When you read a news story, do you take it at face value until something raises a flag or do you look at the source and decide in advance whether you're going to read with a skeptical eye? Are you more likely to believe news if it fits neatly into your existing worldview or are you really objective? Without a healthy skepticism, we would fall for every sales pitch on TV -- but by trusting some sources less it follows that we trust some sources more, and that leaves us vulnerable to carefully placed deceit. I wonder if there's any way to reduce that weak spot without losing trust altogether.
I like to think of this site as having a special interest in evidence-based debunkery. emptywheel's book, Anatomy of Deceit, is a great example. DemFromCT's FluWiki is another. The rest of us have our own pet projects, from Kagro X putting the lie to "we don't have the numbers" to DHinMI putting the fool's cap on fraudsters and conspiracy theorists. My own little project recently has been to show up a series of anti-science lies from PETA that recently crossed over into the mainstream press. Besides exposing the lies themselves, it's worth talking about how they spread and how they've been unspread.
The lies -- which falsely claim that a scientist in Oregon named Charles Roselli is (1) a homophobe, (2) trying to cure gayness in humans, (3) has already cured gayness in sheep, and (4) is cutting open sheep brains, attaching electronic devices, and injecting their brains with hormones to do so -- began last August, and after debunking these claims I wrote a post laying out a strategy I'd used for "unspreading" the lie, and detailing how well it had (and hadn't) worked. In short, the method was first to write a detailed factual post that corrects the lies, then to use search tools to identify blogs repeating the lies, and finally to systematically visit those sites and write comments referring the bloggers to the correction post (without trying to convert them ideologically, and sticking strictly to correcting the facts). That exercise last August proved to be a small-scale practice run for the onslaught of misinformation that followed when the story crossed into the mainstream press about three weeks ago. The basic model has held up fairly well. Here, I'll run through how well it scales up and what improvements may be made. The question to keep in mind is whether a story simply has a life of its own, or how much its spread depends on its source -- and what that implies for debunkery.
Rather than coming from PETA, now the story was coming from Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times in the UK. Unlike the PETA release, which hit animal rights sites and GLBT community sites first, this time the story was channeled through right-wing sites, appearing immediately on Free Republic and many smaller religious and conservative blogs. These posts were uncritical of the story's content, either reposting the piece without commentary or chuckling at its false suggestion that gay children could be identified and aborted and how that would "prove" to the Left the immorality of the pro-choice position. I hesitate to link to any of this crap but here's one noxious example to give you an idea.
The lefty blogs weren't angels on this matter, either. Uncritical repetitions of the Times' lies were posted on dailykos, where they went uncontested, and on Booman Tribune. But most lefty blogs were amenable to fact-checking. I made a point of posting comments without regard to a blog's politics, and while several right-wing blog administrators deleted my fact-check comments in order not to have their mistakes exposed (with the occasional exception), I found that lefty blogs not only let the comments stand but many writers went the extra step and posted an update, retraction or correction (now, if only the Sunday Times had the same integrity). These included 100 Days, Pam's House Blend, Joan of Snark, LiveJournal blogs including Such a Nice Boy and two really thoughtful posts from Paul Decelles here and here. Other bloggers did the research themselves and came across my debunking, most notably Joe.My.God who posted not only an update but an outstanding encapsulation of the story to date and whose heavily-trafficked site was key in getting the truth to the GLBT blogosphere.
