False Beliefs Handled with Care at CSICon 2018

October 19, 2018

As the Friday morning presentations came to a close at CSICon 2018, our ebullient emcee George Hrab commented, “I love that the theme today is understanding.” I had been thinking the same thing.

This is a thing with me, it’s like some lobe in my brain is triggered to deliver squirts of dopamine whenever its stimulated by some example of skeptic advocacy swaddled in a generosity of spirit. If there’s a talk at CSICon that hints at being understanding of those who harbor false beliefs in good faith, I’m probably going to blockquote it in my write-up.

But this morning, understanding was the thread that held everything together. It wasn’t intentional; these talks weren’t arranged to be a “niceness block.” Nor is there any desperate need for skeptics’ talks to be less mean or anything. It’s just that this morning, empathy and introspection were among the prime refrains.

The most overt examples of the empathetic stance came from Dr. Jen Gunter, who has made a name for herself countering the false and dangerous claims of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop empire, and Tory Campbell, a psychologist who literally held the title of “Imagineer” at Disney.

Jen Gunter

Gunter showed how the con being played on women by Goop is just part of a deep history of women being excluded from medicine (as in literally excluded, to the point that in centuries past, women could be neither doctors in life nor cadavers for study in death) and what she calls a “culture of vaginal shame.”

When Goop sells women magic eggs and coffee enemas, they excuse it by saying, “We’re only starting conversations.” Retorted Gunter, “Well then you don’t understand language either. A conversation starts with ‘hey, how are you,’ not ‘hey, put some coffee up your ass.”

“I’ll be the first to admit there are many problems with modern medicine,” said Gunter, explaining that Goop is taking cynical advantage of modern medicine’s gaps. It’s difficult to simply blame their customers, when they’re not armed with the kind of critical scientific literacy they’d need to overcome the Goop message.

“People want to belong,” said Gunter, boiling it all down. “It doesn’t matter that their needs aren’t being met [by the products].” In a culture where women have long been medically marginalized, Goop’s customers feel listened to and cared about. This actually explains quite a lot about our rather perilous political climate.

Similarly, Troy Campbell encouraged us to look at why people refuse to believe certain facts that have nothing to do with their intelligence. Campbell presented an “implication structure” whereby we understand that acceptance of any fact requires accepting the implications of this fact. “The solution [to a problem] is often the reason for denial.”

So how do we get more people on “team science,” as he put it? “Start with care,” he said. “Love people into it. … Keep your middle finger ready, but also have your hands open when you need to.”

This kind of understanding extends to all manner of false beliefs. Writer and investigator Mick West used the example of the 9/11 “truther” conspiracy theorists who believe that the towers of the World Trade Center were brought down by controlled demolition, aka, “an inside job.”

Amidst many examples of how to make iron microspheres at home for fun (though probably not profit), West was adamant that 9/11 truthers mean well, that they truly believe they possess a crucial truth about one of the most tragic and traumatic moments in modern history, and they’ve gotten themselves lost in a rabbit hole of sciencey-sounding, reaffirming misinformation.

Craig Foster of the U.S. Air Force Academy had been doing research on pseudoscientific belief at a Bigfoot conference, and found not a bunch of crazies or fools, but people who were open to hearing from those who didn’t think exactly as they did, who were eager to aid Foster in his study, but feel that the institutions of science have been unfair to their preferred field of inquiry.

This doesn’t make the Bigfoot believers correct, but it dispels some of the uglier stereotypes about those who cling to pseudoscientific beliefs. Foster discovered that, like CSICon attendees, they are folks who want the opportunity to hang out with people who think like they do.

Craig Foster

New York Times science writer Carl Zimmer even showed us how susceptible actual scientists can be to false beliefs, as he told of the truly jaw-dropping history of the study of genetics and heredity. Clouded and distorted by existing prejudices, groups of people who were already marginalized, from immigrants to petty criminals, were considered to be congenitally bad, that their problems could be traced back through their ancestry. These attitudes led to what became American eugenics, which in turn influenced the position of Nazi eugenicists who decided that undesirable genes could only be dealt with through extermination.

Carl Zimmer

Jumping back to the very first presentation of the day, James Alcock introduced us to the component parts of false beliefs. Alcock was talking specifically about propaganda, but its ingredients for success are right in line with the transmission of all manner of false beliefs. The appeal to emotions and existing fears and prejudices, the cultural context of who we consider to be more “trustworthy” regardless of the content of their words, our propensity to accept the first thing we hear about as subject as the truth. All this and more make all of us vulnerable. “Even we have made some real boo-boos when it came to critical thinking in our own lives.”

At the special lunch presentation, virologist Paul Offit recounted several of his experiences with the media and doing battle with vaccine deniers. But early in his talk he also happened to repeat the theme of the day. “Be sympathetic, no matter how trying the circumstances.” Lesson, I hope, learned.