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Avoiding the conspiracy trap. The biasing effect of second-hand information.

From childhood we are taught to believe what we are told, whether that be what we are told by teachers in class, or by what we read in textbooks. However, there is a flagrant flaw in second-hand information. Often it contains distorted truths to serve a certain agenda, to add entertainment value, or to increase engagemen

“What ails the truth is that it is mainly uncomfortable, and often dull. The human mind seeks something more amusing, and more caressing.”

From childhood we are taught to believe what we are told, whether that be what we are told by teachers in class, or by what we read in textbooks. However, there is a flagrant flaw in second-hand information. Often it contains distorted truths to serve a certain agenda, to add entertainment value, or to increase engagement. Afterall, amazing feats and extraordinary claims are far more alluring than a more logical alternative. It is for these reasons that documentaries such as The Game Changers or That Sugar Film achieved substantial success, not only by depositing dollars in the bank, but also by influencing the perceptions of thousands regarding intake of animal products or sugar. Being told “SUGAR AND ANIMAL PRODUCTS WILL WIPE YEARS OFF YOUR LIFE” is far more captivating, than an evidence-based perusal of the existing systematic reviews and meta-analyses published in scientific journals. A headline of “Consumption of animal products and sugar are harmless in the context of a balanced diet” just won’t grab eyeballs, nor will it incentivise us to open our wallets for more. The same can be said with regards to recent Covid-19 induced conspiracies. An alternative explanation of “Covid was manmade by a secret lab!” or “Covid doesn’t exist, they are faking the numbers!” or “Bill Gates is a demon that just wants to make money off this pandemic!” is a far more exciting story than “Covid-19 was a mutation of a similar coronavirus that has been around for many years, and Bill Gates’ foundation has been donating billions to fight many global diseases for decades, and will do so with this one.”

Now these conspiracies will sound ludicrous to most of us that have the capacity to execute critical thinking, but sadly, the adoption of these flawed claims is rampant. I understand that it is fun to latch on to an alternative conspiracy because they are exciting and they provide you with a sense of entitlement, like you have privileged access to information that many others don’t, and that you are one of the “awoken ones” and everyone else is a sheep in the system. But the world is chaotic my friends, and sometimes bad things happen. Not for any particular reason, and not because of some secret government organisation, they just happen. I find it intriguing that many of the people I see falling victim to flawed conspiracy theories, are often atheist, and will favour an evolutionary explanation of the human existence in place of Creationism. It seems like a logical fallacy to me that one would place their faith in evolution (a collection of random chance events and mutations) yet disregard the origin of Covid-19 as a chance event. Isn’t it funny that there are rarely any conspiracy theories surrounding natural disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes or cyclones? Yet as soon as a global emergency arises where humans are involved, the existence of circulating conspiracy theories increases exponentially. Now, this article was not written with the intention of identifying the flaws in single conspiracy theories. Refuting them, will have very little effect, particularly on conspiracy adopters regardless of the volume of evidence I provide. This article does have an agenda, and the agenda is to instead pinpoint the flaws in second-hand information which often result in belief in flawed and non-scientific claims. I feel as though if we target the origin – the source of the information – that I have a better chance of getting through to some people. After all, this piece is useless if all I was able to do was provide you with the evidence to reject one conspiracy, but you accept the next one that comes along.  I can promise you; this will not be the last conspiracy theory of our generation. Therefore, we need the appropriate artillery (skills) to combat the next conspiracy onslaught.

