MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

It’s been often said that we live in the age of information.  Everyone can get tons of it at the click of a button. This is undoubtedly true. Sadly, it also means that we are exposed to tons of misinformation, and sometimes it seems to me that we now live in THE AGE OF MISINFORMATION.

Here I will explain the consequences of this phenomenon on two examples that, at first glance, seem to have nothing in common at all (other than being close to my heart):

  • Homeopathy
  • Brexit

With homeopathy, the public are confronted by a steady flood of misinformation from the powerful homeopathy lobby who tell us quite incredible untruths about it:

  • Homeopathy is effective
  • Homeopathy is harmless
  • Homeopathy is natural
  • Homeopathy is holistic
  • Homeopathy is supported by many of the brightest people
  • Homeopathy is an important contribution to public health
  • Homeopathy prevents epidemics
  • Homeopathy works through quantum effects
  • Homeopathy is nano-medicine
  • Homeopathy is energy medicine
  • Homeopathy works for infants
  • Homeopathy works in animals
  • Homeopathy works for plants
  • Homeopathy is the victim of a propaganda campaign against it

Those who put out this multi-level misinformation pretend that they inform the public. Of course, the public must be informed – how else could they possibly make informed choices? (If this important aim requires a bit of cheating here and there, so be it!)

And the public reacts as directed: they buy homeopathic preparations in droves. The result is that the promoters of homeopathy can claim that THE PUBLIC IS VOTING WITH THEIR FEET! The people have decided, they say, homeopathy is a good thing!

_______________________________________________________________

With Brexit, the public is confronted by a steady flood of misinformation from the powerful Brexit lobby who tell us quite incredible untruths about it:

  • Brexit is going to give us our country back
  • Brexit is good for the economy
  • Brexit will mean more money for the NHS
  • Brexit will be easy
  • Brexit will allow us to trade with the rest of the world
  • Brexit will keep foreigners out
  • Brexit is going to create jobs
  • Brexit is good for our industry
  • Brexit is good for farmers
  • Brexit is good for the environment
  • Brexit will free us from the shackles of the EU
  • Brexit will strengthen our alliance with the US

Those who put out this multi-level misinformation pretend that they inform the public. Of course, the public must be informed – how else could they possibly make informed choices? (If this important aim requires a bit of cheating here and there, so be it!)

And the public reacts as directed: they buy into the lies of the Brexiteers in droves. The result is that the promoters of Brexit can claim that THE PUBLIC HAS VOTED WITH THEIR FEET! The people have decided, they say, Brexit is a good thing!

_____________________________________________________________

Yes, I know, this is a bit simplistic. But the point I am trying to make is surely valid: misinformation not only leads to wrong and often dangerous decision, it is also the way charlatans try to fool us with their circular arguments and justify their blatant lies.

12 Responses to The age of misinformation: a rant about Brexit and homeopathy

  • I always call the ‘age of information’ the ‘age of confusion’. I guess ‘confusion’ is the result of a continuous stream of ‘misinformation’. Unfortunately, like you say in this post, this misinformation and the resulting confusion (and harm) is not limited to healthcare but is pretty much present in all walks of life. The Dunning-Kruger effect, and people’s inability to admit being wrong, is probably why most people can’t snap out of it.

  • There have been ages of misinformation before: stone age druids manipulating their tribesmen… 16th century clerics circulating leaflets to fuel the European witchcraze… nationalists using synchronized mass media for their wicked purposes. Each of these atrocities came to an end when people gained more knowledge and skills. Now its the internet which is new and therefore not well-mastered by most users. Especially we older ones still have to develop internet literacy, which would enable us to tell true and false information apart. But as my children – digital natives – demonstrate, it’s possible and hopefully not too far away.

    • SURE!
      but the problem is not just the internet; it is misinformation per se.
      in the case of homeopathy, we get misinformation when we walk past many German pharmacies.
      In the case of Brexit, the charlatans even printed it on the side of a bus!!!

    • But it is the ‘older ones’ who are supposed to quite easily tell true and false info apart. They might struggle a bit getting to the info and disseminate it with these new technologies, whereas the young bunch can very quickly find and disseminate info but can’t yet distinguish between good and bad info – maybe a reason why ‘fake news’ can spread so rapidly, and why seemingly more and more people fall for quackery? Target the young ones!!

  • The ‘powerful homeopathic lobby’! Wow.

  • Recently I’ve learned that most of the antivax tweets are forged by Russian trollbots – see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-45294192 . Which means our antivaccination ‘movement’ is nothing more than people fooled by professional desinformation, weaponized in the revitalized east-west conflict. This won’t work forever. “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” (A. Lincoln)

    • Peter, you do realise, don’t you, that this is “fake news” designed to make you ~think~ that the antivaccination ‘movement’ is nothing more than people fooled by professional disinformation, weaponized in the revitalized east-west conflict, can safely be blamed on those darn Russkies (are we in the Cold War again? – takes me back to my youth) – and genuine concerns about vaccines can therefore be discounted? Again. Nothing to see here, folks, move along.

      Very clever, these propagandists. Smoke and mirrors.

      • Will, we certainly agree in one point: no government should be allowed to deceive the public. And you’re right: nowadays there *are* some big crooks around. We’ll need sophisticated methods to drive them off! Scientific tools can help us to recognize fraudulent internet activities. The paper by David A. Broniatowski and coworkers provides information how they spotted and identified disguised Russian spambots. Might be an interesting read even if you don‘t believe their conclusions. (here’s the direct link: https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304567)

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