Joe Scwharcz, in Tweets

I had to take the lunch break to, you know, have a break. All this blogging is making me goofy. So with apologies to the great and charming Dr. Joe Scwharcz, I offer some impressions of his lunch talk from those who were there, in tweets.

I happen to know that there was a lot of guffawing from his talk, with some mysterious tales including an as-yet-unexplained case where a radio station may have been shut down by aliens. Probably not.

Tamar Wilner is the Hero CSICon Needs (And So Can You!)

On the plane ride to Vegas, which was rather long, I took the opportunity to finally watch Batman v. Superman, opting for the “Ultimate Edition” to take up more flight time. (I had to watch it on my phone because there was literally no room to place my laptop on my tray in front of me.) Now, I don’t understand all the hate for this movie, I really, really liked it a lot, and I don’t care what that makes you think about me.

And I loved Wonder Woman in the movie. She was great, Gal Gadot was excellent, and I was all ginned up for the standalone movie. Well done, Warner Bros. You hooked me.

You know who else is interested in Wonder Woman? Tamar Wilner, who came to discuss how we can gather up “strands” for our own virtual Lassos of Truth, just like Wonder Woman has. (Didn’t really come up in Batman v. Superman, though.)

Wilner is a great journalist, seriously. I’ve been admiring her work since it came to my attention a couple of years ago, when she covered the enraging case of cancer-quack Stanislaw Burzynski in Texas. She’s written for Skeptical Inquirer, and she did an interview on our own Point of Inquiry podcast earlier this year.

Not unlike David Helfand on stage just before her, Wilner wants to convey the severity of the misinformation problem on the web, thus her desire to arm us all with Lassos of Truth. The strands are fundamental, none of it should be surprising, but they are so rarely fully weaved together as they need to be in order to effectively process bad information.

Briefly, the lasso strands ask us to:

  • Ask if the claim even makes sense, if the text justifies the headline or sounds too good to be true.
  • Check if the story is from a satirical/fake-news source, of which there are many, and few of which actually achieving comedy.
  • Reference the many fact-checking websites that make debunking their business.
  • Ask questions about photos and videos, as in, where were they taken and when, are there technical issues or inconsistencies, or whether have they been altered.
  • Investigate social media sources, such as follower counts and how recently an account was created, and indeed, investigate the actual humans making claims.

And finally, when you want to spread the good news of the truth you’ve unearthed, she emphasizes that you not become part of the problem by repeating the deceptive or incorrect claims, giving them more fuel. “Headlining with the myth is really the worst thing you can do.”

You can see her notes on this presentation at

Do you feel like a superhero now, or at least comparably armed? I do! Tamar Wilner is clearly the hero that CSICon needs and deserves.

Beware the “Google-Fed Zombies” says David Helfand on Mass Misinformation

We human beings, thanks to the Internet, are producing 2.5 quintillion bytes of information every day. We must be really smart!

Nope! David Helfand is here to make the case that the information democratization brought by the advent of the Internet is drowning us in misinformation. Those 2.5 quintillion bytes? “All of it is not carefully edited.”

Helfand is author of the book A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age, and he’s concerned that as a society we have collectively decided that “the upper right hand corner of your browser is the equivalent of thinking.”

The vaccine denial movement is a useful case in point, where misinformation results in tangible harm. Perhaps the most powerful symbolic example of this, is that at Google’s own daycare center for employees, only 50% of kids had been vaccinated. The people of Google itself were falling for the bad information that they get by relying too heavily on Google searches.

Careful not to be taken as some anti-technology crank, he differentiates the information revolutions of printing and broadcast from the Internet. Reading a book or watching a movie, he says, is “an individual act,” passive, with no way to give feedback, and with no way to control the source of information.

Contrast that with the Internet, where we do control the course, curating our own news flow and excluding any information that doesn’t confirm with our existing worldviews. This creates what he calls “armies of the uninformed.”

If the Internet’s 2.5 quintillion bytes mostly just serves to reinforce group identity, what do we do? Helfand isn’t sure, but he suggests you might start by buying his book. How you’d give him feedback on that book, I’m not sure, especially since he says he doesn’t carry a smartphone.

“I live in this wonderful bubble of tranquility.” Sounds lovely.

The Skeptic’s Ally: Julia Belluz Gets the Balles Prize for Critical Thinking

14581366_10154080294675698_2973471898915265002_nLast night, your devoted chronicler of CSICon had the honor of bestowing the 2015 Balles Prize in Critical Thinking upon science reporter Julia Belluz of Rather than paraphrase the whole thing, I’ll just quote myself from my remarks, and it’s not plagiarism because I wrote it:

Here’s what I get from the journalism of Julia Belluz.

  1. I get a guide. News, issues, and controversies about health and medicine explained clearly and accessibly. She covers some very complex topics, and yet she writes in a conversational tone that neither dumbs down nor inflates. In my opinion, she writes in a way that assumes her readers are both intelligent but not necessarily experts in science and health.

  2. I get a passionate ally. “Evidence enthusiast” actually doesn’t quite describe the heart that goes into her work. Explaining important health issues and dispelling misinformation are not academic exercises. This is not some amusing pursuit of novelty. She clearly wants to keep her readers from being conned. There is a sense of duty that I get from her reporting to help all of us make better choices about our health with facts and, importantly, compassion. She’s got our back.

  3. I get a trusted source. This might be the most important part of it. Apart from taking apart the news about IMPORTANT NEW STUDIES or debunking fanciful claims, Julia opens up to show us her intellectual process, honestly confiding to her readers that not every issue is as simple as true vs. false, newsworthy vs. pointless hype. There is nuance, there are shades of gray. Rather than cast villains and heroes, she takes each new issue as it comes, on its own merits. She is self-reflective in the most informative way. She shows us the work.

Accepting the (dangerously heavy) award, Julia was obviously really moved. Being honored by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, with one of her heroes, James Randi, looking on, Julia said she’d return to the newsroom newly energized. Usually “alone at a computer” in her day to day work, having the recognition and support for her work from an organization like ours clearly meant a lot to her.

I hope more journalists will look to her example.

10 Strategies from Massimo Polidoro

In a special lunch presentation at CSICon, Massimo Polidoro gave a very practical talk on how to process extraordinary claims one comes across in the news media and elsewhere.

He gave 10 guidelines for news consumers, and I’ll put them all here, but I have to say that it doesn’t at all do justice to the character of Massimo Polidoro and his ridiculously charming presentation style. Of course he’s got jokes, and he interspersed references to Young Frankenstein into his powerpoint, but there’s also a quality to Polidoro’s manner that immediately puts an audience at ease and makes you want to hear the next thing he says.

Look, it could be the accent. I’m not the most worldly person, but come on. Anyhow, here’s Polidoro’s 10 strategies for the news consumer dealing with reports of the inexplicable:

1. Make sure the mystery actually exists.
(You rarely get a reaction of gratitude when these errors are pointed out.)

2. Check the reliability of the source.

3. Go back to the original sources.
(News can be distorted unintentionally through misunderstandings, short cuts taken, and the like. He recommends you compare multiple versions of same story.)

4. Do not make assumptions before you have all the facts.
(You cannot rely on news reports, as they are often compressed and incomplete.)

5. Reproduce the original conditions.

6. Whenever you can, check the facts for yourself.

7. Ask experts for advice.

8. Learn to distinguish between facts and fantasies.
(“The plural of anecdote is not evidence.”)

9. Take witnesses with a grain of salt.

10. Apply occam’s razor.

And there you have it! And we’re all a little smarter now.