To satisfy the basic needs of communication the message needs to be understandable (not assuming too much knowledge from the listener) and not contain too many details that may distract the listener from the central message. Thus, when sharing information, it is biased by the fact that it is often distorted to satisfy these basic enabling conditions, being heavily simplified, and free from points that may detract from the intended message. This information does not solely pertain to the sharing of spoken word, but also the dissemination of information through broadcast and print media. This is a recipe for adoption of flawed claims, because those with low education levels can readily comprehend the information, and because the information only provides the intended components for the desired message (e.g., not a holistic review) it creates the perception of the information being overwhelmingly conclusive and one-sided. If you don’t believe me, how many times do you hear conspiracy adopters making caveats in their claims or using terminology like “may” or “might”, as any good scientist would? The answer is easy, zero, because they don’t. Conspiracy proponents use bold language and concrete statements such as “Covid is X”, “Meat products cause X” etc. Those with an understanding of the scientific method know that when evidence is limited, nuance is paramount.

As these distorted accounts are continually retold and reshared, we drift further from the truth of the original source information, with distortions standing little chance of correction once they are distributed and reshared across YouTube, Twitter, and other social media outlets. To provide a recent example, who has heard of the Bill Gates conspiracy? Apparently, he is planning to vaccinate us with micro-chips so the government can track our movements, essentially world domination. Bill Gates’ foundation did fund a pilot study looking into the potential for a digital mark during vaccine delivery, which would be able to identify those with immunity to facilitate the reopening of the global economy, after all we don’t want potentially sick people crossing borders leading to a second wave/pandemic. Now this original source information had no mention of tracking, monitoring, or control. Yet over the past few months as the story has been reshared, distorted to increase engagement and entertainment, and simplified, we now have a ludicrous conspiracy theory whereby Bill planned Covid-19 while working with the US Government, to roll out “microchips” in the vaccine so the government could survey us 24/7. Those believing in these conspiracies, have lost touch with the original source information. If it wasn’t clear already, we must be very sceptical of second-hand information, and where possible find the primary information resource before hanging your tin hat, or worse, sharing your tin hat with others.

The more times a story has been retold, the more likely that distortions of the source information will occur. We are wise to be more sceptical, the more remote the message. For example, far greater doubt should be placed on a YouTube video shared by your Facebook friend, who shared it from one of his friend’s and so on. Things get even more tricky when the person sharing the message is someone we seem as trustworthy, like a friend. This is also one of the main reasons that those believing in conspiracy theories, also have many friends who also believe in conspiracy theories. But here’s the problem, even if we hear the claim from someone we perceive as trustworthy, like a friend, it is more than likely that we are only assessing the credibility of the immediate source, he or she likely heard it from someone less credible. Without this cognitive awareness, we run the risk of uncritically accepting bogus stories and fabricated claims. Second-hand information is also flawed in the sense that it leads to incorrect estimations of the prevalence of a certain claim. For example, if we hear of 6 people who know someone who’s brain was damaged by playing too much X-Box then we likely conclude X-Box is a dangerous activity. However, if the same story was told with the person only hearing of 6 people who had kids with brain damage from X-Box, it’s likely the claim will be less spread by us as the listener, despite the exact same sample size. Flawed second-hand information isn’t just an issue with respect to conspiracy theories, it happens in academia regularly. Often scientific studies are published in journals, the most exciting findings are often reported (sometimes distorted) with qualifying comments or nuance left in remote parts of the text or omitted altogether. For example, when the association of sugary drink consumption and diabetes was published in the literature, that was the eye-ball grab headline, yet many media articles neglected to point out that the individuals consuming the most sugary drinks were also consuming the most overall calories.

If you have learnt just one thing from this article, I hope it is to understand that the possibility of inaccurate and flawed sharing of non-scientific information increases substantially due to the fact that the worth of a message is by how well it is received by the listener/reader, and a message is easily received when it is simple, entertaining, and engaging, often resulting in distortions and exaggerations of the original truth. Our appetite for entertainment is enormous, and it has a momentous impact on the information we want to hear. The desire to entertain often creates a conflict for the information “speaker”, between sharing information that is either accurate and less entertaining, or less accurate but entertaining. Often, the desire to entertain outweighs the desire to share accurate information. That is where the truth suffers my friends. Be sceptical of things you are told, question bold claims, and consult the original information source where possible.

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