Sunday, March 26

When scientific sensationalism amplifies denials, hoaxes and pseudo-truths

Open dialogue between science, politics and civil society is a delicate and difficult issue, but it is of great importance to address the historical challenges facing our society. The controversial appearance of the renowned pharmacologist Joan-Ramón Laporte Roselló in the Congress of Deputies on February 7 made us once again aware of this complexity. Part of the controversy is due to falsify data scientists and part in a sensationalist and provocative style. The difficulty for the experts who have a particular responsibility in this public dialogue consists, above all, in taking into account factors that are not addressed in the same way in the academic discussion among scientists. If these factors are neglected, we unintentionally accelerate certain processes that generate ignorance in society and that ultimately make a critical, considered and constructive debate impossible, something that, in the best of cases, could lead to the implementation of relevant action at the political level. Instead we enter the logic of infodemic, denialism and conspiracy, whose increasing presence in society causes serious changes in the patterns of rationality and common sense in public spaces. Ideas strive to reproduce and spread like a virus, and we know that, like a vaccine, preventive interventions before a hoax takes hold are more effective than denials afterwards. Every time we know more and better the psychology and emotionality that accompany denialism, irrational skepticism and the origin of hoaxes and conspiracy theories.

It is important to distinguish very clearly the dogmatic rejection presented by the denialism, of the skepticism and critical attitude characteristic of scientific practice. Negationism is defined by the systematic rejection of scientific consensus, with argumentative practices alien to science. To do this, he resorts to false experts, conspiracy ideas, logical fallacies (such as the fallacy of incomplete evidence, known as cherry picking), to the falsification, decontextualization or discretionary selection of data and analysis, and to the promotion of inflated expectations to discredit experts. Especially difficult to refute is the denialism that is based on conspiracy theories. There is a feedback between the different denialisms and the respective conspiracy theories that today come to join an explosive cocktail where they are mixed with anti-science movements or anti-vaccines, with pseudoscience, and also with extremist political ideologies of various kinds (xenophobic, authoritarian, sexist, etc.).

Statistically, these movements encompass all population groups, regardless of their level of education. Just as in libraries we find different types of literature for each audience, hoaxes are also adjusted to the preferences of specific groups. Thus, disinformation is presented to us more and more disguised as science, adorned with graphs, tables, percentages and references to isolated or decontextualized studies.

The different phenomena of the infodemic are multifaceted and develop in a complex dynamic in which psychological, technological, ideological and socioeconomic factors interact. They are fueled by a disinformation machinery that employs human and artificial intelligence (bot) in a manipulative way to promote economic, political or ideological interests or simply to destabilize the democratic system. The goal of these misinformers is to break the balance between three factors that are essential for learning, argumentation and knowledge transfer. Uncertainty, trust and responsibility are the three components of what we can call ethical-epistemic balance (epistemic is a principle of rationality applicable to knowledge and well-founded opinion), key factors for communication, for knowledge and for coexistence in society. With more certainty it is easier to trust, but just in times of uncertainty when it is necessary to act and make decisions based on a reduced base of certainties and very limited data, it is important to maintain a high level of trust and promote responsible attitudes that generate trust.

This systemic perspective gives us a key to better understand the complex dynamics that foster conspiracy and denial attitudes. We must explore the factors that increase uncertainty, undermine trust and weaken citizens’ sense of responsibility. Conversely, the key to countermeasures is to discover the factors that act in the opposite direction. Here is a selection of factors that disturb this balance:

The affective and ideological polarization, fostered by the mediation of politics and the conversion of politicians into marketing strategists. This phenomenon affects the most diverse issues that in normal circumstances do not have an ideological burden and causes the positions held to be increasingly radical and incommunicable. Polarization converts positions into dogmas and eliminates the capacity for self-criticism. Thus, we reduce our hybrid identities to simple and petrified identities. We become dogmatic people who are fundamentally guided by their impulses and emotions, instead of by their reflections. Recent studies affirm that in Spain affective polarization is based above all on negative emotions and has spread to all areas of life, even relationships with friends, neighbors or relatives. A great success of hate speech and contempt.

