How Do You Spot Science Abuse in the Social Media Soup?

Heads should be held in shame...

Heads should be held in shame...

You know the drill, we’ve all been there.

There you are, minding your own business, participating in the Web 2.0 phenomenon, scanning through the webpages on one of the countless social media sites. And then you see them, like coffee stains on your white upholstery, pages that seem a little out of place. One entry tells you that the world is coming to an end. Another tells you that the Illuminati have built a base on Pluto (with the obligatory IT’S A PLANET!!! comment underneath). Oh, and there’s another, claiming that a comet, twice the size of Jupiter is actually Planet X… and it’s coming right for us!

Of course, our common-sense neurons usually kick in, telling us that the author of the article is either a) nuts, b) an idiot, c) flying at half-mast or d) a troll. In which case, we are able to flex our social media muscles by burying, down-thumbing, down-arrowing, reporting or ignoring the offender.

There we go, social media in practice. One BIG victory for online democracy!

However, sometimes it’s not that simple. What if the author seems to be bona fide? What if the author is a so called “expert”? Say if the article uses some real science to explain their hopelessly flawed theory?

I may have been trawling around the dregs of the doomsday theory ilk for the past year, but the following list applies to pretty much any daft conspiracy theory or outrageous science claim, intended to misinform, scare or cause an online headache as you voyage through the increasingly accessible social media…

Although it is not a definitive list, here are the main tell-tail signs that an article (or indeed, comment) might not be scientifically sound. I’m not saying that if a website possesses one or two of these qualities that it is necessarily wrong, but these are the qualities that constantly crop up on doomsday, conspiracy and pseudo-science websites. I’m also not saying social media is a bad thing, the Web 2.0 trend has brought us all the information we’ll ever need from blogs, news sites and independent authors, it just means you’ll be coming across more sites written by unscrupulous and misinformed authors.

So, here’s the list of qualities I’ve noticed coming out of the growing number of doomsday/pseudo-science websites:

They use magic
Magic is a potent argument for many of these websites. I’m not talking about your rabbit-out-of-a-hat magic, I’m talking about completely farcical claims about how the Universe works and presenting it in a scientific light. As a rule, if they use some unfamiliar science (such as “barycenter sleeve” — this laughable example can be read more in depth in the Astroengine article: 2012 Doomsday Fabrication: Abusing Science and Making Money), do a search for it in Google. If the page you read it on hits the #1 spot, they either made a grand discovery (which is highly unlikely if the domain name is called http://www.doomsdayiswelcome.com), or they are lying.

THEIR CAPS LOCK IS STUCK
This is prevalent in blog comment boxes. Does uppercase really help to put your message across? Really? Actually, it’s a bit annoying. Oh, and watch out for the swear words and bad spelling hidden in the blocky type.

They use their own science brand
Science is what this world is all about, but some of these sites need to understand what science is all about. Let’s give a definition here so there’s no more confusion:

Science: The collective discipline of study or learning acquired through the scientific method; the sum of knowledge gained from such methods and discipline.Wikionary definition

Inventing an “anti-gravity device”, uploading a video of your amazing invention hovering around your living room, claiming that you’ve discovered anti-gravity waves by hooking up a slinky to a car battery, simply doesn’t cut it.

They claim the impossible is possible
Pretty much the same case as “magic”, but this one often disputes old scientific theories and then claims that just because they were disproven, doesn’t mean they can’t happen. Often, the kicker is that theories made by eminent scientists in the past, that have undergone the rigour of science, only to be disproven down the line are dug up and used as proof of some crackpot theory.

They cite other conspiracy sites/forums – never science journals
Most of the time, no source is referenced. (Example: A massive planet is approaching the Sun and scientists have proven that this is affecting the sunspot cycle — What? Where did you hear that? *crickets* I thought not.) However, when a source is referenced, the link either leads to another pseudo-science website or, my favourite, a discussion forum (where the topic of discussion is being butchered by several like-minded individuals).

They jump to conclusions
Many of these articles are cause-and-effect deficient. My favourite argument is the one about global warming:

1. The variability of our Sun causes temperature variations on Earth (i.e. the Sun gets hotter, therefore so do we, Al Gore is lying, global warming is a scam! QED)
2. Mars is showing signs of global warming. Therefore global warming on Earth is a scam, Al Gore is lying, etc. etc.

