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Day 64 – Sniffing Out False Science and Seeking the Truth


At the end of his fine radio program about the 20 May 1975 student rebellion, Habib Mosaheb quoted Albert Einstein, “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” 

In these days of the internet and intentionally falsified science being spread via it, when health and life can be threatened by false science during an epidemic, what Einstein said is more than ever the most concise description of a good education. (I do advise everyone to read Jean-Yves Dick’s fine series called “Latelye fit Argiman” on this site. He specializes in identifying and describing in contemporary terms the classic fallacies that masquerade as arguments.)

Today, I thought it worthwhile to pose the question about “training the mind to think” around three other issues that are not fallacies, but rather contexts:

Q1. Who is saying something?

Q2. Who is that someone saying it to?

Q3. What is the political context?

Context helps us identify vested interests. And remember, we live in times of mass propaganda, of mass use of psychological manipulation as a sales technique as well as a political tool.

This week, for example, researchers from the Carnegie Mellon University in the US found that nearly half of all tweets sent out since January about coronavirus were sent by “bots” not by humans.

That means, in answer to Q 1, it was a machine that wrote the messages on a medical and epidemiological issue. The person saying something was not a person at all. The study showing this was not a small study either; the researchers studied 200,000,000 tweets. The real “authors” behind this half of all tweets are thus very few actual humans. And to take all that trouble and employ staff to set the “bots” in motion means the few authors clearly have some vested interest. And we, meanwhile, are receiving the tweet that is from a machine, believing that it is a friend, family, or someone we trust, at least. But it is a “bot” that knows your profile from how you use the internet. The researchers are going to look into Facebook and others soon.

Earlier this year, the young man Christopher Wylie, who blew the whistle in the Cambridge Analytica story about methods used by the Brexit and Trump campaigns via Facebook, published a book Mindf*ck, which helps us answer Q 2. The answer is that it is different groups of people who are literally herded together to receive the message and then “targeted” (note the animal metaphor first, then the military one – they have the gun, we are the target) with different content. An algorithm, or set of instructions given by computer, does the rest. So, people who follow Bollywood on the internet will get not only more and more of Bollywood-type tweets, but will be fed lies and confusion about coronavirus that are linked to this kind of interest. Others who are right-wing politically will get different content suggested or popping up, including different sets of lies on coronavirus. Those on the left will get another different set of tweets. Academics another kind. Sacked workers another. People in different religions, another set. Young women who like fashion, another. Sportsmen into wrestling another. And so on. And, it gets more refined: if you are a young, male, white, sacked worker, getting a bit critical of his old party (the Democrats), you will get different messages from a middle-aged, female, black, small business owner, getting a bit critical of her old party (the Democrats). The Christopher Wylie book, not a literary masterpiece, is, for its content, really a must read.

In answer to Q3, we have already mentioned the coronavirus context. In the USA, we must remember that there is the Presidential election looming. So there is the right-wing campaign at work in the US to back Trump and to force Trump into ever-more-right-wing corners. And this has a ripple-effect everywhere else.

The “bots” in the study appear to have spread at least 100 different false narratives about coronavirus, and it is these 100 or so that are being spread online. They include conspiracy theories, e.g. mannequins are being put into hospital beds to make the crisis appear more damaging (to Trump) than it is. As we have mentioned in previous blogs there is another conspiracy theory that 5G cell towers spread coronavirus. Both are patently farfetched inventions that you do not need too much “education” in the sense of having learnt to think, to challenge. You have to know a nurse or hospital domestic, for the first, and know vaguely what a virus is for the second. The Mellon study shows 100 such false narratives, though. Many of them tout unproven “cures” and challenge scientific study. The study found that 82% of the top 50 most influential retweets are, in fact, bots, which shows the power of the algorithms to concentrate the lies.

In February this year, another study by “Bot Sentinel” found that bots were spreading a variety of false claims about the disease, including that China intentionally created the virus, or was trying to weaponize it before it spread. The study also showed that bots claimed Democrats in the US were overstating the concern about COVID-19 in order to make President Donald Trump look bad. Most of the tweets from bots on coronavirus were favorable to Trump. 

But the context is broader than the American Presidential election in November. Capitalism itself is on trial. As an economic system, it is in ruin. It is, in turn, ruining the planet. And while bourgeois democracy is the best political face of capitalism, it is not holding up. We need a deeper, fuller democracy than capitalism can ever offer. Capitalism is anchored to the reign by a small class and the oppression of the rest. So, we need to aim for the kind of democracy that socialism can bring, when there are no longer two main opposing classes: those that control all past stocks of things (land and capital) and the rest of us who are controlled by them.  

To do this we need courage. We need facts. But more than anything else, we need to be able to think. It is not easy to rout out lies from the truth, nor propaganda from analysis, nor false stories from science. But to do so, it “is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think” that will help us. We need to be able, as individuals, to train our minds to think, and then to put our minds together, so that we can act collectively.


Lindsey Collen

for LALIT, a personal view.