Your Sunday deep dive:

“The widespread prevalence and persistence of misinformation in contemporary societies, such as the false belief that there is a link between childhood vaccinations and autism, is a matter of public concern. For example, the myths surrounding vaccinations, which prompted some parents to withhold immunization from their children, have led to a marked increase in vaccine-preventable disease, as well as unnecessary public expenditure on research and public-information campaigns aimed at rectifying the situation”

Never underestimate those who have a vested interest in hiding the Truth from the public . . .



Misinformation and Its Correction, Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing
Stephan Lewandowsky, Ullrich K. H. Ecker, Colleen M. Seifert, Norbert Schwarz and John Cook

Category: Philosophy, Really, really bad calls

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

34 Responses to “Misinformation & Manufactured Myths”

  1. Avocet says:

    The worst of the false beliefs currently in vogue is the contention that we are not warming the planet. This year’s record temperatures and loss of Arctic sea ice should be enough to convince folks that we have a problem. Yet those in denial just stand their ground and invent ever more fantastic tales as to why the things we can plainly see are not really happening.

    As you said, there are people with a vested interest in not taking this problem seriously. They are easy to identify.

  2. ilsm says:

    The unencumbered race toward “national security” is sustained by myths including: that the “common defense” requires an empire with client states run by fascists and monarchs, that a profitable war industry will assure “security”, and that no price is too high as long as the war profiteers pay their PAC’s.

    These myths over decades have plundered $28 trillion dollars from better uses.

    These myths are borne by propraganda, and the propagandists claim that a 5% cut from a 70% increase since 10 years ago will make the empire vulnerable………………….

    Whatever security is when the “experts” are all salesmen.

  3. RW says:

    There is little reason to doubt that there are commercial and political interests who support professionals explicitly engaged in agit prop and the manufacture of public ignorance but most of those who spread that misinformation are probably just feeders at the trough of slop provided.

    Hanlon’s Razor states: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

    So if a definition of stupidity includes a vested interest in hiding the truth from the self, propagating it and arguing or even fighting in its defense, then that is possibly closer to the nub for most.

    But a better question might be to ask, as the authors of the linked paper do, where the impulse to doubt or even reject expertise and authority comes from; i.e., skepticism is one thing but accepting research conclusions supported by and consistent with the commercial interests of the Tobacco industry (cancer) or Petroleum industry (climate) that are directly contradicted by research supported by the National Institutes of Health or National Center for Atmospheric Research simply seems irrational.

    And why is misinformation so persistent even in the face of overwhelming contradiction? The answer seems to be that mere facts are insufficient and can even inflame an individual’s resistance; learning how to correct error appears to be as much an art as finding the truth.

    Think I need to re-read some sections of Kahneman’s, “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”

  4. lrh says:

    Does “vested interest” mean “a special concern or stake in maintaining or influencing a condition, arrangement, or action especially for selfish ends” as Merriam Webster says?

    To me that definition paints virtually anyone who advocates anything as a potential “vested interest” and therefore someone who should be questioned before we swallow their story whatever it is, hook, line and sinker.

    I don’t have a problem with that but a lot of authorities I’ve met seem to. They don’t like answering questions especially if they think (selfishly) that the questions diminish their authority.

  5. michael-D says:

    just asking … who has a vested interest in promoting the alleged link betwixt childhood vaccinations and autism? who benefits materially from this one?

    i get the climate change blinders; big money has a humongous interest in that one. but suppressing autism? i don’t get this one. makes it even less sensible.

  6. Dow says:

    michael-D – the original study published in Lancet turned out to be largely made up. It was a fraud most likely meant to boost the career of its original author, Andrew Wakefield.

    “….[investigative journalist] Deer unearthed clear evidence of falsification. He found that not one of the 12 cases reported in the 1998 Lancet paper was free of misrepresentation or undisclosed alteration, and that in no single case could the medical records be fully reconciled with the descriptions, diagnoses, or histories published in the journal.”

  7. lrh says:

    The researchers whose work suggested the link between vaccinations and autism had a vested interest in promoting that myth. The many groups who raised funds and gained prominence for their fight against the commercial pharma interests who manufactured vaccinations had several vested interests in promoting that myth. Plaintiff lawyers and their PR agencies had a obvious vested interest. Even celebrities who received greater attention speaking out on that mythical link had a vested interest in promoting.

    Vested interests are not only money interests. There’s a real value avoiding the cognitive dissonance that happens when people find out that they believed something is a fact that is instead a myth.

  8. willid3 says:

    how about the one where the 1% are job creators? or that business is? when in fact is customers buying that creates jobs. cause no business or 1% will ever create any jobs unless they can sell. only exception is government but those jobs are created because we wont to have a civilized society.