Around this time something new began to happen. Rather than having to post the debunking links myself on others' blogs, I began finding that I'd go to a site and another commenter -- often one I had never interacted with or heard of -- had already posted a correction. It happened at Crooks & Liars, where a commenter named Morris Berg who had read my post here added a link in the comments that led to an update/semi-correction on the front-page post itself. It happened at Rhetorically Speaking with a commenter named Jon, and that blog later posted a very funny edit of the Times piece for accuracy. It happened on a GLBT site with a comment from Jonathan Korman (same Jon? if so, thanks twice!). It happened on Dyke Squad with a commenter named johnicholas, and that site later posted an update based on C&L's correction via Morris Berg. No commenter was so prolific, however, as OHSU's press person Jim Newman. It is unusual for a university to embrace new media the way OHSU has, but I think the results are showing. I did a blogsearch the other day and (painstakingly) counted through 55 separate blog postings on the story, half of which were "real" posts that presented a viewpoint and half of which were straight blockquotes with at most a line of snark added. Newman had commented on 26 of these with links to my debunking or other debunkings. In some cases his comments led to the retractions I linked to above; in other cases just a note in the comments: "PETA, huh? Thanks, Jim. I knew that this story was at the very least sensationalized." On some blogs Newman's often hit-and-run comments were backed up and expanded by a site's regular commenters who decided to look into the story. At the same time, other writers began debunking the Sunday Times' lies (either independently or cribbing from me without linking, who knows -- as long as the story is told right, I don't really care). The word was spreading, and now the task of correcting this anti-science propaganda had been taken up by others.
As encouraging as this progress was in the blogosphere, PETA's lies continued to spread, discouragingly, through conservative pundits. I'm told it went out over Rush Limbaugh's show, and the columnist Mark Steyn polluted the Chicago Sun-Times with a version of the story that invented steaming piles of new lies to augment the ones PETA had begun (including the insane assertion that a skin patch had already been developed to alter sexuality in the womb) and was immediately linked far and wide across the right-wing blogosphere. However, more thoughtful conservative writers like Andrew Sullivan posted updates and corrections, with each of these leading to more commenters (here, Steven B) on other sites correcting the lies as they spread. Meanwhile, Newman continued to debunk the story, regularly linking to my posts here rather than sticking to OHSU-generated material. He went on Penn Jillette's radio show to explain the real science, and contacted other media outlets to stop their spreading the lies (in many cases, to their credit, American media contacted OHSU, learned the real story and then decided to ignore the PETA-manufactured "controversy" -- although they didn't go so far as to help debunk it). In the UK's Guardian, the columnist Ben Goldacre wrote a good piece (expanded on-line version here) debunking PETA's lies and acknowledging the role of the blogosphere -- including TNH -- along the way. Each post like Goldacre's led to more and more and more and more, and... well, you get the idea. Paradoxically, many of these posts carried along the theme of "bloggers get the story right where the mainstream media sensationalizes" -- although they themselves had missed the blogosphere debunking until the mainstream press picked it up. Accuracy aside, the mainstream press has a reach far beyond what someone like myself can achieve.
This story spread for two reasons. First, its sheer (or should I say "shear"?) sensationalism -- not to mention the tempting puns, each of which I've seen used about 80 times by now, amazingly with no loss of self-satisfaction at each punster's supposed cleverness. One of my favorite sites, Language Log, ran a great and mercifully pun-free analysis concluding that sensationalism was the overriding reason the Times went ahead with reprinting lies it knew to be false:
But on balance, it doesn't seem likely to me that their Times article was "a deliberate political hit job". Rather, it seems to have been one of the modern "bible stories" that are published so often these days in the guise of science journalism.
You start with a grabby narrative with mythic resonances -- here it's one about scientists using neurosurgery and hormone injections into the brain to "cure" homosexuality, testing their techniques by cruel experimentation on cute little sheep...
Then you add journalists and editors eager to create some buzz. The fairy tale about fixing gay rams with brain surgery is definitely buzz-worthy, sure to rile up the anti-vivisectionists and the gay rights activists, and maybe the religious right too. Does it have any correspondence whatsoever to the facts of the world or even to the claims of the research? Who cares? Not the reporters or their editors, apparently. So they bang it out in the form that's appropriate for their medium, and we're off.
But it's important to note that these people are not lying, exactly. They simply don't care one way or another about what the facts are, and this shifts their work out of the category of lies and into the category for which Harry Frankfurt has suggested the technical term bullshit...
