29 July 2022

Journalists and Science Cons

Welcome back. Being an impatient news junkie, I’m always bothered by journalists giving both sides of an issue when one side is utter nonsense or lies. Oh, this isn’t about Trump, though it could be; this is about reporting on science--climate change, vaccinations, evolution, etc.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has become a major figure in the anti-vaccine movement. I remember his father well, but is it really necessary to cover Bobby’s son? (photo from CNN video, www.cnn.com/2022/01/24/politics/robert-kennedy-jr-anti-vaccine-nazis-what-matters/index.html).
In my corner are two philosophy professors, one affiliated with Illinois Institute of Technology, the other with Florida State University. They agree that journalists need not cover both sides when one side is advancing a con.

In fact, they’ve published a paper that compares and contrasts a financial con, which aims to separate people from their money, with an epistemic con, which aims to recruit people to spread doubt and falsehood about well-established claims. (Epistemology is the study of knowledge.)

Epistemic Cons

An epistemic con starts when facts emerge that threaten a powerful group (say, tobacco companies or Big Oil). They disseminate plausible but dishonest arguments to persuade you to doubt or reject the facts. The epistemic con artist really succeeds if you try to convince others, even if it’s just doubt.

What #ExxonKnew vs what #ExxonDid, graphic by John Cook, SkepticalScience.com (from www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2018/mar/23/in-court-big-oil-rejected-climate-denial).
So, don’t open your wallet to financial cons and don’t open your mind to epistemic cons. Alas, the only way to avoid falling for an epistemic con is to never trust anyone, which is no way to live. That’s why the first rule of avoiding the con is to admit you’re vulnerable. Trust sources with more reliable track records, don’t trust sources with less reliable track records.

“Settled science,” confirmed by an array of scientific subdisciplines, deserves your trust. Evolution for example, can be confirmed by the fossil record, biogeography, stratigraphy, genetics, anatomy and more.

Cons Against Settled Science

Con artists try to wow us with magic bullet arguments, most of which are dishonest, deeply confused or both. Those arguments generally follow the same themes, such as Obvious Counterexamples, e.g., global warming implies we won’t have cold snowy days in winter; Cherry Picking, e.g., 50 years ago, scientists said the Earth was cooling; or Biased Scientists, e.g., scientists believe evolution because they’re atheists.

Magic bullet arguments aren’t always easy to debunk. Yet even when they make a good point, there is no single piece of evidence on which settled science rests that can be unraveled by a magic bullet.

How do con artists open your mind to these arguments? They appeal to your epistemic virtue: You’re fair. You’re open-minded. You’re smart. Think for yourself. 

Epistemic Virtue: Have the courage to use your own understanding, by German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, born Emanuel Kant, 22 April 1724 – 12 February 1804 (from en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Epistemic_virtue#/media/File:Kant5.jpg).
Unfortunately, there’s a difference between epistemic virtue and epistemic vanity. Con artists rely on our inability to tell the difference. They rely on our overconfidence.

You think the game is figuring out the truth. The real game is to see how long the con artist can string you along. While you’re debunking one magic bullet argument, you’re being fed more.

Can You Avoid Being Conned?
Your best bet to avoid being conned on settled science is close-minded deference, which allows no room for doubt unless doubt arises within science itself.

If you’re going to consider magic bullet arguments, do so with a closed mind. Treat them as interesting puzzles or as material for exploring bad reasoning.

We fall for epistemic cons for the same reason we fall for financial cons: We trust the wrong people. More, it’s that overconfidence in our ability to figure out the truth.

Wrap Up
Even if journalists close their minds to the con, they may report facts in a way that opens their audience’s minds to the con. Reporting or not reporting fake controversies both seem to play into the con artist’s hand.

Those authors in my corner find only one technique for helping readers avoid confidence games: Tell the story of the epistemic con, how it works. Most people accept the story, at least applied to others.

The challenge comes if journalists apply the story to their readers. Expect loud and angry blowback. The villain of the story is our harsh judgments of those who’ve fallen for the con; our offended dismissals of anyone who suggests that we’ve been conned.

But the story of the epistemic con gives us the opportunity to recognize what our role in the story has been and to choose our role going forward.

Thanks for stopping by.

Study of epistemic cons in science reporting in Frontiers in Communication journal: www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcomm.2021.545429/full
Articles on study on Illinois Tech news and EurekAlert! website:

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