  9. willid3 says:

    or that oil independence will lead to lower prices. it wont. oil is a world wide market. as is all of the other fossil fuels.

  10. ilsm says:

    Revise Hanlon’s Razor to: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by who is paying the liar.”

  11. Pantmaker says:

    I find that Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Psychopathy seem to be the driving force behind much of the promotion of misinformation and myth. The irony is that they are typically over-represented in both positions of leadership and prison populations.

  12. DeDude says:

    Understanding the concept of probability and the scientific approach to finding most probable explanations (by weeding out less probable ones) is actually very difficult. Applying that to a field in which you have very limited (or no) expertise is almost impossible. But most people cannot accept uncertainty (e.g., 60% true and 40% false) and they want to be able to decide true or false on most items presented to them. Often they need to act on something and they need to feel good and confident about doing the right thing.

    As a result most people end up relying heavily on “experts” to make judgments on complicated things and tell them what is right or the “truth”. But expertise is corruptible and can either be purchased (by individuals wanting to manipulate and exploit others), or presented by people who know a little but not enough (incompetent experts). So people have this very difficult choice of which expert to trust, knowing from experience that many who claim expertise are not that good. Some completely give up and simply go with “gut feeling” or use completely irrelevant criteria such as whether he/she is well dressed.

    As society becomes increasingly complicated, and sinister individuals make a science out of disinformation to exploit others and gain the upper hand, this problem gets worse. Unfortunately it does make a big difference whether decisions are made based on the best available facts. The further we get away from fact and science based decisions the more and worse mistakes we will make.

  13. wrongtrade says:

    the author lost all credibility with the assertion that National Public Radio listeners are the least misinformed. Give me a f*ck!ng break. Have you listened to that shit? It’s as extremist left as Fox is extremist right. And just because MSDNC and Clinton News Network (CNN) are not quite as crazy doesn’t make them moderates. The truth is that most media is flaming liberal, many Republicans are idiots, manyDemocrats use a fake air of cognitive supremacy to dispose offhand of information that disagrees with their position, the individuals that are the most intolerant are the ones who usually put themselves in positions to effect change, the average person is an idiot and our government is bought and paid for by special interests. It is a disgrace. Just saying.


    BR: Thats based on a study, not opinion or anecdote — so you are not ‘just sayin,’ you are bullshittin’

  14. DeDude says:

    If people knew what a “double-blind placebo-controlled multi-center clinical trial” was and why those are much more reliable for reaching a conclusion than a “single investigator reporting on a dozen case observations”, then we would never have had the autism scare and the harm it caused. But it is so much more attractive to listen to an “expert” that says he has it all figured out, than to one that says he doesn’t know yet and it may be years before he might have an answer. When bad things happen people want to understand why so they feel they can protect themselves against it happening again.

  15. DeDude says:

    The press used to be a fairly reliable filter that had the desire and resources to investigate expert claims and weed out the worst of them, before they got passed on to the public. Unfortunately, in the era of Fox “news” we have gotten a heavy dose of agenda driven information via opinion “journalism”, where it apparently is OK if the information is disconnected from facts and reality because it is called an “opinion”. Although the old time journalistic filter of semi-experts vetting the expert claims could suppress important information, as a whole it served the public better for finding the truth than the current system.

  16. econimonium says:

    I’m down with Hanlon’s Razor here, or as Clinton might say, “It’s the stupid, stupid.” This stems from the same place as people who believe the world is 6k years old and that Satan put dinosaur bones around, that climate change and warming are made up, that top-down economics works, and that marriage was given to us by God. These people, on their own, aren’t malevolent, but their cumulative effects on society are. When we have school districts that don’t teach evolution, or “critical thinking skills”, and deny science in general for folklore and myth, this is the effect. And when you have media outlets that depend on denials, bad maths, and junk stats on a daily basis shoving it all down people’s throats, then it become true because they hear it all the time. And so they fall for crap like this and put their kids at risk and other’s kids at risk needlessly. Although, speaking of evolution, perhaps this is just nature’s way of removing those genes from the pool since the one’s that don’t fall for it have their genes survive.

  17. RW says:

    The other side of this is that realty may eventually break through but can appear to completely come from left field because misinformation has made such a mess of the causal chain. George Orwell’s essay, In front of your nose observed that error and defense of error can go on indefinitely but “sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”

    But what if no bump occurs, only a slow grind shrouded in dust until it is too late to do anything; I was thinking of something along those lines when I encountered the bit below.

