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Snake Oil

Varieties of Nonsense

Here’s a bulletin that should surprise no one: there’s a lot of wrong information out there. And by “out there” I mean not only the scientific literature, of course, although there’s certainly plenty of that. But there’s a taxonomy of wrongness, and the biggest split comes between “honestly intended but mistaken” and “deliberately faked”. You can further subdivide those, too, of course. The first category splits into things like “mistaken, and it’s the same mistake anyone else would have made”, “mistaken, because they haven’t seen this latest stuff, and if they had they’d have realized”, “mistaken, because of outright incompetence” and the like, while the second divides out into various categories such as “faked, for a joke”, “faked, cynically for cash”, and “faked, out of sheer malevolent intent”. There are more.

This is on my mind this morning since several people have called my attention to a video clip that’s going around on various social media. I am not going to link to the damned thing, for reasons that will become apparent, but since it’s already had sixty godzillion views on Facebook and such, it wouldn’t matter that much if I did. This is the “How to tell if your food is fake” one, as some will have guessed. And the video itself is not just the usual wrongheaded crap that we all know and love, the stuff about how your ice cream is beaded with beaver secretions (I really enjoyed writing that phrase), how GMOs are altering your DNA on the fly, how all the fruits and vegetables you eat have been stripped of every possible nutrient by Big Agriculture or are roughly 20% glyphosate by weight – all that sort of thing. I think that (most of) the people who spread that junk actually believe it, God help them. (Your ice cream really isn’t full of beaver exudate, by the way: castoreum is too expensive).

But the video I’m talking about is different. It’s faked. Top to bottom, in every possible way, deliberately faked. For example, it includes a simple test you can do to see if your rice has been adulterated – wanna know how? You take some and sprinkle it in a frying pan and heat it up, you see, and the faked rice will have grains that melt, ’cause they’re made of plastic. Yeah. That’s the sort of thing I mean. Complete nonsense, and nonsense that had to take some time and effort to film, because believe me, you’re not going to get much melting when you stir any real-world rice around in a frying pan, although you can toast it a bit that way to give some more flavor to your pullao. And did you know, that you can see if you’ve bought the fake salt, because when you try to dissolve it in water it’ll turn cloudy just exactly like a glass of milk, because it’s full of chalk? Sure thing, dude. And so very much on. Every one of these “tests” is complete bull, and what’ll happen is that some poor sap will go see if their rice melts or their ice cream fizzes, and it won’t of course, and they’ll be relieved that their food isn’t that awful fake stuff that’s out there, and they’ll share it with all their friends so they can make sure, too.

Here’s a thread on Twitter that goes into some of these, and it notes that even Facebook, which is a cesspool of misinformation, has now flagged the video as perhaps factually inaccurate. This after between 50 and 100 million views. We can expect to see these claims echoing for months or even years, too, thanks to all the losers and tools who scrape content off of such things. To steal a line from Robert Heinlein, when the first spaceship leaves Earth orbit on its way to Alpha Centauri, there will still be people heating up their rice in a frying pan because they just heard that it might be half plastic.

A reasonable follow-up question is, why go to all the trouble of faking such crap? Well, here comes my general principle that most questions that can be phrased in the form of “I wonder how come they. . .” are answered with “money”. In this case, clicks. Lots and lots of clicks. It’s the same thing that drives all sorts of horrible YouTube channels and Instagram accounts and Facebook pages. Clicks are traffic are advertisements are money. And the platforms themselves, as has become depressingly apparent, do not give the ghost of a damn what makes people click, just so long as they’re parked in front of a screen for demonstrably lengthy periods of time so they can be served ads. It’s all content, right?

What’s coming up next is far from an original thought, but I had not really considered this sort of thing as a side effect of the spread of information via the Internet. I was an early and enthusiastic techno-optimist back in the late 1980s and early 1990s as connectivity began to spread into the general population – I well recall telling people that I’d set up something called an “e-mail account”, only to have them ask curiously what that was and why I thought I might want one. And I evangelized even the early internet, pre-web, Usenet and WAIS and Gopher and all the rest of it, and I recall using Telnet to log into the system at CERN where a guy named Tim Berners-Lee had set up a system of text-based hyperlinks that I’d heard about and wanted to experience. I really thought that making information available all over the world was a wonderful thing, and on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays I still do.

But what I hadn’t considered (and again, I’m far from alone in this) was the opportunity for misinformation to spread itself. Neither had I considered Gresham’s Law (“Bad money drives out the good”). The analogy is not exact, because Gresham was referring to the way that the more valuable circulating money would be taken out of circulation by people holding on to it themselves, but the information analogy is that the crappier information tends to get spread more because it’s more exciting and clicky and shareable. As opposed to the boring old truth. The saying that I should have been paying attention to, I suppose, is the one that’s attributed to Swift (and many others), to the effect that rumor is halfway around the world while truth is still lacing up its shoes. True that. People believe things for all sorts of reasons, and they trust (or distrust) sources for all kinds as well. But none of this is helped by having actual incentives to spread crap, since the crap turns out to be a better platform to goose the traffic numbers and serve ads.

