Wednesday, May 03, 2017


A scant two and a half months since writing about getting sidetracked from some reading plans by other reading plans, it happened again. This time I have kind of finished though. I should back up.

I already wrote that a reference to The Obesity Myth sent me to The Panic Virus. What I could not write at that time because I did not yet know is that it was also going to send me to Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History by David Aaronovitch, and also Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences by John Allen Paulos. (That one wasn't as productive.)

A lot of it was interesting anyway, but the overall theme became how much people will believe things that are wrong. Sometimes there are bad actors involved, like Andrew Wakefield. He was on the take, he lied, he used bad research methods and ignored ethical standards; that coming to light doesn't seem to have changed anyone's minds about vaccination. Of course there were people who worried about vaccines before, but he widened the field and caused real harm.

The intentions aren't always terrible. One of the conspiracy theories that was covered was the death of Princess Diana. Belief in a conspiracy (beyond the apparent difficulty in believing that bad things can happen to beautiful and beloved people) was partly driven by Mohamed al-Fayed, Dodi Fayed's father. I understood his obsession to be at least partially fueled by grief, and I can feel compassion for that.

I also suspect some of the fuel came from extreme wealth, where you feel like you should be able to be in control of things. More may come from guilt, where the family organization's business practices kept someone employed who would drink while on driving duty. I can understand wanting anyone else to bear the blame, but at some point it becomes irresponsible.

The point of Innumeracy was that poor understanding of math makes people more susceptible to being misled, which was a valid point. (Unfortunately, I don't think the execution of getting people more numerate was particularly effective.) Certainly there are people who skew facts intentionally, and there are things that seem more memorable, especially based on what we already know. Sometimes it is just advertising because someone wants money.

That is why I found this article so fascinating:

It leads into this whole other idea of how you get information known, and studying folklore as a way of doing it.

And those aren't easy answers. It feels like that if you have good science and know things, you should be able to tell people and they will get it and we will all move forward based on fact. There is no evidence of that.

We can wring hands about it (which feels appropriate) and talk about improving schools (which is definitely appropriate, though there is disagreement about what that entails), but it won't necessarily be effective. People are good at ignoring facts. That really comes through hard in Voodoo Histories.

There are no answers in this post, though there may be beginnings of answers. It is still something that I find interesting, and something that reminds me that there is hope. I have seen effective techniques for cementing disinformation in minds, but it isn't all there is.

It can't be.

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