    The magic number for how worker productivity responds to warm/hot temperatures
    Above a temperature of twenty five degrees Celsius (25℃ or 77℉) worker productivity is reduced somewhere between 1.8% and 2.9% per degree C temperature rise. That means that loss of per capita output could become the single greatest cost in a globally warmed world. Might have to ramp up the design and implementation of robots a bit quicker than currently projected …that or find a way to add more air conditioning without adding more heat (bit of a thermodynamic problem there).

    @ilsm – good point.

  18. GeorgeBurnsWasRight says:

    Few people are equipped to evaluate data. Instead, most people evaluate the person who is speaking.

    The anti-vaccination people are passionate and 100% convinced they’re right. The scientists are more dispassionate and less dogmatic.

    Many people conclude the anti-vaccination person is more believable, and thus their position must be right.

  19. F. Beard says:

    The last I heard mercury is a higly toxic heavy metal so just what are some people doing injecting it into children? Does refreigeration not exist in the US at least?

  20. emrobin says:

    Is it a democratic or republican president with their policy approach that is more likely to value the understanding of the facts to build towards the solutions needed for a struggling U.S. society and a deteriorating condition of humanity?

  21. denim says:

    Authoritarians tend to adopt the ideology of those leaders they adore. That keeps the peace in the “tribe” or “team.” Conservatives seem to be over populated with authoritarians.

  22. yenwoda says:

    “The last I heard mercury is a higly toxic heavy metal so just what are some people doing injecting it into children? Does refreigeration not exist in the US at least?”

    Thimerosal was phased out of child vaccines from 1999-2001. There was of course no discontinuity in the rate of increase of autism diagnoses during or following that process.

  23. DeDude says:

    @ F. Beard,

    All medicine is toxic, even regular salt is toxic if eaten in sufficient amounts. It’s all about dose and about the consequences (good and bad) of the injection – or of not giving the injection. It kind of gets to complicated for 2 sentence punch-lines; and runs way past the average americans attention span.

  24. CSF says:

    People can always search the web and find evidence to confirm their biases. Say, did you hear that the U.S. government carried out the 9/11 attacks? The holocaust never happened? The climate is growing colder? I read it all online.

  25. The Refusers says:

    Thanks Barry for digging out this gem of an article. I read the whole thing – all 16,249 words.

    I get a different interpretation than most of the comments here.

    The author is a psychologist who wants to impose his agenda on what we think. It’s basically anti-liberty information warfare.

    The internet (and web sites like Big Picture) undermine centralized information regulation and drive control freaks like study author Stephan Lewandowsky nuts.

    He proposes to ‘rebias’ our worldview through repetition and retraction.

    Anyone (who isn’t a robot) who can process information independently and reach rational judgments through deduction and inference should be deeply offended by the Orwellian information control proposals of this dingbat Lewandowsky.

    The question arises: What is misinformation? What some loony Australian shrink dreams up, what some government political bozo (TSA, etc.) decides, what some corporation selling dangerous products pushes (asbestos, Vioxx, tobacco) – or what an enlightened individual gleans from reliable, independent sources?

    The key quote from this article regarding vaccines is ‘the vaccination-autism myth has led to decreased vaccination rates … and hence arguably decreased the revenue and profits of pharmaceutical companies.’

    There you have it. Lewandowsky is a drug industry droid.

    Intelligent and informed parents who are vaccine refusers are reading medical textbooks, the latest scientific studies on vaccine safety and efficacy and vaccine package inserts for data sources, not the withdrawn Wakefield Lancet study cited disparagingly in this article.

    Try this one on for size: The largest selling medical textbook (the Merck Manual) defines a vaccine adverse reaction as encephalitis (brain inflammation) which is exactly the same thing as the neurological damage from diseases like measles that vaccines are supposed to prevent.

    The Merck Manual: Brain, Spinal Cord and Nerve Disorders
    ‘Encephalitis can occur in the following ways: … A virus or vaccine triggers a reaction that makes the immune system attack brain tissue (an autoimmune reaction)’

    Read a vaccine package insert sometime. Look for the word encephalopathy. It’s there under adverse events. So is SIDS and autism on the Sanofi pertussis vaccine (DTaP) package insert filed with the FDA. Page 11: ‘Adverse events reported during post-approval use of Tripedia vaccine include idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, SIDS, anaphylactic reaction, cellulitis, autism, convulsion/grand mal convulsion, encephalopathy, hypotonia, neuropathy, somnolence and apnea. Events were included in this list because of the seriousness or frequency of reporting.’

    Now who is pedaling misinformation – Lewandowsky, drug companies, the largest selling medical textbook or vaccine package inserts filed with the FDA? That’s up to you, the intelligent, informed thinker to decide. Not the white coats who want to censor and airbrush your information sources and mess with your mind.