The other problem, since I’m spouting unoriginal thoughts, is that there are a lot of people out there who have some combination of (1) wanting to believe odd information because it makes them feel smart, and (2) not actually being very smart. It’s a dangerous mixture. Like this woman in Houston, who is one of the new legion of flat-earth believers out there. Those lost souls are a similar crowd to the moon-landing-denialists, of which I’ve run into many over the years, starting in 1969 when I was seven years old and we’d just actually landed on the damned moon. The flat-earthers are even dumber than that, if anything, but there are scads of web sites and YouTube videos that skip through specious “proofs” that the Earth can’t be round, some of which date back hundreds of years and many of which are on a level (flat-earth joke there) with “because if it were all the kangaroos in Australia would fall off”. And people watch these, one after the other, because they’re like so fascinating, and there are just a couple of ads to get through before the next video loads, and. . .

Consider that poor person in that last link: she doesn’t believe in gravity, you see, because things drop or float just because they’re lighter or heavier than air, y’know, and she doesn’t even take the next little tiny step to wonder how we are able to say that things weigh different amounts or have different densities at all. Nope, she’s too busy believing in chemtrails and such, and being sure that there aren’t any other planets at all because all the so-called “outer space” pictures are faked. (That’s a real belief out there, and if I ever run into one of those people in person my poor wife is going to have to call for backup before I end up getting booked for assault. My sympathies in such matters are completely with Buzz Aldrin.) To paraphrase Chesterton, it’s not that these people believe in nothing, it’s that they’ll believe in anything. But if we’re talking about stupidity, turning this whole process into a business model was one of the stupidest things we ever did.


85 comments on “Varieties of Nonsense”

  1. AIC says:

    There’s a lot of videos like that. I like the one where they make crystals by taking a piece of coal, dipping it in peanut butter, covering it in foil and then freezing it overnight, which “creates enough pressure” to force the carbon in the coal to arrange into crystals. Or the one where they swirl water over honey and it makes a honeycomb-like shape and they explain that as “the genetic memory of honey”.

    1. myma says:

      I thought it was a pencil “lead” microwaved with a jolly rancher, and then grilled with a binder clip that produces diamonds.

      1. Dr. Manhattan says:

        I think you are getting it confused with the procedure for Cold Fusion. Or, maybe not.

        1. AChemist says:

          It obviously depends on the microwave power setting “Defrost for diamonds, full power for fusion”, you know its true because I used quotation marks.

          1. X says:

            The fools who manufactured the microwave had no idea of it’s many eeeevil settings.

        2. dave w says:

          Cold fusion is actually almost credible compared to this sort of nonsense.

          1. loupgarous says:

            Cold fusion falls into the “se non è vero, è ben trovato” bracket of nonsense – “plausible nonsense” of the sort allowable in science fiction if the story’s decent.

            Like Roddenberry’s “warp drive”, something made up to entertain a television audience, but which inspired actual physicists to investigate (only mathematically, so far) boundary conditions for an actual warp drive which allows FTL travel with no time dilatation or exponential increase in mass for the space traveller (the Alcubierre, Alcubierre-White and Alcubierre-Froning drives, for example)..

  2. How’d that get there says:

    We know the earth isn’t flat. If it was, cats would have pushed everything off the edge centuries ago.

    1. MTK says:


      I nicknamed my one cat Mr. Kinetic Energy. He absolutely loves converting potential energy into kinetic energy.

  3. The Iron Chemist says:

    If it weren’t for a relatively handful of people over the millenia, we’d all still be living in caves, eating raw meat, and living to 30 at most.

    1. Charles H. says:

      Sorry, pre-agricultural people (in a decent environment) often had relatively long lifetimes. 60 was not unusual, and not the extreme. Of course, they also had low population levels and lived in small groups. The problem is, if you had mobility problems, you often had to be left behind. And high infant mortality. And a few other things. The mode was probably around 6 months (depending on how you partition the ages), so the mean was rather low. But if you made it past 40 you were probably good until arthritis or a broken leg or some such caught up with you. That “30” figure is more like iron-age peasants.

      1. pikolinian says:

        IMHO That 30 (or 40) years are valid including infants mortility. So for Newborn expected lifetime was 30, but if he turn 20 expected lifetime was… 30 more years. Exact numbers are rough estimations, of course

    2. AlloG says:

      And you know dat hunter-gatherers lived better than modern day man does now. Its accepted that we all suck as a speeshes and that modern living is more stressful than tracking down giant sloths and bashing their heads in with clubs and eating them.

