Little Lies and Big Truths

December 4, 2014

In early November 2014 a map of Africa went viral, spread widely through social media at time when Ebola fears dominated the news. The map showed an outline of Africa, the bulk of it in light brown and labeled “NO EBOLA,” with the West African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia highlighted and colored. I saw it several times in my Twitter feed, forwarded to me by various skeptical colleagues.

I glanced at the map and immediately got the gist: Most of Africa is Ebola-free. I knew that, and figured it was a good reminder, and was about to retweet it when I stopped and took a closer look.

The Washington Post explained the map’s origin: “Despite clear geographical limits to the Ebola outbreak, many Americans seem confused. How else could you explain the recent Ebola scare that kept two children who had moved from Rwanda to New Jersey from attending school, despite the fact the East African country is Ebola-free (and further from West Africa than New Jersey is to Texas)? Or the resignation of a teacher in Kentucky due to a backlash to her traveling to Kenya? Or the significant cancellation of tourist trips to places like Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa? These countries are nowhere near the West African countries where Ebola is actually a problem. Frustrated by this, Anthony England, a British chemist who earned a doctorate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has spent a significant amount of time in sub-Saharan Africa, decided to make a map to help explain what countries currently have Ebola cases and which don’t….Ultimately, it was frustration that led England to make the map and share it on his Twitter account, which he uses to post information about Ebola. It has since spread around the Internet, with his initial post retweeted hundreds [later thousands] of times.” It was a simple, powerful map designed to do a good thing: calm people’s fears and put the threat in perspective.

Unfortunately, the map was wrong.

Having written about Ebola outbreaks, I recognized immediately that it was inaccurate. The map clearly stated that Ebola was only present in those three countries, but in fact the disease had actually recently appeared in over twice as many African countries, including Mali, Senegal, Nigeria, and the DR Congo. I of course wasn’t the only person to notice this, and indeed The Washington Post noted that England’s map was flawed: “Of course, there are some caveats to the map. England’s decision to not include Mali or the DR Congo, despite the fact neither have been declared free of Ebola, has caused some thoughtful criticism. England writes that he understands the criticism, but his point still stands: ‘There are only three problem countries, and the world needs to know that,’ he explains.” Thus the colored Ebola countries were apparently “problem countries,” whatever that meant.

So what does the map really mean? There was no information about it at all: there was no source or reference. There’s no indication of when the map was made: The nature of an epidemic is such that the situation is very fluid-a case of Ebola can spread between countries and continents within hours. Was it up-to-date as of the day it circulated on social media, or was it created six months ago? There was also no indication of what “no Ebola” means; does it mean that the disease has never been reported there, or that Ebola exists there but is considered under control, or something else? And since disease does not respect political boundaries, how its range be so clear-cut? Two cases of Ebola in some remote village is not the same thing as Ebola infecting hundreds of thousands across these countries, yet both cases would presumably preclude a “no Ebola” label.

I understand the point of the map, I get it: fear over Ebola is wildly exaggerated. I am more aware than most people of the importance of putting the Ebola threat in perspective, and I wrote several high-profile articles for Discovery News debunking Ebola myths, reminding people that the disease is far less contagious-and far more geographically confined-than alarmist news media and rumors suggested.

That being said, there is something inherently problematic about stripping out the map key or legend which gives essential information about understanding the information you’re being presented. All information has caveats and qualifiers that must be taken into account to know what it means. With a bit of web sleuthing I found the original version of the map, which did contain important information that answered most of my questions. It also stated “This map is intended for the ‘Geographically Challenged’ only. If you’re certain that it’s lacking some details, then you already know quite enough.” This was an interesting statement from Mr. England, essentially saying (and I paraphrase), “I know this map is wrong, but if you’re knowledgeable enough to recognize what I got wrong, then don’t worry about it because this map isn’t intended for you.” You can argue with the logic and utility of that comment, but I give England credit for including it. And by the same token I cast a disapproving glare at whoever took his map and stripped out the information he’d originally included, thereby turning it from a well-intentioned map whose inaccuracy was acknowledged up front to a caveat-free, simplified vehicle for misinformation about Ebola in Africa.

The truth value of most claims is tied to that claim’s specificity, which necessarily involves considering the caveats and conditions under which that claim is true. Is Mount Everest the highest mountain in the world? Many sources say yes. But only if you’re referring to terrestrial landforms; there are higher mountains under the oceans, and it depends on whether you mean highest or tallest or largest-all those pesky qualifiers!
In fact Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, at over 33,000 feet as measured from its oceanic base, is far taller than Everest.

Did Charles Lindbergh make the first successful transatlantic flight? Yes-but only the first solo, non-stop transatlantic flight; others had crossed the Atlantic by plane before him. Adding the qualifiers doesn’t take away from his amazing accomplishment, but does put it the claim in context and make it accurate.

