The rise of scepticism: whom can we trust?

Shivani Dave.

73.6% of statistics are made up.

A made-up statistic, but you would believe it if I told you so.

Benjamin Disraeli is said to have coined the phrase “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  He was referring to the persuasive power of statistics to be able to bolster weak arguments; in the recent months, the public has been the recipient of not just deceptive statistics but outright lies. 2016 saw politicians using the media to propagate misconceptions, to deliberately mislead the public. As the recipient of absolute lies to misleading statistics, people are becoming more and more distrusting of what they are told. In the pre-internet era, information had to be actively sought out, facts and figures were fact-checked and well researched before publication. Now, with a quick web search you can find a number of ‘experts’ each with their own opinions. The internet offers a curtain of anonymity which allows people to claim to be whoever or whatever they want, thus perpetuating so-called “facts”.

The ease of publishing online with a professional typeface and catchy headline combined with the power of social media enabling relatively small numbers of individuals to run and hold onto special interest headlines makes misleading the public that much easier. It is possibly this mistrust in information that leads people to disregard facts that can be corroborated in favour of fake truths that are more aligned with their prejudices and preconceived ideas. “Don’t trust everything you read” is a phrase that has now transformed to not trusting anything that inconveniences you, regardless of supporting evidence. The future president, Donald Trump, is one of the biggest proponents of this; consistently referring to the media as being “fake” or “dishonest”, maybe his approach to what he reads is the reason he has made outlandish claims[1] about global warming.

It is no secret that politicians have taken advantage of online blogs and media platforms to campaign on a platform of propaganda. In 2016 campaign teams made political promises only to later pull back[2] post the vote. The lies that have been told has meant that large sections of the public have lost faith in what experts claimed in the news.  The era of “post-truth”, a term denotes the way in which facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief, has arrived.

We have entered a dangerous era where people choose to only believe the truth that conveniences them and that which fits in with their personal pre-disposition. Anybody with a working internet connection can publish what they want online, using a URL that seems legitimate and trustworthy, but the content of what they post can be entirely false. Often blogs and web pages do not source their information, they rely on the readers trusting nature to take what is said at face value, allowing publication of material designed to garner support through the publication of emotionally and prejudicially based material. The nature of social media is such that the mere act of noting that publications are uncorroborated direct a sea of people who are then directed to the articles. The trouble with these type of posts is that they gain a lot of traction, they are clickable, and people share them either to bolster the proposition or critique it, either way, the content is shared. For as many people that can see through the illegitimacy, there are an equal amount of people who chose to believe the content they read.

Media organisations understand that the way people access news is changing, they rely on social media feeds to find real-time stories rather than waiting for the 6 pm broadcast. Platforms such as Facebook[3] have realised their responsibility in discontinuing false publications and have made headway in ridding fake news websites from being shared as reputable on their sites. Task forces have been established with the aim to rid these fake news websites from social media platforms, in an attempt to limit the damage these sites can do. While some organisations are renowned for their untrue articles almost satirical articles, such as Clickhole[4], others are more inconspicuous and will require readers to be more vigilant to the truth.

This caution needs to be exercised even when accessing professionally adjudicated sources. A common case of being misled on the internet is when people turn to Dr. Google for self-diagnosis. The unpoliced ability to put anything on the internet means people who seek medical advice online are not necessarily going to receive accurate information. Symptoms checkers such as Patient[5] have distinct provisos stating that symptom checkers do not diagnose and that the results may be alarming, but those same diagnoses are not listed in the likelihood of the user having the illness. This is to be expected from any reputable website, but even reputable platforms cannot help that people tend to assume the worst.

Self-diagnosis through websites such as WebMD, NHSUK and MedicineNet is on the rise. In a report[6] conducted by Push Doctor, 21.8% of people self-diagnose their symptoms because they were unable to see their doctor. The nieve notion that seven years of medical school and practical training can be substituted by typing symptoms into a search bar not only undermines the training of doctors but leads to a wave of “cyberchondria,  A growing concern to healthcare practitioners that patients manifest a state of medical anxiety after researching rare and diseases and illnesses online. The diagnostic skills that practitioners develop over their training are in no way comparable to an online search, the state of hypochondria increases paranoia.

A simple web search for “rash” has the top result suggesting meningitis, before even opening the link and news articles[7] suggesting rashes that look harmless could be cancer. Despite most websites stating the odds of these rare conditions, the people have an unremitting belief that they are the one in a million case, probability and reason go out of the window when people become paranoid.

It has been shown that people become trapped into wrongful interpretations of material that they have self-scoured, leading to their doubting the diagnoses of their experts. It is not proposed that we return to the era of the all-powerful expert – just that experts be given due credit. An expert is defined as someone with above-average knowledge or skill in a particular area; with the use of the internet, some believe themselves to be experts in areas they have had no formal training in. As social media continues to be the leading medium of sharing news a level of caution needs to be taken when online to be able to distinguish between fake news, fake experts, and reality.

It has policymakers that a lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth. Historically this statement has been paraphrased and credited to Hitler, Goebbels, and Lenin among half a dozen other people. With the enhanced capability to disseminate are we not all responsible for being complicit in spreading misinformation?

The internet is not all to blame, the phrase “lies, damned lies and statistics” has roots[8] back to the 1800’s. The ability of statisticians to manipulate numbers and to selectively portray an outlook most suited to them is not new, nor is the desire of humans to present a view that suits their individual perspectives or profit motives. For most, numbers seem reliable and trustworthy, we are brought up on a diet of the absoluteness of mathematics, to then learn that results have been deliberately biased naturally causes doubt in the minds of laymen and can lead to scepticism.