As I wrote last year after hearing Frankfurt speak, he defines buillshit not as lies or truth but as total disregard for veracity either way. I disagree that that's what happened at the Sunday Times, although it comes down to a disagreement about when willful blindness to a fact laid before you crosses the line from bullshit to lying. Clearly, though, this sensationalist angle -- our bullshit addiction -- fueled the spread of the lies through the blogs. Fortunately, an equal passion for evidence-based argument (perhaps fueled by a combative love of proving the other guy wrong) exists on blogs as well.
The other reason this story spread is the more pernicious and, I think, the more overlooked. In a really excellent and thoughtful post from Thomas Kraemer, he puts these lies in a box called "agitprop":
Agitprop (agitation propaganda) is an old political technique that was used by communists to gain popular support. PETA is trying to agitate gay people by convincing them that Oregon State University is doing homophobic research. Agitation makes people more susceptible to following a political group's agenda, which in PETA's case is the elimination of all animal research.
It's easy to say that the media is full of lies, and will print anything sensational with or without facts behind it. But that is a fairly destructive point of view: at some point, to participate in a democracy, you need to get news you can believe. You can't dismiss it all.
That's why this story has been so damaging. We are accustomed to attacks on science from the right -- against stem cell research, climate research, against evolution -- and have learned not to take a Heritage Foundation "scientist" seriously. However, PETA, while largely discredited, still retains some leftist credentials. They sensationalize, they overstate, they are more into symbolic protests than results -- but they are usually behind at least nominally progressive-sympathetic causes. That made it all the more nasty when they concocted these out-and-out lies targeted not against a field of science (which would have been a transparent anti-research attack) but against an individual scientist. Here was a group on the left raising an alarm, and from the "facts" they gave there was every reason to be alarmed. And because it was presented as a gay rights cause, because it was agitprop so skillfully designed to exploit the GLBT community, the story was sold without concern that the "facts" were, in reality, all lies.
Perhaps the Sunday Times saw this as a useful story for its own ends. It took the agitprop PETA had targeted to exploit gays, and used it to advance the conservative anti-science agenda: by portraying scientists as dangerous, by advancing the "Mad Scientist" frame I wrote about last week, the conservative movement from the Times to Mark Steyn was able to play down the PETA association -- that wouldn't sit well with their audience -- and use it to advance the idea that all scientists are nuts, evil wizards meddling with nature. And that helps advance their fight to stifle science on other fronts.
What happened then, was not just a function of the story but very much a function of who was telling it. What began as anti-gay lies cooked up by PETA last August made a first round among progressive groups, then having rested a few months was dressed up by conservative actors in "evils of science" language and found a second life abetting their cause. Folks on the left and the right were scammed equally.
How can we stop it happening again? Evidence-based argument worked this time. But I'm afraid it may not work for long. In Congressional debate, fringe "scientists" have long been used by corporations to plant doubt about topics from environmental impact of CFCs to the effects of second-hand smoke. The Sunday Times article made use of Michael Bailey as an expert, citing him as a neurology professor without mentioning he is a fringe figure (or at least a highly outspoken figure with unorthodox ideas and methods) with a disturbingly checkered past accused of exploiting
and abusing transgendered people. It can't be much longer before we see a similar effect on the internet: for every debunking post I can put up, surely PETA and sockpuppet "scientific" agencies will be able to post a rebuttal -- their links will all be circular, their "facts" will all be lies, but what reader is going to go through and compare theirs to mine side-by-side, link by link? What reader has the time or expertise to really learn the area and decide who's telling the truth?
In the end, it comes down to reputation. Right now, in the early days of blogs, things are relatively clear: here at TNH we have a certain reputation, and PETA hasn't done much to set up sockpuppets to circumvent their own bad rep. I'm afraid that in the future the democratic nature of the internet will lead to simply too many "expert" voices, many of them Trojan Horses posing as voices on the opposite side of their true intent, and the very thing that makes this medium so powerful -- the ability of a lone anonymous voice to write a heavily-linked, evidence-based post and persuade many people of the truth -- may also prove its greatest weakness.