Monday, 14 March 2016

Making sense of information and "facts" in the Internet Age

We live in the age of information.

We live in the age of the Internet. With Twitter. And Blogs. And Websites.

We live in the age of Information overload. For every position on the Internet, I am sure you can find a not-necessarily-equal, but definitely opposite position.

If you try to present facts on the internet, you can be sure that someone can present links to websites and facts to counter your facts.

You can be sure that if you have a quote from an expert, there will be another expert who will say the exact (or nearly the exact) opposite. And someone will quote him or her to you.

In this age of Information Overload, how do you decide what facts to accept (or believe) and which "facts" are bunk?

Let's work with some examples.

Recently, this article/link was posted on FaceBook:
SINGAPORE - Singapore's consumer watchdog has found that reusable plastic water bottles here are generally safe to use.
And there were about 4 comments (probably more eventually) pointing out that the best that the study could say was that the bottles were "generally safe". And these commenters came down on that one word, "generally" as though that was a tell, a give, the subtle clue to the conspiracy theory.

This was my rebuttal/reply to those ignorant comments:
...yes, "generally" safe. Because when scientists and other professionals (doctors, lawyers) speak or write, they are very careful what they say. No scientist will ever say "100% guaranteed". Because people who KNOW, know that they don't know EVERYTHING..
You know who speaks with ABSOLUTE certainty? Evangelists, conmen, conspiracy theorists, scammers, swindlers, and people who are trying to convince you of some "truths" and they need the facts to be irrefutable. They need to leave you with no room to question them.

They will tell you that "XXX causes cancer". Not "XXX is *likely* to cause cancer" or "XXX has been found to cause YYY cancer in animals ZZ% of the time."
So yes, if someone tells you that something is "Generally" safe it is likely that that person or institution is a careful, responsible, and scientific source.
So yes, when a scientist speaks, they always allow the possibility that they MIGHT be wrong, if not in ALL cases, then perhaps that there may be some special cases where there is an exception.
If someone is presenting something to you as the incontrovertible, irrefutable, unmitigated and absolute TRUTH, hold on to your wallet and leave immediately.
In a previous post, I wrote about the Joy of Elitism.

Actually, I wrote about how many people are educated beyond their intelligence and by selectively searching the internet, can gather an impressive array of "facts" and deem themselves experts. And that is how conspiracy theories are born and perpetuated.

Which is another post I am planning.

For now, I just want to focus on how to decide which internet news story is true or at least more likely to be true. has this suggestion on how to spot a BS news story.

#3 on the list is a specific date for the apocalypse. Crack suggested we Google "by 2050" to see how things will go wrong by then.

So I did:


If any of you are are still alive in 2050, try to check against the predictions.

But to summarise, the 5 ways (to detect b.s. news) basically are to check the source, understand what exactly is being reported, and journalists (or whoever is playing the role of journalist in reporting that news) can be stupid, careless, or cavalier about facts.

Which basically means that every new health or medical breakthrough, should be checked and rechecked.

Here's an article on Lemon Water.

In case you are not dope with the alternative medicine crowd, Lemon water is lemon-infused water. Slice up a lemon, drop it into a jug of water. And you have lemon water. Some really atas ("chi-chi") restaurants serve that when you ask for water.

Benefits are... well, read the article for yourself and see if you are convinced (the article lists 6 benefits of drinking Lemon Water.

Here's the test: Can you detect the misdirection in the article? Can you see the mental sleight of hand being worked in the article? What is the article trying to say (or hoping you think it is saying what it wants you to think it is saying), and what is it ACTUALLY saying and what does it hope that you misattribute or misunderstand?

I left this comment on the article:
This is a bullshit article. It confuses "Lemon Water" with Lemons and Lemon juice and hopes you don't realise that it confuses the two very separate things.

For example, it claims, "one cup of lemon juice contains more vitamin C than what our recommended daily intake requires".

Let's say that is true.

Is drinking one cup of Lemon Water equal to one cup of lemon juice? Is the writer (or whoever she interviewed for that quote), hoping that you think that you are getting the benefit of lemon juice when you drink lemon water (which has highly diluted lemon juice at best)?

The rest of the claims assumes facts not established - like you need to "wake up" your liver (note that it is in quotes, so even they don't really believe your liver needs to be separately woken up. In fact, I would like to see evidence that livers actually "sleeps" - also in quotes).

"Boosting your immune system" is standard claim of almost all alternative remedies or therapies. This article is especially circumspect. Quote: "But it doesn’t mean that lemon-infused water would help cure colds or flus..." So... how is that boosting your immune system? Doesn't boosting the immune system sort of imply that it should help my immune system fight off illnesses?