Simply because two things share common traits does not mean they are connected. There’s a little thing called “coincidence”. While I’m here, I’ll throw a definition of that up too:

Coincidence: A striking occurrence of two or more events at one time apparently by mere chance. — Dictionary.com

They can be pompous
When presenting their “facts”, many conspiracy/doomsday/pseudo-science websites will mock mainstream science “beliefs”. This is probably the most astonishing attitude considering how outlandish some of the claims are. Example: “I am shocked at astronomer’s belief that there was a “Big Bang”. It is a preposterous notion, that background radiation is in fact the chatter of a billion alien races! Idiots.” (And yes, they often get personal too.)

Somebody said so
“I was chatting to a famous physicist, and even he told me that the LHC was going to destroy the world!” Who was that then? Paul the Particle Physicist at your local pub after 6 pints?

They are anonymous
“You’ll all be sorry when God decides to call in all these favours the human race owe him! The Bible Code even says that there is a gamma-ray burst aimed at us right now!” — comment by YouShouldBeAfraid! If you are that certain of your beliefs, please back it up by at least standing by your views. There’s nothing worse than having a faceless critic.

They KNOW the future
“The world is going to end on December 21st, 2012″ Need I say any more?

They have a YouTube account (and they’re not afraid to use it)
Often with a terrible monologue plus slideshow and way too much cherry-red text overlaid, providing “scientific proof” that the end of the world is nigh. Oh please.

The want to make money!
At the root of the majority of doomsday fantasies are books, DVDs, or simply web advertising revenue (traffic = money). Beware those doomsday survival guides, they are full of guff (believe me, I’m reading one now. I never before believed I could have a “bad time” reading a book).

Doomsday will usually occur imminently
Have you ever wondered why doomsday is always imminent? Why isn’t doomday in 20, 50, 100 years time? The most hyped doomsday scenarios usually have a shelf life of a few years, just enough time to publish a book and stir the hype.

The ancients mapped out the future
If the Mayans, Aztecs or Sumerians could predict the future, why did their empires crumble? I’m no expert on fortune telling, but if I had even the slightest clue the end was nigh, don’t you think I would have prepared for it? No matter how fantastic ancient civilizations were at astronomy, there is no way their calendars or spiritual beliefs relate to the position of the Solar System around the Milky Way. And don’t get me started on their calendars! And don’t talk to me about Nibiru!

I will always argue that you can’t predict the future (never been done, never will be). Prophecies (i.e. by the likes of Nostradamus, who, by the way, was never correct, no matter how many times the History Channel tells you otherwise) are vague for a reason.

They need to take a Photoshop lesson
If you are going to do some advanced image analysis on lunar shadows or fuzzy Martian outcrops, please learn how to use Photoshop correctly. Playing with the contrast probably won’t decisively show a cloaked UFO hanging above the White House.

On the subject of image analysis, if NASA has ever digitally altered any of their imagery to hide Planet X/UFOs/alien structures, don’t you think they would have used something a little more than the *smudge* and *cut* commands? Those areas of missing data in star fields (like the “Google Anomaly”), are… areas of missing data. Space is a big place, sometimes stuff gets lost (I wish they could see the data I used for my research, there were more holes than datasets!). Those fuzzy patches on official Moon photographs are where two separate images have been stitched. There are no alien races building cities on the lunar surface, there’s just a lot of craters, dust and rock (plus some junk left over from the Apollo missions. To quote Steve Nerlich, “Moon hoaxers, get a life!”). Sorry to disappoint.

They enjoy terrible music
Going back to the YouTube conspiracy theorists, I wish they’d use better music to go with their painful slideshow of shock imagery. At least then we could enjoy some decent tunes rather than sitting through a bizarre mix of slash metal and opera.

If the music is not terrible, it will be a mix between War of the Worlds and Holst
Please, keep away from the classics.

They have active imaginations
If you’ve read this far, you’ll know what I mean.

They get down and dirty in the comment boxes
Now this is bar none, the lowest of the low. These people will leave comments on otherwise benign articles, spewing amazing nonsense… because they can. I suppose it goes back to the anonymity of the Internet, where some think they can say anything and get away with it (not for long, block buttons are very effective). Most are just spamming, linking to their “cause” website, but others are more sinister, trolling their lives through the web’s sewers.

