Illustration: Mike Pick
In 2005, Princeton philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt republished a 20-year-old essay as a short book that quickly shot up the New York Times bestseller list: On Bullshit. It’s time to dust off your copy, because misinformation—generally about stuff that can kill you—is positively everywhere this week.
Cass Sunstein’s forthcoming book, On Rumors, would serve you just as well, though you’ll have to wait a few weeks to pick it up. Like On Bullshit, it explores how misinformation is created and how it spreads through social networks. Sunstein draws from his previous work with behavioral economists to show that rumors are the product of “informational cascades” and “group polarization.” As a piece of misinformation travels from person to person in a cascade, it gathers clout, and it becomes harder for individuals to break the conformity of their social circles by contradicting it. Then, as he argues in his previous book, Going to Extremes (which I reviewed here), members of the resulting like-minded group reinforce and intensify each other’s beliefs. Most importantly, the rise of the internet has provided the perfect environment for both of those processes to flourish.
The real-world rumors in Sunstein’s short book are mostly drawn from the 2008 election; Barack Obama—under whom Sunstein works in the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs—was a secret Muslim, a white-hating Christian, William Ayers’ accomplice, or, somehow, all of these things. But had Sunstein waited another few months, he could have mined the twin motherlodes of rumor mongering that are the “Birthers” and the “Deathers.” The former group believes Obama was born in Kenya and is therefore ineligible to be president; the latter believes he is trying to trick your grandmother into killing herself so we won’t have to pay her medical bills.
While the Birthers have been essentially ridiculed into the ground, Deathers are the face of the current debate over Obama’s health care reform plans. And as Roger Ebert picked up in a Chicago Sun-Times editorial, the perniciousness of the phrase “death panel” is a textbook example of Sunstein’s rumors. Starting with a message on Sarah Palin’s Facebook page, waves of viral emails and blog posts have turned voluntary consultations on living wills and hospice care (which are currently covered by Medicare and have historically been supported by conservatives) into Star Chambers with Jack Kevorkian as chief inquisitor.
Unfortunately, one of the main takeaways of Sunstein’s book is that trying to correct misinformation-based rumors with the truth is often ineffectual, or worse, counterproductive. The act of repeating the lie reinforces it in the minds of the polarized, a point Farhad Manjoo, author of another seminal work in the field, True Enough, reiterates in his column in Slate this week. Whoops.
A least Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank got it right in a recent exchange with an angry town hall attendee. In refusing to engage with the Deathers’ rumors, he may have been more effective in quashing them than the White House’s bland damage control site. And by drawing the line after the woman compared health care reform to Nazi eugenics, Frank proved Godwin’s law in the process.
This Week in Excellent Ideas that Will Clearly Work
The coverage of this week’s most popular science papers and findings has a tinge of bullshit about it, too. Of particular note is the recently discovered pitcher plant, Nepenthes attenboroughii. Named after British naturalist David Attenborough, who profiled similar carnivorous flora in his series The Private Life of Plants, N. attenboroughii is large enough to trap and eat rodents in addition to its usual insect fare.
And though evidence of that kind of behavior in pitcher plants was first discovered about 150 years ago, one New York tabloid made N. attenboroughii its cover story on Wednesday, wondering whether it might be a solution to the city’s rat problem. Of course, this is a tremendously silly idea, and while AM New York had the decency of quoting some scientists who said as much, it didn’t stop them from running a sidebar with ideas for where the plants could be used. One suggestion: “Posh buildings may even have adventurous doormen wear the plants on their uniforms.”
It’s always nice to see a science story on the cover of a newspaper, but if it’s just going to be fodder for crackpot ideas and jokes, you might as well start with a paper that is actually funny. Here’s one from a Norwegian journal: “Does garlic protect against vampires? An experimental study.” Though this study has flaws, characterized by the key caveat, “owing to the lack of vampires, we used leeches instead,” it is a nice companion to another paper making the rounds this week: “When Zombies Attack!” Despite the title and topic area, this is actually a good piece of scholarship—marrying mathematical modeling with mythological history and pop culture—with just a pinch of bullshit thrown in.
Memo to Gil Grissom
Misinformation and death also come together in perhaps the most important finding of the past week: An Israeli team of researchers has shown that DNA evidence can be easily fabricated. Starting with a small amount of a person’s DNA, which could be surreptitiously taken from the individual, or even out of a criminal database, researchers were able to clone the sample and mix it with another person’s blood or saliva. The resulting “evidence” had the genetic fingerprint of the original individual.
The planting or fabrication of evidence has always been possible, but genetic evidence is often seen as an unimpeachable arbiter of truth. There is concern over the so-called “CSI Effect,” which suggests that juries have become less likely to convict criminals because their standards of proof have been raised by the popular show, which elevates the accuracy and availability of scientific forensics techniques to a supernatural level. Of course, the flip side of that effect is more troubling: that the presence of “scientific” evidence, such as a conclusive DNA match, can obscure the more prosaic problems of police work.
DNA databases are expanding around the world, despite evidence that human error and mathematical overreach make genetic forensics less reliable than we would hope. Genetic evidence certainly has its place in the criminal justice system, as the hundreds exonerated by it would happily testify, and the researchers in this study do point to a way of screening for fabricated DNA evidence, which forensics labs could adopt. But studies like these serve as an important reminder to not be overly impressed by evidence just because it has the ring of scientific objectivity. When it comes to matters of life and death, it’s best to keep the bullshit to a minimum.
Originally published August 21, 2009