The following is false:

‘The only thing we can do is to improve our critical thinking & media literacy, & learn what we must be on guard against … we can learn tools to defend ourselves in this era of rapid falsehood. We need to marshal our ability to think critically‘

Critical thinking, media literacy, etc. are very poor tools for defending against viral falsehoods.

It’s also awful & condescending to believe that viral believers lack critical thinking or are stupid.

I am with 's much less sanguine analysis in

"media literacy and critical thinking will be deployed as an assertion of authority over epistemology."

"I believe in empathy and building resilience… I relish people recognizing unconscious bias and grappling with the limits of their own mind. But I’m not at all convinced that asking people to strengthen their individual cognitive capacities will do a lot to address a complex systemic issue."

Media literacy is *interesting* and *worth teaching* for intellectual reasons, along with abstract algebra and Faulkner. But it's not going to cause people to re-evaluate their sacred cows.

I've been privileged? to see radicalization in three places:
- trump people vs the rest
- ISIS recruiting & innoculation
- Hong Kong, pro- vs anti-police/Beijing

All six of these factions insist they're using critical thinking and meta-analysis, that they're seeing the other side's (invalid) arguments.


I'm a programmer. Most of my waking thinking moments are spent ironing out in excruciating detail how to actually do something that was easy to say in words. I combat "Shit's Easy Syndrome" every day (

None of these factions can construct a real convincing argument against its opponent. Viral beliefs, like real viruses, evolve under intense pressure—their inventors poured all their energy, creativity, and intellect in making these beliefs immune to easy argumentation.

This notion, that you or I can evaluate the medical claims, is toxic. brilliantly illustrates this

"You learn next week that you have an endocrinological deficit that can be effectively treated but only if you submit to a regimen of daily medications. You certainly will do enough research to satisfy yourself—to satisfy any reasonable person in your situation—that this recommendation is sound before you undertake such treatment. But what will you do?" (cont.)

"Will you carefully read and evaluate all the studies that inform your physician’s recommendation? If those studies refer, as they inevitably will, to previous ones the methods of which aren’t reproduced in those papers, will you read those, too? … will you enroll in a professional training program to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills? … will you redo the experiments—*all* of them…"

"Of course not. Because by the time you did those things, you’d be dead."

Kahan's clincher:

"To live well—or just to live—individuals (including scientists) must accept much more [decision-relevant science] than they can ever hope to make sense of on their own."

Please rid yourself of this notion that you can somehow evaluate the science behind cancer or AIDS, behind climate change or nuclear power. That all we need is "critical thinking" or "media studies" to protect us from extremism, radicalization, false medicine, incorrect thinking.

And the most surreal thing is that the viral believers are convinced they're scientific—Kahan via

"[people are] experts at recognizing what science knows—at identifying who knows what about what, at distinguishing the currency of genuine scientific understanding from the multiplicity of counterfeit alternatives [unless there's] disruption to the system of conventions that normally enable individuals to recognize valid science despite their inability to understand it"

In this 2011 paper, Kahan et al. suggest that

"[science] communicators must attend to the cultural meaning as well as the scientific content of information."

That is, sugar-coat your statements to be acceptable.

For example, one strategy is *identity affirmation*, where, when your findings include something that might conflict with some people's cultural values, you show that information in such a way, or you pair it with another finding, that does support their views.

"When shown risk information (e.g., global temperatures are increasing) that they associate with a conclusion threatening to their cultural values (commerce must be constrained), individuals tend to react dismissively toward that information; however, when shown that the information in fact supports or is consistent with a conclusion that affirms their cultural values (society should rely more on nuclear power), such individuals are more likely to consider the information openmindedly"


This advice would have medical researchers' press releases, if they were presenting evidence against some popular false medicine beliefs (maybe something about cancer that assumes it is not primarily caused by fungus), also maybe include wording about how it remains very important to be vigilant about eating wholesome food…?

As far-fetched as this sounds, it's actually plausible and doable, unlike the original tweeter's delusions about defense against viral medical falsehoods.


> None of these factions can construct a real convincing argument against its opponent.


@garbados Gosh, what I'd do to introduce you to some people I know who will strenuously argue that their beloved leader, who has all the characteristics of a fascist, absolutely lacks any of the characteristics of a fascist, and follow up with a detailed explanation how persons B, C, and G are actually fascists, completing their argument that you are the fascist-lover (the assumption being that you probably love B, C, et al.).

@22 oh you mean like “no one can create a persuasive argument because people will simply disbelieve you on the basis of fealty” yeah ok

@garbados Fealtyyyy… maybe at the deepest level but on the surface, people's perceptions of their own views as matching those of credentialed scientists. Kahan's abstract in is quite beautiful prose but outlines the structure of these beliefs that make it so hard to unseat them.

People don't believe unscientific things because they hate science or something we can dismiss as dumb brainwashing. They rather are convinced (maybe via fealty) that their views ARE scientific.