The lack of one deliberative culture well-established that could transmit epistemic values, help moderate partiality, promote transparency and reinforce a certain epistemic humility. Such a deliberative culture could perhaps break the bubbles in which we live and counteract the growing polarization of the public sphere.

The algorithmic design of digital platforms which, through echo chambers, bubble filters and based on psychographic profiles, reinforce users’ cognitive biases such as group bias, confirmation bias or social desirability bias. In this way, social networks are redefining the nature of public space and the verified information of quality media is being displaced by sensationalist messages that appeal to emotions. None of us is free from cognitive biases. When faced with complex problems and when we have to make quick decisions, we use mental shortcuts to simplify daily life. In philosophy and psychology, we call them heuristics. These biases, which are part of our cultural baggage, grow exponentially in the environment of social networks.

The commodification of information, especially in digital media, but also in the field of traditional journalism. This goes hand in hand with the now permanent electoral propaganda, which is limited to defamation of the adversary, uses all the tools of populism and produces a hollowing out of management and government programs. Those who have not fallen for polarizing strategies respond with cynicism, frustration or rejection of politics in general, with what we call democratic disaffection.

The relativistic discourse of post-truth and post-factual thinking, which undermines the difference between truth and lies, between knowledge and opinion, sustaining a new skeptical rhetoric that produces excessive doubt and general mistrust. Thus, it promotes conspiracy that creates its own belief systems based on suspicion, forming parallel realities with alternative facts. What is unique about these belief systems is that they do not include the possibility of correction. They are infallible because the very logic of conspiracy makes them immune to any criticism or evidence to the contrary. Any argument against it does nothing more than confirm the suspicion of conspiracy, control and deception.

Then there is the problem of an erroneous image of scientific practice, widespread in society, which turns into weaknesses the strengths that allow its advances. We are referring to things like adaptability, fallibility, and constant review of data, ideas, and conclusions. Deniers take advantage of these scientific practices by misreading them to undermine trust in science and further erode the concept of truth. Faced with this, it must be emphasized that science does not produce absolute certainties, but evolutionary stages of research, provisional certainties, subject to a permanent review process, which allows –and it is not little– a rigorous management of uncertainties. All empirical knowledge is fallible, and this fallibility is cardinal to the dynamics of scientific theories. Something that deniers and those who undermine the credibility of science do not understand or do not want to understand.

Each of these factors would, in fact, require its own consideration. However, identifying them and raising awareness of the dangers they entail can be a first contribution to curbing certain harmful trends in our societies, harmful both to health and to democracy. We can do more than we think. The first step to creating a more sustainable, fair and inclusive society, with greater resilience in the face of crisis situations and less susceptible to phenomena such as denialism and conspiracy, is to recognize our vulnerability and interdependence and be aware of the danger of misinformation.

It can sometimes be tempting for experts to convey far-reaching scientific concerns as sensational as hoaxes, fighting back with the same means as the disinformation industry. But by the mere fact of using the same terminology, one becomes a hero and a scientific reference for the deniers. Perhaps this was Dr. Laporte Roselló’s biggest mistake: forgetting that outside the context of the academic discussion and the debate on pharmacological management, some of his statements were going to be used as a missile against the public health policies that have saved so many lives. Nor has the use of dubious or directly erroneous statements during his speech helped, an error that can be nuanced during the discussion with other colleagues who are more expert in areas outside their competencies in pharmacology, but which are launched during a public appearance using the criterion of authority before non-experts can contribute (and in fact have contributed) to the propagation of hoaxes and unfair doubts about decisions made in a context of uncertainty.

When epistemic trust vanishes, when the distinction between truth and lies, knowledge and opinion, facts and fiction collapses, the common world in which people with different points of view coexist also disappears. This fading does not make the dangers that threaten this world disappear but, on the contrary, amplifies them.