“Your science is different than my science.”
Someone actually said that to me not too long ago regarding my well-reasoned takedown of some pseudoscience they spouted regarding vaccinations. By “well-reasoned,” I’m referring to the scientific method, and by “takedown,” I mean that I cited an enormous meta study combing through the data collected on more than 1.2 million children, and vetted by like, a gazillion independent scientists. But no matter how much I argued, my opponent refused to accept any legitimate organization—World Health Organization, Sloan Kettering, the Mayo Clinic, National Jewish Health, the CDC, Harvard University, the New York Times—as a credible source. “They’re all bought-and-paid for by Big Pharma and their cronies. I only get my science from RandomHolisticHealthSiteWithTheWordMedicalInItsName.com.”
The claims of the vaccination-to-autism links have been completely discredited for years. And yet my debate became untenable in that situation—the more successful course of action on my part would have simply been to shoot my own face with a bazooka.
Sadly, we’re all susceptible to this, not just those we might dismiss as “nutjobs.” The problem is that social media is too powerful an information stream, and the most successful viral format is to deliver digestible content in nuggets that require little-to-no deeper engagement. This illustrates itself in a mathematical formula that’s something like “Divide the number of times a headline shows up in your feed by the number of words in the headline, then multiply that total by the number of different sources sharing it,” or what I refer to as the “Beard-Poop Corollary.”
The Beard-Poop Corollary stems from a mildly amusing “study” a television station in New Mexico ran a couple months back. They basically grabbed a handful of men with beards, swabbed the beards, then handed off the swabs to a microbiologist to examine. He found that there were certain types of bacteria present that are also commonly found in poop. It should be noted that said bacteria is also present on your desk, in your car, on your sainted mother’s hands and liberally sprinkled throughout the rest of the known world. Because there’s bacteria everywhere.
So the TV station runs with the “THERE’S POOP IN YOUR BEARD!” screaming headline in their Facebook feed, every hipster-hating anti-beard activist in the free world shares the piece and not one of them actually does any research on their own on it.
“There was a microbiologist, right? That’s science! They put science in there!”
No, that’s not science. There was no control group. This was not a blind study, there was no independent review of the results, and even then the data was shown with zero context as to what the data actually meant. But because we’ve trained ourselves to get our information from a cleverly written headline, and are biased against poop and beards, we’ve created our own new “truth.”
In the case of beards and poop, that’s not a particularly egregious casualty. I mean, no one likes poop (except in the weirdest, most frightening places on the Internet) and beards are annoyingly popular right now (disclosure: I have one).
But the problem is far greater than poop and beards. We’re conditioned away from critical thinking—and it’s taken less than a generation to do it. The information glut is so readily available and accessible that we’ve forgotten what it means to research. Credibility isn’t even given a passing nod anymore.
Meanwhile, we continue reading headlines and going on with our day as though we’ve learned something valuable.
And the worst part is, we’re content with betting the health of our children on that.