      I Mean- Just at look at all the stress this blog causes- No caveman had to respond to such stumilus!

  4. Me says:

    The latest science actually states that the earth is dinosaur-shaped. My daughter told me. And i’m a scientist. And this is a science blog.

    So it’s true. Just ask the Dinosaur Earth Society.

    1. John Wayne says:

      My son told me this morning that all dinosaurs are boys. We should get our kids together and start a successful Instagram account.

      1. Me says:

        Yes and cats are girls

      2. Jaybee says:

        Your son is gravely misinformed, and you need to sit down and teach him some hard facts.

        All dinosaurs are girls, as exposed in Spielberg and Crichton’s famous documentary.

  5. bks says:

    Then there are the TV advertisements for prescription drugs aimed at consumers …

  6. johnnyboy says:

    But you left out the most important info: where can I find this delicious beaver exudate ?

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      Down by the nearest beaver dam, naturally. Some assembly required.

      1. BZilla says:


        1. Paul B says:

          There are beaver dams on the Amazon?!?

          1. sgcox says:

            Googled up “beaver dams on Amazon river “. Nope, still the the best in Alberta, Canada.

          2. Daniel Jones says:

            Non sequitur, thirty love.

  7. James Blish says:

    Another Robert Heinlein idea:
    A state that required a bare minimum of intelligence and education – e.g., step into the polling booth and find that the computer has generated a new quadratic equation just for you. Solve it, the computer unlocks the voting machine, you vote. But get a wrong answer and the voting machine fails to unlock, a loud bell sounds, a red light goes on over the booth – and you slink out, face red, you having just proved yourself too stupid and/or ignorant to take part in the decisions of grownups.

    Sort of an upgraded Captcha. Think of the possibilities….

    1. Kent G. Budge says:

      It’s unsurprising a technical audience would consider being able to solve a quadratic equation a suitable entry barrier for the franchise.

      How about Heinlein’s (perhaps not entirely serious) suggestion that you first demonstrate your civic virtue by putting your life on the line to benefit your community?

      Or how about requiring that you be able to name your incumbent Senators and Representative and their political party affiliations?

      Or how about requiring that you be able to name Lincoln’s opponents in the election of 1860 and briefly summarize their platforms?

      Frankly, if you can solve a quadratic equation but can’t name your incumbents, you’re no more fit to vote than the fellow who can name his incumbents but can’t solve a quadratic equation. And perhaps none of us is fit to vote if we won’t engage in some evolutionary altruism.

      1. Anonymous says:

        Somewhere in between is the view that democracy needs an educated electorate. “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” ― Franklin D. Roosevelt (a real quote, assuming that the goodreads link in my handle doesn’t have fake quotes).

        I do not think that you need to know the members of Lincoln’s cabinet to vote wisely today, but you do need to know some history as well as current events. I do not think that you need to know how to find the roots of a quadratic equation to vote wisely today, but you do need to know how to read a graph or chart from a news report, a blog, a tweet, or a government agency that is intended to influence your voting choices.

        Regrettably, “literacy” (the ability to read and write, implying the ability to use and process the written language) is of diminished importance today. Are there new words to describe “audio” and “video” literacy? (Can people answer simple questions after listening to an audio essay or watching a video speech?)

        To satisfy Kent’s desire for more altruism, I hereby selflessly volunteer to administer a certified (albeit self-certified) reliable voter eligibility exam and to do so for nothing more than a small (i.e., large) processing fee submitted with each application. (Extra fees for “expedited processing,” “priority processing,” and “special processing.” Inquire for bulk voter exam processing. Inquire for franchise (double meaning intended) licenses.)

      2. X says:

        You raise good points, but the result of your philosophy seems to be that we have a federal executive administration that did its best to staff itself with the worst possible personnel a couple years ago, and is now working against the vast majority of the population that empowers it – and, mind you, the losing party in that election spent years trying to convince us all that Russnz Dunit (and probably wouldn’t have done much better in the current administration’s place). Similar critiques could be leveled at the rest of our government; it’s not just the executive.

        It’s not hard to see that we need a better group of deciders, even if it’s hard to decide what that group should be.

    2. SirWired says:

      That particular idea has already been done. It didn’t end well, as it was used as a way to essentially bar blacks from voting. (Led directly to the Voting Rights Act.)

      Laws to arbitrarily limit the voting franchise to the “worthy” generally have the exact results you’d expect if implemented by the most malicious bastards you can imagine.