Sacrificing Truth for Communication

I’ve encountered this thorny issue many times in my life as a skeptic and a media/science literacy educator. I remember years ago listening to a bright teenage girl give a short presentation about recycling at a school science fair. She talked for about ten minutes about different types of plastic, how to find the recycling codes stamped on packaging, the process of recycling, the differences between renewable and non-renewable resources, and so on. It was a benign, passable presentation designed and executed to meet or fulfill the teacher’s expectations (with an added dash of helping save the world).

But it was also glaringly wrong in at least one significant respect: when addressing why it’s important to recycle aluminum cans (the stereotypical recycled one-use consumer item), she said it was because we needed to conserve our limited and precious natural resources. That stock phrase answer doesn’t really apply to aluminum cans. Aluminum is actually the most plentiful metal on the planet, and the third most abundant element after silicon and oxygen. About 8% of the Earth’s crust is aluminum, and frankly she couldn’t have picked a worse example of a “limited and precious natural resource.” The real reason to recycle aluminum is that it uses much less fossil fuel energy than mining and refining the metal. The benefits of recycling aluminum are real, but they are indirect and have nothing to do with scarcity or limited resources of the metal.

It wasn’t a difficult or complex distinction to make, and it’s not as if she glossed it over because explaining the truth would be too complicated to convey to a lay audience. She made the mistake because she had only a superficial, rote understanding of the sub
ject she was presenting. Understanding why aluminum recycling is important requires going slightly beyond the obvious (“there’s a shortage of aluminum”)-which is presumably exactly what we should hope to see at science fairs.

I didn’t mention this, of course: Any clarifying comment I might make, no matter how polite or gentle, that corrected her misinformation would be seen as rude and boorish, if not condescending. (I might even be accused of discouraging girls from going into science, which is of course completely the opposite of my intention.) I could correct her in private after she left the stage, but of course by then it would be too late; a hundred or so parents, teachers, and students (the ones not texting or falling asleep) had already heard her say that aluminum was rare and needed to be conserved.

The problem is arguably pedantic, and in the scheme of things whether she and others understood the real reason to recycle aluminum cans isn’t a big deal. Yet the comment wasn’t made in passing during lunch, it was made in the context of a presentation at a school science fair-the whole point of the event was to discuss science and scientifically accurate information. If you’re going to use aluminum as a key example in your recycling presentation, I don’t think understanding the basics is too much to ask.

Speak Out or Shut Up?

These examples raise the question of how to handle little fallacies used to promote larger truths. What is the acceptable level of inaccuracy and misinformation, especially if it is in service of an undeniable larger good, such as encouraging environmental conservation?

If people who know better don’t speak up, who will? With levels of science literacy among the general public abysmally low, isn’t it the responsibility of scientists, educators, and others who know better to correct misinformation they encounter, just as it’s the responsibility of educated people to correct misinformation they might hear from their parent friends warning against the dangers of childhood vaccines, or some unproven health claim?

Of course each of us has our own tolerance for inaccuracy, and going around correcting people is a sure way to lose friends and alienate strangers. I neither applaud nor condemn those who shared the error-riddled Ebola map. I personally chose not to share it on social media because I did a quick-and-dirty analysis and wasn’t convinced that the truthful larger point was worth spreading misinformation about Ebola. My rule of thumb is that I generally won’t share or retweet anything I wouldn’t put my name on, or vouch for in some way.

I understand both sides of this problem, and the solution is not clear-cut. It’s something that educators, journalists and others deal with on a daily basis. As I discuss in my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us, journalism, like education, is a balancing game. Trade offs are necessary all the time. The effort to fully inform an audience is subject to many constraints including time, content, and editorial decisions. When you see an expert interviewed on some subject on television, the eight-second sound bite was likely edited down from ten or twenty minutes of potentially important and insightful analysis and commentary. However no one will ever see it because only the phrase needed to fill the reporter’s (or editor’s) narrative angle will be included.

It’s not a conspiracy, nor (necessarily) sloppy journalism, but issues are often complex and nuanced, and you want to provide enough information for a people to understand the issue without confusing them with caveats and accurate-but-potentially-confusing contradictions. Headlines and summaries are inherently incomplete, and what is left is a simplified version of some form of the truth.

I never did say anything to anyone about the recycling misinformation, and never mentioned it until now. Nothing happened, the world didn’t end, nobody died due to ignorance of why aluminum recycling is important. But it does serve as a reminder to pick my battles, and I hope the girl is now in college studying geology or physics or environmental sciences.

As for the Africa map, I probably would have retweeted the original map that included the legend, even though the map itself was still wrong. I’d justify it to myself by noting that even if the truth was sacrificed for a good cause, at least it included some qualifiers. Sometimes when trying to share information that’s the best you can do.