therapy. I stand to make millions.

It works like this: Every time a client utters a comment about the healing benefits of any flavour of New Age woo hoo including homeopathy, who avoids vaccinations, gluten and GMOs, who quotes Dr. Oz, Dr. Mercola or Gwyneth Paltrow, who confesses to using ear candling, magic crystals, reflexology, reiki, feng shui or aromatherapy, who professes a belief in astrology, guardian angels, auras, psychics or tarot cards, who prefers “alternative medicine” or ayurveda instead of real medicine, or goes to a “medical intuitive” instead of a real doctor has precisely 30 seconds to cite scientific research that validates their claims or get whacked.

I’ll come to your home, your workplace, your favourite restaurant or pub and stand behind you. Every time you utter some pseudoscience or New Age codswallop, I’ll whack the back of your head and shout “bullshit!” for everyone to hear. I’ll stand with you in the grocery store line and if you dare pick up a Goop, Dr. Oz or Oprah magazine, you’ll get a whack. If you tune into Gwyneth Paltrow’s new Netflix TV show, I’ll whack both you and the TV set. If you stop in the mall to look at the display of essential oils, I’ll whack you.

I’ll offer various levels of treatment with graduated scales from Gentle Reminder using a feather duster to Are You Off Your Freakin’ Rocker? using a dog’s latex squeaky toy — a loud one, so everyone also hears it. I’ll have rates by the hour or by the whack. Given the raging amount of woo hoo online and the susceptibility of people to the babblings of poorly-educated glitterati, I will have no shortage of potential clients.
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Local media is letting us down

Doesn't understandRule number one in The Elements of Journalism is: “journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.” Number three is “Its essence is a discipline of verification.” Keep those two in mind as you read this.

I recognize that local reporting is not always the same calibre as the investigative journalism we expect from national media, but in my view (and experience as a former reporter and editor), blindly accepting claims about health, wellness or science without questioning, let alone confirming them through a credible source, and then repeating those statements in a story is not responsible reporting. It’s just typing.

There’s a recent story on Collingwood Today titled, “Firefighters getting charged up by new wellness device” that strikes me as a good example of poor journalism. The story is about Collingwood’s Fire Department buying a mat,

…called a Seqex, and it uses Pulsed Electromagnetic Field therapy to help the firefighters detox, relax, and heal when necessary.
The device comes from Health Wellness Industries in Collingwood, where the owner and president Kim Sartor has built a business selling and offering treatments in the Seqex system.

The manufacturer is SISTEMI SRL (Italian Society of Seqex Electro Medical and Innovative Technologies), and they have numerous products all that start with Seqex, such as Seqex Fam and Seqex Radiant Mat. Which particular one this is could have been easily confirmed with a five-second internet search. Or maybe a single question. Several Seqex products were recalled in 2016, by the way, because the company didn’t have a licence to sell them in Canada until late 2017.

You already know from many, many science-based articles debunking it that detox is New Age woo hoo, not a treatment, nor a cure. It is, as Science-Based Medicine calls it, “Ritual purification masquerading as medicine and wellness.” The site also notes, “Detox Scams are Worthless and Potentially Dangerous” and calls it “a marketing strategy… designed to treat a nonexistent condition.” Any detoxification your body does is through your liver, colon and kidneys not through smoothies or electromagnetic stimulation. That too, a reporter could easily establish. And no, you can’t sweat out toxins in a sauna, either because of simple biology: “Humans sweat to cool ourselves, not to excrete waste products or clear toxic substances.”

The “Seqex is a Class 2 medical device, which means it can be used without a doctor administering it – similar to a sleep apnea machine.”

That doesn’t explain what the classification means. All medical devices need to be licensed in Canada.

Class categorization is a risk evaluation, not a determination of efficacy or wellness. In Canada, “Medical devices are classified into one of Classes I to IV by means of the classification rules set out in Schedule 1, where Class I represents the lowest risk and Class IV represents the highest risk.” A licence doesn’t mean it works as advertised; just that it meets labelling and safety standards: see Section 32.2 of the law. Licensing relies on the manufacturer’s attestation that it’s safe and meets these requirements:

-certification that device is manufactured according to international Quality Management System standard.-manufacturer’s attestation that device satisfies the safety, effectiveness in MDR (Medical Device Regulations); labelling reviewed.

Other Class II medical devices include contact lenses, epidural catheters, pregnancy kits and surgical gloves.

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