      1. chemist says:

        Democrats already engage in voter disenfranchisement on a massive scale by encouraging illegal aliens to vote, and other dubious measures like “ballet harvesting” in CA with no chain of custody. That means my vote gets cancelled out by ineligible or fraudulent votes.

    3. loupgarous says:

      In the edition of Heinlein’s Expanded Universe I read, back in the 1970s, the penalty for failing to solve the quadratic equation in the voting booth was death. Which I still think’s a little harsh. Heinlein’s test for citizenship (public service, military or other thankless jobs) in Starship Troopers was better, because it wasn’t a short test, but a long and meaningful one.

      If we’re going to make knowledge tests a requirement for the franchise on Election Day, let’s make it knowledge essential to good citizenship – a short (five question) quiz on Civics, uncontroversial questions like “can the Government tell you to go to church (or not to)”? (I realize there are people who find that a controversial question, and my point stands.)

      There are competent mathematicians I have met, some of whom teach in universities, whom I wouldn’t trust to vote – to be able to decide which policies are workable, and to choose who among a slate of candidates is most likely to implement them.

      Heinlein could tell a story, but his grasp of politics was uneven.

      1. metaphysician says:

        I would argue that Heinlein’s understanding of politics was no more uneven than anyone else’s. He just was interested in examining a different set of theoretical political ideas than a lot of his contemporaries. In particular, critics harp on Starship Troopers as some kind of proof that Heinlein is a crypto-fascist despite:

        1. The book not being a political tract in the first place, but an adventure story that used a future society as framing ( just like *tons* of other novels of its era )

        2. The story itself having the political science teacher / exposition narrator openly admitting that they have no idea whether their society will work long term, they only know that it hasn’t failed yet

        Which is to say, I feel like a lot of the criticism for Heinlein’s sci-fi politics arises specifically from the fact that he wasn’t, by and large, describing *left wing* visions of a future society.

        1. loupgarous says:

          You’re preaching to the choir. Being able to perform algebra was convenient shorthand for Heinlein to define having a fund of practical knowledge that in his day most high school graduates should have possessed. So I was doubtless unfair to Heinlein in that respect.

          And I agree about Heinlein’s current critics. The real hypocrisy is how they fixate on the sex in Heinlein’s novels while not denouncing fellow New Wave authors such as Robert Silverberg, Norman Spinrad and John Brunner, whose novels written at the same time as Heinlein’s efforts after his break with Scribner (say, Glory Road, Stranger in a Strange Land and Time Enough for Love to cite good examples and I Will Fear No Evil as a tiresome read) were much more sexually explicit and even misogynistic by modern standards.

          By leading with that criticism, Heinlein’s critics get the attention of a certain number of their readers (who are “woke”) so they can say “and his libertarianism is bad (insert the usual denunciations leftists have for libertarians here)….” The libertarianism, as you say, is what they showed up to denounce in the first place, they prefer statism.

          Heinlein’s a better story-teller than many modern science-fiction authors. His style isn’t mine, but he’s earned the loyalty of millions of readers. That is not the consensus of modern critics or magazine editors, that I can tell. But Heinlein bears re-reading, some of his work bears many re-readings. Not everyone writing these days does.

  8. Kent G. Budge says:

    If it’s about clicks generating advertising revenues, then your explanation is incomplete. Ads predated the Internet, and, while there was certainly plenty of nonsense being published back then, I think there’s a general sense there was less of it, or at least it was easier to spot.

    It’s about the removal of entry barriers.

    Publishing a book used to be a fairly expensive process, therefore risky. If the book bombed, the publisher lost some serious money. Even cranks writing letters to the editor faced a more significant entry barrier than trolls posting at blogs.

    Those barriers are gone, which in many ways is a blessing, at least on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. But it also means there is much less financial risk in pushing nonsense.

  9. SirWired says:

    And, of course, this stuff leads to actual people getting harmed… One YouTuber I (used to) follow posted years of videos about the exciting topic of welding (he’s a welder by trade), mixed in with his ham-handed efforts as a DIY tractor mechanic, and as an incompetent hay farmer completely losing his proverbial shirt. He had the persona of lovable hillbilly.

    Then, one day last month, out of complete [expletive] nowhere, he goes full, 100%, honest-to-goodness Neo-Nazi on his channel. I mean we are talking Holocaust Denialism, MLK conspiracy theories, the mass-murderer in New Zealand Was Right, etc., the Whole Works.

    As a result, he’s *completely* nuked one of his primary income sources (he had about 0.5M subscribers, and a passel of sponsorships); he’s a decent welder, but a crappy farmer… I’d be surprised if he made it more than a couple of years without losing his land. (Something he will almost certainly blame on the Great Conspiracy.)

