Probability, black swan events and conspiratorial thinking

Black swan events are highly improbable events that have great, negative impact. Conspiracy theories are coping mechanisms for black swan events: They try to explain them. However, conspiracy theories are epistemologically defective because they mistake the very low probability of black swan events as impossibility, and thus, a conspiracy as the only possible explanation.

Read Marko Kovic’s article Probability, black swan events and conspiratorial thinking on Skeptiker.

British study to ‘immunise’ against fake news

Scientists from the University of Cambridge, led by Dutch social psychologist Dr Sander van der Linden, are developing a method to ‘vaccinate’ news readers against misinformation.

Their research, using climate change denial as an example, shows that it works well to briefly mention that there is criticism against the consensus on the subject, but provide an easy-to-refute example of this. When someone will later come across similar criticism in a fake news story, they will be prone to reject it. However, if conspiracy theories are given too much attention, and treated with a more detailed debunk, this has an adverse effect on the readers, who will more likely believe the next hoax article that they are presented with.

The key is finding the right dosage that helps people protect themselves against nonsense.

More information in English – Meer informatie in het Nederlands

New Wikipedia biography about Dutch skeptic

Pepijn van Erp at the 2014 Skepsis Congres. (Vera de Kok CC-BY-SA 4.0)

In recent years, mathematician Pepijn van Erp has risen to prominence within the skeptical movement in the Netherlands. He started blogging about flawed application of statistics in both scientific and pseudoscientific articles, and got involved with Stichting Skepsis as a board member in 2012.

Nowadays he regularly writes articles on various dubious claims in an investigative journalistic style on skeptical blog KloptDatWel.nl (mostly in Dutch) and his own website (mostly in English). Van Erp is occasionally invited to give his expert opinion on radio shows about conspiracy theories, fake news and other topics that skeptics are concerned about. To him, skepticism is ‘interesting and funny’, but also a ‘civic duty’ to protect people from harm.

The team of Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia has written two new biographies about Van Erp, one in English and one in Dutch, to explain to the general public what his activism is about.

Why fact-checking news reports is important

Viralgranskaren (‘The Viral Monitor’) is a standing column of the Swedish branch of the international freesheet newspaper Metro (that is also originally from Sweden). They specialise in finding out whether viral videos and stories are actually true, and encourage people to fact-check before sharing something on social media.

On 18 November 2016, they created both a Swedish and an English version of a video explaining why fact-checking news reports is important.

The example they give is of a story that went viral in late October 2016. It was based on a real news article from Sveriges Television (SVT). However, xenophobic conspiracy right-wing websites, blogs, shock-logs etc., especially outside Sweden (e.g. Infowars), seized upon the article – that didn’t even mention Islam, Muslims or refugees – to claim that decorative Christmas lights were ‘banned to avoid offending Muslim migrants’. (more…)

If you trust Facebook more than Wikipedia…

Freemasonry symbol.

A conversation between German pupils (translated by Leon Korteweg).

Apparently, René has a school assignment to write about freemasonry, but he is a bit lazy, so he asks his Facebook friends.

René: “Can anyone say something about the Freemasons? What they are what they do etc”
Christine: “How about checking Wikipedia?”
René: “Thanks Mrs Clever but [the teacher] said we couldn’t copy from Wikipedia.”
Jan: “Then read it through and summarise it.”
René: “Nah too much text, I already got bored at the first sentence.”
Jan: “Ok then I won’t be like that for once. Freemasons are former East Germans that we’ve got the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall to thank for. Namely, they tore down the Wall with hammer and sickle. Hence the name Freemasons [Freimaurer, lit. ‘Free-Wallers’]. Today, they are a kind of secret society. In the winter, they live in the mountains and dig for Christmas bread, in the summer they bend bananas straight to conform to EU standards.”
René: “Wtf? Would you be angry if I would just copypaste this from you?”
Jan: “Oh no, not at all. Don’t worry.”

The Süddeutsche Zeitung (South German Times) got hold of this conversation, where Jan successfully jokingly fooled René, who ignored Christine’s and Jan’s rather good idea to read Wikipedia for basic –and generally reliable– information. The Zeitung comments: ‘We couldn’t have explained it better’, referring to Jan’s fictional summary of freemasonry.