"It does, however, help prevent the development of complications such as pneumonia or lung infection". Oh right. Cos every time I have a cold I almost ALWAYS develop pneumonia. Or lung infection. That is a REAL concern. I should drink Lemon water. Oh wow. I drank lemon water when I had a cold and look! I didn't get pneumonia or lung infection! Thank you Lemon Water!

"It's a natural diuretic." I don't know if it is or it is not. But so what? Why do I need to pee more than I currently do?

To flush out toxins. Another standard claim of alternative remedies. Unless you have liver failure or some serious disease, your body flushes out toxins just fine. Your liver does it all day long. It doesn't sleep (and so doesn't need to be woken up). But like the boost immunity claim, this is just riding on what a healthy body does naturally and claiming credit for this alternative therapy.

You know that colleague or supervisor that always takes credit for work he (or she) does not do and suck up to the boss and gets promoted over you? That's what is happening here. A healthy body with a working immune system fights infection and disease and the working liver "detox" the body 24/7. Then along comes lemon water (or the promoter for lemon water) who tries to claim all these natural functions your body does as the benefit of drinking lemon water.

And then to confuse you further, this article has provided lots of FACTS to show you that Lemon and Lemon Juice has benefits (which they do), and hope that because this article is about "Lemon Water" (which is just Lemon-infused water, or lightly lemon-flavoured water), you will think that all the benefits of Lemon are in the diluted Lemon Water.

And that's how people are conned.
And it was not published. I guess they prefer their readers to be unthinking and not ask embarrassing questions.

Here's another respectable article on Manuka Honey.

Read it and answer true or false for the following statements:
a) Honey has long been known to have anti-bacterial properties. - T/F
b) Manuka Honey has anti-bacterial properties and is effective against Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) - T/F
c) Since MRSA is resistant to anti-biotics, Manuka Honey can be an effective substitute for traditional antibiotics. - T/F
d) People with MRSA infection should drink lots of Manuka Honey. Not regular honey. It MUST be Manuka Honey! T/F
e) I should buy some Manuka Honey the next time I'm at the supermarket just in case I have an infection and want an alternative to anti-biotics. I can take Manuka Honey instead. T/F
I think (a) and (b) are true. If I understood the article correctly.

Statement (d) and (e) are false. The study was on the topical application of medical grade Manuka honey on infected wounds. The study found that Manuka Honey works when applied directly to wounds.

You were planning to drink it for it's antibiotic properties weren't you?

You weren't? Good for you! Your reading and comprehension skills are topnotch.

Now go to the supermarket or a health food store or some organic food store and see how much Manuka Honey they are selling and for how much. Note if these stores tout the anti-bacterial properties of Manuka Honey and how it can fight off infection.

Note if they tell you you are supposed to apply the honey topically for these benefits.

Note if the Manuka Honey is being sold as food, or as a medicine to be applied externally.

Yes. Of course, honey is firstly and most often used as food.

But note that there is a whole industry to promote Manuka Honey, selling the honey at a premium, having an Association of Manuka Honey Producers to maintain standards and ensure that honey labelled as "Manuka" have Unique Manuka Factor, and to promote the benefits of Manuka Honey.

Here is an extract from the website:
Many people consume a teaspoon of high strength Manuka honey daily in an effort to boost overall health, immunity and ward off allergies. A popular daily drink that is thought to detox the body and improve health, mixes a teaspoon of Manuka honey, fresh lemon juice and two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar with warm water.
Note that the website doesn't say that a teaspoon of Manuka Honey a day will boost health, immunity, and ward off allergies. It says that "Many people consume... Manuka Honey ... in an effort to boost health, immunity" etc. It is telling you what OTHER people do and why they do it, hoping that you will believe that there is some truth to it. It is NOT telling you that there is evidence that DRINKING Manuka Honey will boost your health.

So how do we tell facts from fiction or opinions or even just plain fantasy?

Well, the source of the info is one tip. I absolutely will not believe anything from Okay, that may be harsh. But my first instinct is to disbelieve anything from that website. But if it makes some kinda of sense, I will triple check the facts and seek independent verification from a site like Snopes, or Straightdope, or even Wikipedia. And if Mercola is correct once or twice, it does not mean that the rest of his claims and assertions are correct. After all, even a stopped (analogue) clock is right twice a day. Conversely, certain news organisations have good reputations.  It doesn't mean that a news orgn with a good reputation is ALWAYS right. They can get things wrong too. But they are generally careful, and can usually be trusted. But they can slip and they can be fooled too. Especially on slow news days.