    I can only imagine YouTube (and other platforms… Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) provide a rich way to quickly get sucked into the rabbit hole, and go from mild-mannered normal person to full-blown raving lunatic without even being aware of what’s happening.

    It’s a problem with no good solution. It’s a truism that any given content will offend somebody, and be the God’s Honest Truth to somebody else. And even if the platforms *wanted* to be the Arbiter of Truth, they’d inevitably piss people off by screwing it up, and suffer from a complete and total lack of scale.

    I’m going to be mighty disappointed if the Internet turns from a way to make the world smaller into the most efficient possible platform for getting angry at your fellow man.

    As a side-note, Neal Stephenson *just* released a novel about this *exact* problem. (The premise: Rich people can afford automated filters that remove the crap from their sight; poor people are subject to garbage designed specifically by AI’s to suck them into constant consumption by producing scientifically-designed clickbait.)

    1. zero says:

      That’s odd… my YouTube consumption has taught me about blacksmithing, a skill I’ll likely never use, and singing, a skill I’ll never possess to any reasonable degree. I’ve learned how to replace a phone screen that way. No sign of spontaneous Nazi ideation so far, and please someone shoot me if it does turn up.

      Racist bastards are welcome to their freedom of speech, but nowhere are they guaranteed a platform or an audience. The fact that seemingly rational people are secretly supremacists or neonazis is not strictly a social media problem.

      1. X says:

        Just so – I’m always astounded that the same liberals who are utterly incompetent at transmitting the vestiges of actual left-wing ideology they still dimly grasp nevertheless believe that the Right has incredibly potent, brain-melting memes that can turn anyone into a Nazi – and that’s why, for the good of all mankind (wymynkind?) we absolutely need to let said liberals decide what is allowed to be said and what isn’t before America finds its way to killing more brown people inside its borders than outside.

    2. JimM says:

      He was a welder?

      Manganese and acute paranoid psychosis: a case report.

      We describe the case of a 49-year-old Caucasian man working as a welder who was referred to our facility for evaluation of acute paranoid psychotic behavior. Our patient’s medical history made no mention of any somatic complaints or psychiatric symptoms, and he had been involved in a professional career as a metalworker. On magnetic resonance imaging scanning of his brain, a bilateral hyperdensity of the globus pallidus, suggestive for manganese intoxication, was found. His manganese serum level was 52 to 97 nmol/L (range: 7 to 20 nmol/L). A diagnosis of organic psychotic disorder due to manganese overexposure was made. His psychotic symptoms disappeared within two weeks of treatment with low-dose risperidone. At three months later, serum manganese was decreased to slightly elevated levels and the magnetic resonance imaging T1 signal intensity was reduced. No signs of Parkinsonism were found and a definite diagnosis of manganese-induced apathy syndrome was made.

  10. lyonite says:

    I thought I had heard them all, but then my husband’s aunt (who is especially inclined to believe this sort of thing) seems to have fallen for some sort of health guru whose whole thing is based on the idea that the heart doesn’t actually pump blood. It’s kind of amazing really, like someone made a bet about what was the most easily disproved idea about biology they could get people to fall for, and they won.

    1. SirWired says:

      Did You Know that table salt is actually adulterated with Sand and Glass? And this is the *real* reason salt is bad for you? (It physically slices up your blood vessels, causing damage.)

      Of course, if you buy some Very Special Salt, it won’t have that problem!

      Never mind that table salt is so cheap, the container it’s packed in costs more than the salt does. And that your teeth would notice the grit, as would your eyes the second you boil some salty water for a pot of pasta.

      P.S. After the same article (posted on NaturalNews; always a good place for a laugh) talked about the “harmful artificial iodine” in table salt, down at the bottom of the page to buy their stuff instead: “This salt does not contain Iodine, a necessary nutrient.” You can’t make this stuff up.

      1. John Wayne says:

        I’ve gotten this one a couple times. My reply is that sand and glass cost more than salt, so nobody would do this on purpose.

      2. Alia says:

        Actually, table salt can be adulterated, only not with sand or glass. There was a case in Poland of table salt adulterated with industrial salt. Of course, it was not sold in shops to consumers but wholesale to food-processing companies.

  11. Uncle Al says:
    … “Flat Earth” By scientific measurement, the Earth is largely inside-out.

    This is why Hell is located at the Rayburn House Office Bldg, Washington, DC 20515W

    1. Mike Turner says:

      No, actually it’s in Norway:

      1. Marie says:

        Hell is in Michigan, between Lansing and Ann Arbor.

  12. Z says:

    It’s really hard to get a lot of follows, go viral, and become famous with rational posts about well-established truths. It’s much easier to just make up outlandish rubbish.

