Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, June 7, 2024

The flood of nonsense

I'm going to say this straight up, in as unambiguous a fashion as I can manage:

Given the widespread availability of fact-checking websites, there is absolutely no excuse for passing along misinformation.

The topic comes up today because I recently ran into three claims online, which I present here in increasing order of ridiculousness, and in almost no cases were they accompanied by anyone saying, "But I don't think this is true."  I'm hoping that by highlighting these, I can accomplish two things -- putting a small dent in the number of people posting these claims on social media, and instilling at least a flicker of an intention to do better with what you choose to post in the future.

The first one I've mostly seen from my fellow Northeasterners, and has to do with a spider.  Here's the most common post I've seen about this:

This statement -- which is almost verbatim the headline used by a number of supposedly-reputable news sources -- is wildly misleading.  When you look into it, you find that the species in question is the joro spider (Trichonephila clavata), and while they are pretty big for a spider (the leg-span can be around ten centimeters), nothing else about them is dangerous.  They're native to China and Japan, where people live around them in apparent harmony; while they do have venom, like all spiders, it's of low toxicity.  They're actually rather docile and reluctant to bite, and if they do, it's no worse than a bee sting.

And, for fuck's sake, they can't fly.  Flying requires wings, and if you'll look closely at the above photograph, you will see they don't have any.  Their tiny young do what is called "ballooning" (again, something many spider species do), creating a few silk threads and then catching a breeze to travel to a new locale.  So while they're definitely an invasive exotic species, and ecologists are concerned about their potential for out-competing native spider species, they pose about as close to zero threat to humans as you could get.

So put away the goddamn flamethrowers.

The second claim has to do with the information you can get from the color of caps on your bottled water.  The idea here is that bottled water distributers have coded the caps -- blue caps are used for spring water, black caps for alkaline water, green caps for flavored water, and white caps for "processed water."

It's the last one that gave me a chuckle.  I damn sure hope the water you're drinking has been processed, and that Aquafina isn't just filling water bottles from the nearest river, screwing the caps on, and calling it good.  Apparently the impetus for the claim is that because consuming "highly-processed" food has been associated with some health issues, anything "processed" is bad for you, so you should avoid those bottles with white tops.

The whole thing, though, is complete nonsense.  There's no correlation between bottle top color and... anything.  All bottled water has been filtered and sterilized (and thus "processed").  And if you need a particular bottle top color to tell if you're drinking flavored water, there are some other issues you might want to address, preferably with your doctor.

The third, and most idiotic, of the claims I heard about from my friend, the wonderful writer Andrew Butters.  Like me, Andrew is a thoroughgoing science nerd, and frequently finds himself doing facepalms over some of the stupid stuff people fall for.  He sent me a link to a video by theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder about an actor named Terrence Howard, who recently wrote a book about his new model for physics that proves pretty much everything we'd thought is wrong.  The basis of his model -- I swear I am not making this up -- starts from the proposition that 1 x 1 is actually equal to 2.

So Howard clearly (1) failed third grade math class, and (2) apparently has been doing sit-ups underneath parked cars.  And his "theory" (it makes me cringe even to use the word) would have vanished into the great murky morass of claims by unqualified laypeople to revolutionize all of science if it hadn't been for Joe Rogan, who gave the guy a platform and treated him as if he was the next Einstein.

Hossenfelder's takedown of Howard (and Rogan) is brilliantly acerbic, and is well worth watching in its entirety.  One line, though, stands out: "Joe Rogan isn't stupid, but he thinks his audience is."  Rogan's take on things is that Howard's ideas haven't caught on in the scientific community because the scientists are acting as gatekeepers -- rejecting ideas out of hand if they come from someone who is not In The Club.  This, of course, is nonsense; they aren't ignoring Howard's book because he's not a scientist, they're ignoring it because his claims are ridiculous.  This is not scientists acting as unfair gatekeepers; they simply know what the hell they're talking about because they've spent their entire careers studying it.

I had decided not to address Howard's claims, feeling that Hossenfelder did a masterful enough job by herself of knocking him and Rogan down simultaneously, and that anything I could add would be superfluous.  And, of course, given that Hossenfelder is a physicist, she is vastly more qualified than I am to address the physics end of it.  But since Andrew sent me the link, I've now seen Howard's claims pop up three more times, always along with some commentary about the Mean Nasty Scientists refusing to listen to an outsider, and this is why we don't trust the scientists, see?

Which, of course, made me see red, and is why you're reading about it here.  There's no grand conspiracy amongst the scientific establishment to silence amateurs; as we've seen here at Skeptophilia more than once, dedicated amateurs have made significant contributions to science.  No scientist would refuse to look at a revolutionary idea if it had merit.  Terrence Howard might well have mental problems, and be more to be pitied than censured, but Joe Rogan needs to just shut the hell up.

And for the love of Gauss, that 1 x 1 = 1 can be derived in one step from one of the fundamental axioms of arithmetic.

So.  Anyhow.  I need to finish this up and go have a nice cup of tea and calm down.  But do me a favor, Gentle Readers.  If you see this kind of nonsense online, please please puhleeeez don't forward it.  If you feel comfortable doing so, tell the original poster "this is incorrect, and here's why."  And if you run into any odd claims online, do a two-minute fact check before you post them yourself.  Snopes and remain two of the best places to find out if claims are true; there's no excuse for not using them.

Let's all do what we can to stem the tide of misinformation, before we all drown in it.


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