The language and style of writing and the tone is also helpful. If they use a lot of exclamation marks, if they seem like they are divulging a HUGE secret to you, if the level of hyperbole is off the scale, I would be sceptical. In fact the higher their level of excitement, the higher my level of scepticism. Truly factual, science-based reports are NOT usually sensational. If you fell asleep while reading the report, it's probably true. But it's probably boring. So go back to sleep.

Sometimes they do present facts... then twist it to fit their agenda. The Lemon Water article is a clear example. They tell you that Lemons and Lemon juice is high in vitamin C, then they tell you to drink Lemon Water. This is a variation on the Bait and Switch con.

[A perverse variation of this is a combination of the first and third points - Source and Agenda. For example the Economic Intelligence Unit's annual report on Costliest Cities is intended to provide information on how expensive a city is for an Expat (by which they mean Western Expat). Singapore has top the list for a few years. And each year some people will take pains to explain that the purpose of the report is to advise MNCs relocating employees to various cities. It is not meant for locals (i.e. Singaporeans) to take pride or umbrage at how costly their city is compared to others. In this case, it is not a deliberate attempt to mislead, but the agenda of the reader has hijacked the findings for their own purpose.]

Check for actual facts as opposed to opinion, polls, and beliefs, and actions based on beliefs (like taking Manuka Honey to boost health). If the report is presenting opinions, or beliefs as facts or as persuasive points, they are trying to sell you something. If they are presenting customary practices, or new trendy practices or fads as evidence, they are engaging in the logical fallacy of appealing to popularity.

Remember, truth is not a popularity contest.

Presenting popular opinions as evidence of truth is another clue that the story or website is dubious. For example when a US jury awarded $72m in damages to the family of a woman who sued Johnson and Johnson for causing the death of the woman from decades of use of talcum powder. Some people thought that since a jury found in favour of the plaintiffs, there must be some truth to the accusation that J&J baby powder was carcinogenic.

Similarly, J&J has change the formula of their baby shampoo so it no longer contains the precursor of formaldehyde, quaternium-15:
So why did Johnson & Johnson remove quaternium-15 if it’s safe? The consumers asked it to. The company’s job is not to combat misconceptions in the public; it’s to sell products.
Same for BPA. The irrational, and unfounded fear of BPA led to many manufacturers producing BPA-free bottles and containers. Was it because BPA was a health risk? No. It was simply people believing that BPA was dangerous and demanding BPA-free products.

Hey, if people are willing to pay (more) for BPA-free, then the suppliers will make it and sell it. It's not their job to explain that BPA is not dangerous. There is no profit in that.

The amount of BPA we consume is so infinitesimal, that we would have to consume 10,000 times the amount we currently consume to exceed the Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI), and this ONLY becomes a problem if you exceed the TDI everyday for your WHOLE lifetime. THEN you might have some health problems.

So because producers caved into market forces and discontinued unwanted products (old baby shampoo and non-BPA-free bottles), consumers took these as validation of their beliefs.

Sorry. Truth is not decided by majority, and affirming the consequent is a logical fallacy. Besides, the manufacturers have a rational business reason for doing what they did.

Another indicator that the "health tip" is bogus, is the lack of dosage. In the above two examples, formaldehyde and BPA are just labelled as dangerous without considering the dosage at which they become dangerous. It is just "dangerous" at any level.

Which is a dead giveaway that the information is not complete, not factual, and not reliable. Almost anything taken in extreme can be toxic. Even Water. Google "Water Intoxication".

And just as Manuka Honey can help fight infection if applied topically, the mode of application matters. Formaldehyde causes cancer if inhaled in sufficient amounts for an extended period of time. Trace amount of formaldehyde are also in our foods. Ingesting formaldehyde in the small doses found in our food and in nature is safe. Our detoxification and immunity systems deal with these trace elements quite well.

Which brings me to the last (for this overly long post) giveaway that a story or a website is selling an unconventional or unproven treatment - the use of certain words and phrases. Such as "Boosting your Immunity", and "Detox" or "Cleansing your body of toxins". Same if they start talking about your "chakras", your "chi"/"qi", or midichlorians , or prana, or wa, or mojo, you can be quite sure that you have left the realm of science-based medicine.

Or they mash-up new words which means nothing. Like "bioresonance".

This is the age of Information. And Misinformation. And Disinformation. It behooves us to learn how to tell these apart, how to tell facts from fiction, how to spot the logical fallacies, and decide what is most likely to be true, from what is most likely wishful thinking if not outright lies.

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