@22 this dynamic has been referred to as an "epistemic crisis" as people find their views totally irreconcilable due to distinct underlying premises. all the time i find myself arguing with well-meaning people repeating state propaganda, who will never really change their mind absent disastrous circumstances that make them experience the horror we are trying to end. rhetoric has no purpose in those moments. the underlying reality that shapes our worldviews is so distinct as to be respectively unbelievable. i can't understand why they believe some people should starve. they can't understand why i don't believe in starving people.

see also this sartre quote:

@garbados How extraordinarily awful. The people I lock horns with actually agree with me that, of course it'd be better if we didn't cage black and brown people (USA), that democracy is sacred, and definitely that hungry people deserve our help—no unbridgeable gap there.

But since people of color need to follow the rules too; and we ought to punitively take away others' votes to protect ours; and since some poor people are just lazy, they diverge with me on policy matters.

@garbados In fact… I now see that protecting oneself and one's own is a big big part of their value system, and that drives them to endorse the cruelty and inhumanity of the fascists. "Black people scare me. My vote mustn't be compromised. The government should spend money on me when I'm hungry, not those poor people who live in downtown."

Protecting oneself is by itself admirable… The disconnect happens quite predictably: how dare I suggest people of color are currently awfully oppressed, etc.

@garbados So, thankfully in my case, far from being totally irreconcilable, my racist–fascists and I seem to simply assign different weights to different values, costs, and observations.

I bet even if they agreed with me that a study linking gun ownership to higher child death rates was impeccably executed and thoroughly reproduced, THEIR OWN LIVES were once saved (or more likely, might someday be saved) by owning a gun so that trumps any probabilistic social benefit.

Similarly welfare, etc…

re: ideological divides and rhetoric 

@22 it's hard for me anymore to understand the "different weight" theory of epistemic irreconcilability, because it still normalizes ambient atrocities. for example: prisons are good, one must work to survive, the "lazy" should starve, etc. one imagines that quibbling over the specifics of who lives and who dies amounts to an ideological divide, but both views affirm the reigning system. it is the pax between the fascist and the centrist, the stick and carrot at the heart of the capitalist nation-state.

i tend to attribute this to the just-world fallacy, in that individuals will develop a faith in the systems that bind them in order to feel like they have control -- that because they consented, and they would never consent to something evil, then the way of things must not be evil. yet they find themselves apologizing for starvation and enslavement, rationalizing their consent to the exclusion of any ethical principles.

re: ideological divides and rhetoric 

@22 i mean my father's father was blacklisted by the US state department on suspicion of being a gay communist during the mccarthy era, only for my father to emigrate back to the US and become an unflappable patriot, simultaneously abhorring the red scare that blacklisted his father while allowing its propaganda to cultivate in him an immovable faith in capitalism and the false notion that any alternative is totalitarian. to me, a gay communist, it makes no sense. how could you witness first-hand behind the mask of american propaganda only to allow that propaganda so deep into your mind?

@22 Waiting with bated breath for the punchline ...

@22 Sorry if this is a silly question but does evaluating the science behind something come under "critical thinking"?

@22 By the way, that paper is very interesting, thanks a lot!

@wim_v12e Took me an hour to track it down … hence the break in the rant. But I knew this paper changed my life. His blog posts are also very interesting and helpful:

Helpful in the sense of appreciating the intractability of the problem, not in suggesting any solutions. (In that way maybe it just encourages us to adopt a more Buddhist worldview that doesn't prize "fixing the world", as much as we'd otherwise want to…)

@22 @wim_v12e
great thread, thanks.

i'd like to think about this more. at first glance, though, it seems to me that this intractable problem is related to another one: the political crisis (high degree of impotence of the popular classes relative to centres of political, economic and media power).

if people don't feel they have meaningful control over the experts, why should they accept the knowledges produced as their own?

if that's right, then ’fix‘ => empowerment of popular organizations.

@wim_v12e I really don't have a clear sense of what "critical thinking" is except it's invoked as a critical missing ingredient by pundits like the original tweeter.

When I first heard a few years ago that a university was setting up a course on "critical thinking" to combat fake news, I was immediately suspicious because the conspiracy nuts I know aren't the least been uncritical. They subject each item on the crackpot buffet to intense research, and love to refine them.

@22 I suspect the term has become overloaded with a specific meaning. The Wiki page gives a definition that corresponds with my internal one, but I noticed that some people link it to critical theory.


I'm reviewing info about aflatoxins & wondering what the carcinogen example here means


To the broader point, perhaps amongst the most corrosive developments of the last 40 years has been the war on regulation, eating away at the idea that professional experts have any societal or at least fiduciary duty to those without expertise:

@deejoe oh, that's apparently one of the viral beliefs Mercola spreads, per the tweet thread in the original toot:

@22 @deejoe Aflatoxins are a well established carcinogen, but the idea that they'te sufficient to explain _all cancer_ is specious.
Amusingly, aflatoxins tend to be higher in organic food and very low in GE corn because fewer bug bites means less infection by aflatoxin-producing fungi.

@seachaint Wow, that's so interesting, in a delightfully twisted way!


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