  13. tt says:

    I’m hoping that either I’m living in a simulation, or perhaps a really stupid offshoot of the multiverse, in which case I desperately need a Rick and Morty Portal Gun. On the bright side, every time I see someone in my social network “like” one of these types of posts, I get to shrink my network further, and perhaps save on sending out a birthday card (sorry sis).

    1. tt says:

      Also…for the love of all that is sane and rationale, delete your facebook account. It’s the easiest, most patriotic thing you can do. There are other ways to stay in contact with people and share baby pictures.

  14. surprise-eliminate-disappear says:

    Everyone knows Kubrick filmed the moon landing, not long after CIA whacked JFK for screwing up Bay of Pigs

    1. Zemyla says:

      But he’s such a perfectionist that he forced them to film on location.

  15. Miles says:

    Beaver bum….thank you for that thought!

  16. Emjeff says:

    I recall thinking that the coming of the digital age would mean that no one could lie anymore, because it would be so easy to do research and find out the truth. What a naive fool I was…

  17. anon the II says:

    I think you’re taking some of this too seriously. I’m reminded of the “Man Will Never Fly Memorial Society” (

    They meet annually, sometime in December, near Kill Devil Hill.

    Their motto, “Birds Fly, Men Drink”

  18. Nightman says:

    This reminds me of the Always Sunny episode where Mac convinces the gang that the theory of evolution is wrong because Dennis has not himself investigated the fossil records. His argument is that if you yoursefl don’t look at the evidence for a scientific theory, then the words “of the saints who wrote the bible,” should be as good as the word of scientists who argue for evolution. I imagine flat earthers acting just like the gang in that episode. Always sunny is just brilliant sometimes.

  19. Christophe Verlinde says:

    That millions believe in complete nonsense can only mean one thing: that the educational system has failed millions. They have never learned to reason. According to Baruch Spinoza only he/she who is solely led by reason is free. Hence, these millions are not free. They are slaves of their ignorance.

    1. JIA says:

      Sadly, I am much more pessimistic than this: I don’t think the educational system has failed. Rather I don’t think it ever had a chance at succeeding in the first place, in turning the majority of students into analytical thinkers able to evaluate the quality of a piece of information. As a species, our brains are prone to being hijacked by emotion; favor short term outcomes over long term; actively prefer superstition, rumors, and “clickbait” over facts; and believing whatever “facts” best support our tribal affiliation. My view is closer to what Waveform wrote below. It’s a very very depressing world view as it gives almost no hope for solving problems like population growth, climate change, etc. Education cannot fix this, it’s about the hard wiring in our brain.

      As evidence: the hundreds of people with whom I grew up with and went to school K-12 in a VERY excellent school district. We all had the same education. We do not all have the same approach to conspiracy theories, chemical “woo”, Facebook content, clickbait videos, etc.


  20. Wavefunction says:

    “But what I hadn’t considered (and again, I’m far from alone in this) was the opportunity for misinformation to spread itself.”

    “A lie makes its way around the world while the truth is still tying its shoes.” – Churchill

    We will be stuck with this problem as long as there are people on this planet. Personally there’s only a fraction of human beings endowed with the deep introspection, analytical capability and – most importantly – patience to separate truth from lies at the most sophisticated levels of deception made possible by fake videos and their likes, but the current system of social media, media in general and public discourse is set up to actively disfavor these individuals (who are already in a minority), so no, I am not optimistic about the future. Our best bet unfortunately might be to have these individuals cloistering themselves in the kinds of enclaves described in Neal Stephenson’s “Anathem”.

  21. Anon says:

    The video is obviously nuts, but adulteration is a very real worldwide problem, both in foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals (just saying). Remember the Heparin issue and Melamine in dog food? That paranoia resonates in less regulated, more “libertarian” parts of the world. We need to recognize that.

    1. JIA says:

      Great point. As a parent, I was deeply shaken by stories of Chinese babies who starved to death on melamine-adulterated “formula”. Horrifying. If I lived in a country with a regulatory regime that permitted such a thing to happen, I too would be deeply skeptical of the food system and inclined to test my foods before feeding my family.

    2. Derek Lowe says:

      Point taken – but one of the things that I found striking in this case was the willingness of people to believe that their foodstuffs are adulterated with things that are in some cases *more expensive* than the food itself. Well, that and the willingness of the folks who made the video to do such a thing in the first place.

      1. Mike Turner says:

        And there was an actual case of rice being adulterated with polystyrene beads to make it go further – I think that was in China as well. Chalk in table salt sounds unlikely, though some does contain magnesium carbonate to aid flow in processing and in table dispensers. You will find it on the labels, and can choose a different brand if you prefer.

