The Changing Face of Unreality
Is what you read true or false? Many institutions - from science to media - have decided they don't know. Often, they don’t care. If you want to know if something’s true, you must decide yourself. Presuming you have the time, means, interest and ability. Lying is not just in: it’s often the means to great public attention.
Let’s consider the new rules of unreality in science, news, and politics:
Many books and hundreds of articles have been written about how drug companies have “gamed every system” to push their products. Negative clinical studies are suppressed; claims are made for larger usefulness that have no real basis in fact; side effects are ignored or deliberately underreported; and companies pay fines in the billions that still represent small fractions of total sales.
But drug companies are sinned against, too. Including by the universities and scientific institutions that they depend on to provide the information for new breakthroughs and products.
According to the editors of Nature researchers at Bayer were asked to look at whether the studies they were excited about “panned out” in their own laboratories. Spending enormous amounts of cash looking at cancer, cardiovascular and “women’s health” research, the Bayer scientists could corroborate less than a quarter of the studies they tested. In other words, 75-80% of these major research findings could not be confirmed.
Later, Amgen asked its scientists to do something similar. They were trying to replicate recent studies in clinical cancer research. Only 11% were confirmed.
In Amgen’s experience, almost 90% of these major papers did not test out. And many of the authors of the papers only provided detailed understanding of their methods after the drug company had signed contracts that they would not reveal the origin of those papers. We’ll tell you what we did. Just don’t let anyone else know.
Science lives on replication. Yet these clinically critical attempts to corroborate research findings could not confirm them. Why?
Ironically, the reasons resemble many that are used to describe the malfeasance of drug companies – the need for money, grant support, major findings to achieve tenure – and a desire for others not to have the “secret sauce” of methodology needed to create the research.
Major newspapers experience fake news scandals. Janet Cooke wrote a Pulitizer prize winning story about an 8 year old heroin addict who never existed. In the Internet age many news outlets like to highlight fake news reports. Consider some examples, staring with a recent report by Ravi Somaiya and Leslie Kaufman in the New York Times:
Gawker publishes an essay on severe personal hardships by one Linda Tirado. Her rending tales provides her $60,000 in donations. Except most of the story is fabricated. Ms. Tirado’s response – reporters are using the fabrication “story” as a way to “avoid talking about the issues.”
She keeps the money.
A confrontation on a Thanksgiving period plane proves increasingly violent. The blow by blow account appears on Buzzfeed. Millions read it. A link appears at the New York Times.
It’s another fake story.
The author retorts “I really have an issue with the word hoax.” He regards himself as a performance artist. His response – “It’s the people who reported it who are deceiving their audience.”
The editorial response at Gawker - “we assume a certain level of sophistication and skepticism of our readers.” They “obviously” can tell the difference between truth and lies.
Why is fake news so popular on newssites? Here are two reasons: first, it provides emotional “buzz.” Second, because it can make a lot of money. As the Washington Bureau chief of the Pulitzer winning Huffington Post lamented, “If you throw something up without fact checking it, and you’re the first one to put it up, and you get millions and millions of views, and later it’s proved false, you still got those views. That’s a problem. The incentives are all wrong.”
Especially when, as at places like Bloomberg, remuneration is based on the number of hits an article receives. But incentives are wrong not just for news gathering organizations.
Americans continue to believe important historical “facts” that are untrue. After 9/11, Americans were incensed to hear that the many in the Middle East thought Osama bin Laden’s horrifying attack was the product of a CIA-Mossad plot. To this day, large majorities in countries like Pakistan think the massacre of 9/11 was created in Washington or Tel Aviv.
Americans cannot believe so many people can believe such outrageous lies.
Yet close to a majority of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein, tyrant of Iraq, was in cahoots with Al-Qaeda, especially before the 9/11 attack. The Bush administration told them so.
Which people in the Middle East rightly regard as preposterous.
Saddam Hussein was the leader of a boldly secular, Arabist tyranny. Sunni fanatics like Al Qaeda were his regime’s blood enemies. That they would work together rather than murder each other was just insane. Welcome to the world of fict and faction.
Facts and Likelihood
What can we learn from this? Plausibility is not truth; when something is “too good to be true” it generally isn’t; institutions increasingly do not back up what they proclaim and sell.
And the “free informational marketplace” of the Internet is a wonderful site for fraud, scams, lies, plausible lies, and pleasant, beautiful untruths. So we all need our own truth detectors.
Start with a trick from epidemiology, the scientific study of populations. Put up your own “likelihood ratio” for anything you read.
Zero means you don’t believe a word. One hundred percent is the probability that you trust everything you read is right.
Don’t expect to hit 100% too often.
The great fashion editor Diana Vreeland was once asked if her stories were fact or fiction. Her reply - "Faction."
DV knew what she was talking about.