  26. SolAU says:

    “The last I heard mercury is a higly toxic heavy metal so just what are some people doing injecting it into children? Does refreigeration not exist in the US at least?”

    Sea water contains Chlorine, a poisonous green gas that has been commonly used as a chemical weapon. It also contains Sodium, a silver grey metal that reacts explosively with water. What the hell are people doing taking children to the beach then?

    The Mercury in the vaccine is bound up with other molecules making it harmless. Much like how salt is harmless but its separate constituents are not.

  27. betty says:

    Your Monday even deeper dive:

    “Never underestimate those who have a vested interest in hiding the Truth from the public . . .”

    More on the article linked to by formerlawyer:

    “‘The widespread prevalence and persistence of misinformation in contemporary societies, such as the false belief that there is a link between childhood vaccinations and autism, is a matter of public concern.’”

    Ex-head of the CDC, now head of vaccination at Merck, acknowledges a link between vaccination and autism:

    And regarding Prof Lewandowsky, commentary on another paper of his:

  28. Takeyourfinger says:

    Let’s try to keep an open mind on these sorts of things. I’m a scientist by training, so I really need proof one way or the other. So far, my bet on the increase in autism rates would be on the expansion of the definition of autism, the government support for treatment after the diagnosis, and the ever increasing age at which people have kids. People have kids these days at like 36, an age at which really, we evolved to be grandparents.

    At the same time, it is clear that diseases can cause neurological problems. For example, there is Toxoplasma gondii, which is a protozoan infection in many cats… transmitted via feces… infects mice and makes them drawn to cats. So could a weakened virus, such as in a vaccine, cause autism? I’m open to the possibility. There would undoubtedly be a genetic component, since our individual immune systems vary so much.

    If you want to see something really scary wrt vaccines, check out vaccine merger. One day, thanks to zero oversight in veterinary medicine (I’m talking more globally, than U.S.), we’ll probably wind up digging our own graves because of some unintended consequence of vaccine merger wrt swine or poultry. Here’s a link on the subject matter:

  29. Marconi says:

    Perhaps the “sceptic” community of 2012 – has come full circle and plunged analytic thought back into the black hole that was the middle ages when the one-eyed lead the blind. When mainstream science was quite prepared to condemn Copernicus. When the most eminent scholars ran Drs Semmelweis and Oliver Wendell Holmes out of their jobs, because according to the science of the times, puerperal fever couldn’t possibly be caused by not washing hands.

    Of course, there are a lot more modern stories, yet to be written into history properly – that usually only happens after the person dies, and the medical system goes “oops – shhhhh”. Most here might not know who Major Byron Bennett was, or even why his story might be important. Who here, really knows why Louis Pillemer committed suicide? No-one? Oh what a suprise. Forget sanitised Wikipedia, which always buries skeletons. Seems that one subject science ignores is their own history….

    So today, we have blinkered one-eyed people once again intoning that ANYONE who disagrees with them about anything, has a Narcissist Personality Disorder or is a psychopath. Seems like coals to Newcastle maybe….or pot calling kettle black.

    Many people (like me) lived through the times when the medical system justified to their last breath, a whole raft of errors in neonatology. Parents today, know little about these, because such things were slammed into the cupboard called No Fishing, and only briefly whispered about in medical articles where parents wouldn’t know to look in the first place. So many monumental blunders are protected from the public eye, because you have to know something has happened, and have an accurate search word for it, to be able to find it.

    Public ignorance allows the medical profession to get away with murder – quite apart from the huge death toll from Preventable medical error.

    Here for those who want to touch some truth, are the links to the 2003 three-part medical series on errors in neonatology.

    Part 1

    Part 2

    Part 3

    It’s unlikely, though, that any part 4 would be published in 2012 for two reasons.

    It would take at least double the space to write up neonatology errors in the period of 2003 – 2012, and it would be a very brave person to do so, since they would be likely to face a reputational guillotine by their peers, because gone are the days of scientific free speech.

    Anyone who speaks out against current “gold standard” about anything, is verbally executed.

    Many of us still alive today, who challenged the system about what is now admitted to be “errors in neonatology”, were branded as lunatics, “old wives”, psychopaths, hippie drop outs, and… or just plain stupid.

    In the 1970’s when so many of us were using folic acid in pregnancy, our doctors sneered, curled their lips back, and viewed us in the same way as the church once viewed people they would have preferred to burn at the stake.

    Then in 1990, suddenly came the magnificent discovery by the medical system that… folic acid could prevent neural tube defects. Well, duh. When that article was dropped on the desk of our GP, his face was a wonder to behold. Perhaps we should have sent him a bill for all the work we did to educate him over three decades.