      2. Nightman says:

        At what point does it stop being cost effective to remove the more expensive contaminant if it is initially present? I’m not saying that I believe I have plastic in my rice or chalk in my salt or whatever, but I’m not sure the contaminants being more expensive means they are less likely to be in the product. The line of reasoning that a manufacturer wouldn’t intentionally add a more expensive adulterant is okay, but that only looks at one possible scenario for how the contaminant was present in the final product.

  22. GenJackRipper says:

    Adulteration of foodstuffs is common, more common than the Average American knows and if its one thing I know about, its Communism, how it spreads, and how the Average American is being sapped of his/their precious bodily fluids.

    And it all started with fluoridated water.

    1. Smedley says:

      And yet we live longer healthier lives today than humans have for the last 99% of our existence on the face of the planet
      Go figure, so much for empirical evidence

  23. Rubidium says:

    Well Carl Sagan warned us (read The Demon Haunted World).

  24. Billy says:

    Unfortunately, the world is full of stupid people with dumb ideas who refuse to rely on science as explanation. Just a few weeks ago I was watching a popular Sunday morning political show on abc where the former governor of new jersey, chris christie proclaimed “science just makes things more complicated.” My thought was, “maybe to you.”

    1. I_know_im_right says:

      “full of stupid people with dumb ideas who refuse to rely on science as explanation”

      Sounds like most of the people I’ve worked in lab with!

  25. Anonymous says:

    Well, all these new modes of communication are here and we have to learn to deal with them, good and bad. Interesting book by Niall Ferguson in which he compares the current technology to the advent of the printing press, “The Square and The Tower”.

  26. sensationalist_ad_man says:

    sure…. but it’s very effective at generating ad revenues

  27. Stephen says:

    While we can laugh at flat earthers, half of america (possibly the world?) believe that the world was created 6000 years ago and that angels and demons exist, and that prayer will help aunt Lucy’s cancer, and that politicians are there to help them. Ignorance is very wide indeed.

  28. Paul B. says:

    Any of you ever play a certain game with your parents when you were little kids? Like, you were always playing it, because your parents chose when and where the game began. They’d start telling you something, and it would seem unusual, but you believed it anyway, because they were your parents. And they’d notice you seemed to believe it, so they’d go further and tell you something a little more unusual, and if you believed that, they’d go even further, and so on. They wanted to see how outrageous a thing they could get you to believe before you caught on and gave them the look, and you’d all have a laugh.

    My parents would play that on me (well, my dad mostly), but I get the feeling lots of parents do that.

    I miss that game. Seems… valuable.

  29. Dominic Ryan says:

    Looks like Derek just got a larger than normal comment section by posting about rubbish. Think of it as the science blog version of flat earth :-).

  30. srp says:

    I don’t think that the age of pamphleteering had a much higher signal-to-noise ratio, and the level of conspiracy-mongering was high. Moreover, many of the nuttiest belief systems are not the province of ignorant “regular” folks but are held by establishment leaders who can actually screw us up by acting on them–check out belief in the imminent running out of everything back in the 1970s coming from top academic centers and endorsed by the Carter administration (Global 2000 report). And as for conspiracies…I recommend a read of Jesse Walker’s comprehensive United States of Paranoia for examples throughout history, many endorsed by the great and the good.

  31. Peter S. Shenkin says:

    Fortunately or perhaps unfortunately, I missed the subject video. But from the description, might it have been intended as a parody?

    I can easily imagine someone making this video just to giggle over the number of people who actually believe it.

    But whether or not it’s a parody, where would a parody fit into Derek’s taxonomy of fakes?

    1. parot tee says:

      That was my thought, too. I do believe we all need to tell people to invert their cellphones so that the dangerous radio waves project down and away rather than directly into their brains. (then we ask people to use their cellphones to determine if they can vote)

  32. X says:

    “The saying that I should have been paying attention to, I suppose, is the one that’s attributed to Swift (and many others), to the effect that rumor is halfway around the world while truth is still lacing up its shoes.”

    Indeed, and it may be noteworthy that this saying started to appear approximately at the same time as newspapers and mass-market commercial publishing – that is, the first internet.

    “To paraphrase Chesterton, it’s not that these people believe in nothing, it’s that they’ll believe in anything.”

    If only people actually would believe in anything. We could trick them into knowing actual science. But no, they seem to have a sixth sense for bullshit, and embrace that, while avoiding the good stuff like it was covered in bright red markings.

    “But if we’re talking about stupidity, turning this whole process into a business model was one of the stupidest things we ever did.”

    But that’s capitalism for you. Getting rich any way you can (as long as it’s not so obviously harmful or abusive that we’ve actually passed a law against it) is its own virtue, didn’t you know?