God is behind it
“May God help us”, “It’s God’s will!”, “God will guide us” — All these phrases, and a lot more besides, appear frequently in doomsday articles. There are a lot of religious reasons why doomsday is heavily wrapped in some kind of upcoming rapture, but please, don’t use God as a crutch to preach misguided pseudo-science. It’s fortunate I’m an atheist, but I’m sure that blaming a lot of these things on the Almighty isn’t a good idea if you are religious?

They blame the government
If all else fails, they save this “get out of jail free” card until the end. Even if their science is wrong, their opinion is hardline and their logic is nonsense, they will always have one back-up argument that I cannot fight against: The government cover-up. Always view any theory that uses a government conspiracy as a key argument with the utmost suspicion. I am sure there are a lot of things governments do not want us to know, and I am sure there are a lot of real conspiracies out there, but you can be rest assured, none of them involve aliens, doomsday or some magical power we are not privy to.

In conclusion?
Go through life with an open mind, but if you stumble across websites that seem to promote bad science, doomsday or some new conspiracy theory, use some sceptical thought as to what the website is trying to do. In this social media Internet, irresponsible sites will hopefully be pushed down the reader list through the various voting systems out there.

There is a lot of noise out there.

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16 responses to “How Do You Spot Science Abuse in the Social Media Soup?

  1. The one I like (which I don’t think gets an explicit mention above) is “everyone said Galileo/Newton/Einstein/Whoever was wrong when they proposed $THEORY but we all believe them now — you say I’m wrong so I must be right!”

  2. Actually, I’ve seen the above style used in a different way, in that someone will demonstrate why the pseudo-science is wrong with legitimate science and then the pseudo-science-user will pipe up saying that everyone thought Newton was right until Einstein corrected him.

    There is a site that is primarily focused on discussing why creationism isn’t science but it pulls up similar, important metrics as to what makes science, well, science. Things like a scientific hypothesis must be testable and falsifiable and, quite importantly it is naturalistic (it’s not magic!).

  3. I think the fact that Global Warmists feel the need to change their focus from Global Warming to Climate change betrays an underlying motivation that should be of concern to anyone who loves and appreciates their freedom. Try saying this aloud a few times. “The cooling trend of the past 10 years is caused by Global Warming”. It helps to listen while you speak.

    No CAPS – no God – no “down and dirty”. Just trying to be as rational as the next guy.

    Tks,
    Tom

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  7. Thank you, thank you, thank you! At last I have toolbox full of cool implements to shut these morons’ babbling mouths!

    On the other hand, when dealing with these morons, truth, facts and rigorous science rarely works because they’ll believe whatever they want. A comforting lie is a lot easier to embrace than the cold truth, especially if one’s mind is already weakened by fear and suspicion. 

  8. As an alien bent on destroying the world in December, 2012, I was shocked and dismayed by this article to find out that I don’t exist. I think someone should have told me before I made a complete fool of myself! I think the true conspiracy lies in the way these “Scientists” use facts, and logic to state their case. It’s just not fair. I would think the Government was behind it, but they can’t seem to do anything right anyway. As far as the photos of my spaceship being flaws in the pictures, I suffer from premature emulsion, I am not proud of it, but there it is. I don’t like having it splashed all over the internet so that my alien friends can laugh at me. Thanks a lot, Science Dude!
    I am so disgusted by you puny humans and your facts, I am catching the next bus to Zorkboor and putting this whole humiliating experience behind me. Anyone have change for a sarquart?
    Sincerly,

    Ab%tt7)#wwzini  Jr.  Pronounced Ben, in your primitive language.

    P.S. The one thing I know for sure that is bogus is astrology, my palm reader said it is complete crap! I thought that was pretty amazing, since I don’t even have palms. 

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  11. @Tom Duell, You got me at “Global Warmists” – I’d prefer “Global Warmers” ;)

    Well, thank you for including your name and keeping it rational, that is muchly appreciated. Now all we need are some references for the claim that the world is cooling down and then we might have a near-perfect comment. “Global warming” is the average rise in global temperatures that have been measured and climate change is the symptom of global warming ([link] and references therein).

    Thanks, Ian

  12. @Mary Mactavish, I think you’re right… not that I’ve spent much time watching ’70’s porn. Honest. I don’t know what you’re talking about (stop looking at me)… o_O

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