The scientific community has a responsibility to maintain integrity when publishing results so that they are able to stand up to scrutiny. Scrutiny is no longer the preserve of peers but it is exercised by the general public and can be ‘hijacked’ by special interest groups, who no doubt would exploit any bias, real or perceived, to further their own cause.

 

I would make a case that the manipulation of statistics is a form of propaganda that does not touch on the real issue, damned lies. Many of the claims being made, particularly by the world’s policymakers and leaders, are promises with little substance or ability, or as a sceptic would say intent, to deliver. In the past, some politicians have had the humility to make shallow attempts of apologies[9], though none are ever full or timely. Recently, however, politicians have resorted to total and utter denial[10] that such promises were ever made. Is it any wonder that scepticism is on the rise?

People have arguably been naïve in trusting those that echo their own beliefs. They have wanted to trust politicians, but need to realise that with a two party, first past the post/winner takes all system, politicians are interested in making it to office. They have little need to follow through on what they say when we are living in a culture where it is easier to blame collective decision making or changing circumstances for not following through and have little to no accountability. It is perhaps this weariness that led to the political upheavals of 2016; the public decided not on the basis of intangible benefits or apocalyptic scare stories but on the basis of the one certain outcome – Leave the EU or, in the case of Donald Trump, his anti- establishmentarianism.

Public figures have a duty to ensure what they say can be supported by fact. Traditional news outlets prided on taking responsibility for not publishing unsubstantiated “news” so as not to mislead. However, with social media the editorial intervention and rigor traditionally exercised by the established news organisations is circumvented, public figures are able to address their audiences directly, and Donald Trump has been able to skirt around the scrutiny that these organisations exercise.

The directness of access to information means people should be able to substantiate claims, with the knowledge that damn lies are a part of politician’s propaganda, it is down to each individual to assess the likelihood of follow through. Fact checking is becoming easier, the Washington Post has developed a fact checker app[11] extension for Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox that fact checks Donald Trump’s tweet putting into context some of the misleading statements he makes.

So with this improved ability to contextualize statements, and the imminent fake news filters and fact checkers is it not the time to start believing in what we read?

Perhaps but not yet, people now have a distrust in experts, the lies they have been told over and over has given them a reason not to trust what they are being told. This has left the public’s faith in mainstream media at an all-time low[12]. Policy makers we look to run the country have publicly stated[13] they no longer trust experts, if that is what they believe, why should the public trust them? It seems they do not. In a study[14] conducted at the University of Muenster in Germany the phrase “epistemic trustworthiness” was coined. If you trust the experts who wrote this paper, they define epistemic trustworthiness as the decision to place trust in and listen to experts when we need to solve a problem we have a limited understanding of. There are three criteria we use to judge someone trustworthiness, for a high epistemic trustworthiness a person must have a combination of expertise, integrity, and benevolence. So having the knowledge is not enough, we want people we believe are honest and genuinely well meaning.

Our emotional attachments make choosing the right person to place our epistemic trust in vulnerable we choose the charismatic and relatable characters rather than the person who may be more qualified for the job. We still have the prejudice that experts are pragmatic people who tend to make unemotional and solely academic decisions. This is the polite way of saying that there is a stigma that experts are narcissistic people, with a questionable moral compass and who need their egos stroked. People tend not to find these people trustworthy.

To try to debunk this attitude and make people want to trust experts, we need to understand why they seem untrustworthy. First and foremost experts are told to become proficient in the language of their specialism and to use that language to communicate. When experts talk they speak, they tend to revert to this ‘language’ which confers upon them an air of arrogance or superiority. Rather than making their knowledge approachable to the laymen they expect non-experts to rise to the new level of complicated words and indecipherable acronyms.  Non- experts do not want to be alienated, the use of incomprehensible language does just that. For some experts, such as doctors, it is easier to break down this barrier, as they have some training in communication. Climate change experts, for example, do not receive this same level of training but have extremely important information to share that we would be better off knowing now rather than in 50 years when London is underwater.

So for experts to really convey the importance of their messages, to get people to trust what they say, they need to steer clear of the jargon, perhaps scientists need also to be linguistics, it would be inconceivable for, say, a Chinese translator speak to an English person using the language that a three-year-old Chinese child would understand – after all to the English person it is still Chinese. In the same way, scientists need to learn to communicate in the language of their audience. Another factor would be to remain consistent using credible media outlets to deliver their messages.

Maybe then people will begin to go back to trusting the experts.

[1] https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/265895292191248385?lang=en-gb

[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/brexit-vote-leave-wipes-nhs-350m-claim-and-rest-of-its-website-after-eu-referendum-a7105546.html

[3] https://www.facebook.com/zuck/posts/10103269806149061

 

[4] http://www.clickhole.com/

[5] http://patient.info/symptom-checker

[6] https://www.pushdoctor.co.uk/digital-health-report

[7] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-4104964/Woman-21-thought-just-shaving-rash-discovers-actually-rare-form-CANCER.html

[8] http://www.york.ac.uk/depts/maths/histstat/lies.htm

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2012/sep/19/nick-clegg-apologies-tuition-fees-pledge

[10] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/eu-referendum-result-nigel-farage-nhs-pledge-disowns-350-million-pounds-a7099906.html

[11] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/12/16/now-you-can-fact-check-trumps-tweets-in-the-tweets-themselves/?utm_term=.636183f9169f

[12] http://www.gallup.com/poll/185927/americans-trust-media-remains-historical-low.aspx

[13] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGgiGtJk7MA

[14] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4608577/

The rise of scepticism: whom can we trust?

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