  33. Mark says:

    I’m going to have to go and find this video now, because (1) it sounds like it was someone doing a clever parody, something to make us think, rather than just a fake to attract clicks, and (2) actually it’s all the wrong way round: Derek’s actually got something wrong in his description (a very rare event): when he writes “Every one of these “tests” is complete bull”, that’s not actually true: the tested-material has been faked, but the tests, at least the ones he describes, would work. If someone adulterated your rice with plastic, it might well melt in a frying pan. Salt adulterated with chalk wouldn’t dissolve properly in water and would indeed look milky. The fake is that no one is adulterating rice with plastic or salt with chalk. So if anyone actually thought “Whooo, my rice is fake? I’m going to check this out!” they would, if they took the trouble to carry out the test, end up with a load of burnt rice grains and some real evidence that you shouldn’t believe every claim of fakeness that you read… and that wouldn’t be a bad thing for an average YouTuber to learn.

  34. Lambchops says:

    I’ve been enjoying the article that has recently resurfaced where the late, great Terry Pratchett predicted the rise of misinformation on the internet in an interview with Bill Gates, who wasn’t convinced. To be fair to Gates he did predict the advent of streaming services in the same interview. You win some …

  35. Young Padawan says:

    To all the chemists out there, I recommend this 70s style education bogus video on the “chemistry” of calcium:
    My personal favorite is the queen atom mentioned at 6:44…

  36. BBC Reported it too says:

    There apparently was a case reported by BBC on the plastic fake rice smuggled into Nigeria a few years ago:

  37. david says:

    And do you know who is paying the tariffs imposed on China? The Chinese government of course. Just ask any senior administration official.

  38. Daniel Jones says:

    I feel your pain, Derek, but in truth, the ratio of crap to facts is just now hitting the legal ratio.

    It’s just a crying shame the law I’m citing is Sturgeon’s Law.

    Theodore Sturgeon, after defending science fiction from people picking the steaming mass of crud as representative of the whole for over twenty years, adapted Rudyard Kipling’s comment that four-fifths of all work is awful but the rest is worth the trouble, had his Revelation that 90% of science fiction was crud, crap, garbage, just like all other art forms.

    This underwent some memetic evolution to Sturgeon’s Law which consensually states, “90% of science fiction, of everything, is crap.”

    And to all of this hogwash in the media? As Heinlein was cited on his supposed fascism just because his future societies weren’t Leftist utopias, I will quote Robert as mouthpieced through his character Lazarus Long: “Certainly, the game is rigged. But if you don’t play, you can’t win.”

  39. Rich Rostrom says:

    OTOH: if there were no people ready to believe and investigate and act on obviously nonsensical ideas… We’d still be living in caves and eating raw meat.

    That is, nearly all useful innovations initially looked like nonsense. They were tried out by fools, most of whom died. The lucky ones found something useful, and eventually the “sensible” majority agreed.

    Heck, as Derek himself regularly notes, nearly all hypotheses and proposed drugs in pharma are wrong or fail.

    On a related issue: Slate Star Codex has a long post up on the danger of reason. The point is that “rational” assessment of cultural practices can easily show that some tradition is wasteful and destructive – but overlook the deep motive for the practice, leading to disaster when it is dropped.

    Case in point: Mesoamerican cultures grew corn, then boiled it with limestone pebbles or broken seashells before using it as food. European settlers adopted corn as a productive crop, and even imported it to Europe, Africa, and Asia. But they didn’t bother with the boil-with-rocks. It turns out that process releases niacin in the kernel; living on corn not so processed leads to pellagra.

  40. loupgarous says:

    “Your ice cream really isn’t full of beaver exudate, by the way: castoreum is too expensive”

    It depends on what value you assign to “full of”. An article in the International Journal of Toxicology, “Safety Assessment of Castoreum Extract as a Food Ingredient” says that castoreum’s used to enhance the savor of foods, especially those using vanilla. One more thing for General Jack D. Ripper to ruminate over… “Ice cream, Mandrake? children’s ice cream?”

  41. loupgarous says:

    “The other problem, since I’m spouting unoriginal thoughts, is that there are a lot of people out there who have some combination of (1) wanting to believe odd information because it makes them feel smart, and (2) not actually being very smart. It’s a dangerous mixture. Like this woman in Houston, who is one of the new legion of flat-earth believers out there… ”

    I got drawn into a fruitless attempt to introduce a true flat earth believer on Twitter to all the reasons why the Earth is prima facie round. I may as well have tried that with my cat. Flat-earthers have heard it all from hucksters like us who just don’t get why they’re right.
    One of Rudyard Kipling’s funniest stories which begs for a movie adaptation is “The Village That Voted The Earth Was Flat” which featured a rally by fake real-Earthers which is crashed by true believers in that faith. The story’s humor is mostly the lampooning of the intersection of journalism and politics (nothing really has changed since Kipling was alive).

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