    Just as so many parents are scorned now, we were right back then – about so many things…. this is the way it goes.

    Perhaps in 2040 the medical system will announce that we are also right in 2012 about a whole lot of other things too. Like vaccines having unreported consequences. Like GMOs causing serious DNA damage, both actual and epigenetic. Like the fact that the medical system food pyramid is a total joke, and always has been. So many things which are blindly accepted today by the so called sceptics – are – blatantly wrong.

    The problem is, we grandparents, and parents of today, can’t wait around for the system to catch up with what we know to be true.

    In the 40 years plus it takes (just long enough for scientists to pay off their mortgages and retire!!! – sorry, do the required studies to prove and reprove the truth…. ) two generations could well suffer in much greater numbers, because doctors want to use an injection or pill for everything…. just because of the butt end of bad science – which the one-eyed sceptics of today, promote without question.

    It might well be, that in the future, the only healthy people paying taxes, will be the children of those people who spurned vaccines, who understand decent nutrition, who long term breastfeed, who won’t buy GMO’s, who avoid chemicals, etc. Assuming that is, …. that we lunatics aren’t all run out of town, or lined up and shot at dawn, simply so that there is no decent control group alive, whose good health would prove the follies and fallacies of the current neonatal system.

  30. SecondLook says:

    One of the major, and enduring myths is that Americans aren’t a martial folk, that basically we’re a peace loving nation.

    History belies that. There hardly has been a decade when we weren’t fighting someone, more often than not, by choice.

    4 major wars in the 19th century, and nearly constant warfare against Native Americans tribe until 1890. Oh, and our first wars in the Islamic world – the 1st Barbary war of 1801-1805, and the 2nd in 1815

    5 major wars in the 20th century (6 if you count the Philippine insurrection; 1899-1902. 4,000 American fatalities suffered to put down the Filipino independence movement). Numerous small wars, from the “banana” wars, 1900 to 1932, to most recently – Panama (1989) Bosnia, Kosovo (94-95 and 1999).

    2 major wars to date in the 21st century.

    The sad, uncomfortable truth is we resort to war frequently, as a matter of course – long before we became an official “Great Power”. For better or worse, it’s part of our history and culture.

  31. whskyjack says:

    I think the major thing for us to take from this article is just how much we suck at risk assessment. Because with the vaccination there is risk from the vaccine and risk from the disease. In all cases the risk from the vaccine is magnitudes less than the risk from the disease. But disease is old news and the risk from the vaccine is on the front page.
    You see it right here. Where people will obsess on the newest “scary scary” stuff and totally ignore the old basics that can take you down with out a thought.


  32. ToNYC says:

    In Public Relations, the story with the biggest buy-in leads: Narrative as hero or narcotic. The Perception x Eyeballs Railroad carries the freight. Reality walks.

  33. Roanman says:

    This entire piece mostly to do with the authors being just a little depressed that they just can’t get the whole world to buy into some of their own more cherished positions and they’re seeking to understand how this is even possible.

    They come back again and again to the notion that people continue in their false beliefs despite evidence to the contrary provided to them via media.

    Just for starters, and as demonstrated in a post at this site within the last day or so, the media has a well established track record for reporting as instructed. It’s remarkable to me that people believe anything being offered up by any media. Most people are smart enough to understand that there is big money washing all over the place around any issue/idea/product you care to mention and that nothing motivates for the big lie like cash flow.

    Having already been accused here of being a practitioner of moral equivalency once today. I got nothing to lose.

    The greens love to point at the billions upon billions or more taken down over some period of time by the oil industry as all the motivation in the world to lie like hell about carbon induced global warming. What they fail to account for is that those many, many billions are spread over many, many thousands of people and many, many billions in infrastructure. The point I’m making here is that while the numbers are huge, there are quite a few hands in the till.

    Contrast that with a college professor at say just for the fun of it that well known bastion of morality Penn State University with a theory that may or may not work, but is for damn sure bringing in a ton of money in research grants, speakers fees and whatehaveyou. Or better yet, let’s say you’re a former Vice President with a world of connections that offer you ability to front run a panic and earn some life changing bucks if you can just come up with something. Who has the motivation to lie like hell?

    The most charitable conclusion to my way of thinking is everybody.

    But in light of the fact that the energy industry has way enough capital from cash flow to obtain huge footprints in any other business you care to name, especially one that someday they might have to compete with/more likely in, the notion that they are worried about wind or solar or something gonna deprive them of their billions is just patent nonsense.

    Despite what they might have to say on TV or the local newspaper.