John Cook undermining democracy through misinformation

It seems that John Cook was posting comments in 2011 under the pseudonym Lubos Motl. The year before physicist and blogger Luboš Motl had posted a rebuttal of Cook’s then 104 Global Warming & Climate Change Myths. When someone counters your beliefs point for point, then most people would naturally feel some anger. Taking the online identity of Motl is potentially more than identity theft. It can be viewed as an attempt to damage the reputation of someone you oppose.

However, there is a wider issue here. In 2011 John Cook co-authored with Stephan Lewandowsky The Debunking Handbook, that is still featured prominently on the skepticalscience.com. This short tract starts with the following paragraphs:-

It’s self-evident that democratic societies should base their decisions on accurate information. On many issues, however, misinformation can become entrenched in parts of the community, particularly when vested interests are involved. Reducing the influence of misinformation is a difficult and complex challenge.

A common misconception about myths is the notion that removing its influence is as simple as packing more information into people’s heads. This approach assumes that public misperceptions are due to a lack of knowledge and that the solution is more information – in science communication, it’s known as the “information deficit model”. But that model is wrong: people don’t process information as simply as a hard drive downloading data.

If Cook was indeed using the pseudonym Lubos Motl then he was knowingly putting out into the public arena misinformation in a malicious form. If he misrepresented Motl’s beliefs, then the public may not know who to trust. Targeted against one effective critic, it could trash their reputation. At a wider scale it could allow morally and scientifically inferior views to gain prominence over superior viewpoints. If the alarmist beliefs were superior it what be necessary to misrepresent alternative opinions. Open debate would soon reveal which side had the better views. But in debating and disputing, all sides would sharpen their arguments. What would quickly disappear is the reliance on opinion surveys and rewriting of dictionaries. Instead, proper academics would be distinguishing between quality, relevant evidence from dogmatic statements based on junk sociology and psychology. They would start defining the boundaries of expertise between the basic physics, computer modelling, results analysis, public policy-making, policy-implementation, economics, ethics and the philosophy of science. They may then start to draw on the understanding that has been achieved in these subject areas.

Kevin Marshall

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2 Comments

  1. I agree that using the handle of one’s opponent is not a really smart thing to do, it is also downright unethical, but I am not really sure whether this was done to damage Motl’s reputation in public. As far as I know it was done on (what they were then considering) a private forum, they all seem to know about the impersonation and the reason why Cook did it.

    That is where it gets much more interesting to me than the alleged identity theft. The use of that handle was part of their “blog experiment” in their lab with “UWA cognitive scientists”. It would be more interesting to know whether those UWA cognitive scientists knew about the impersonation when they underwent the experiment. If they didn’t, you could have a point that it was an attempt to damage Motl’s reputation, but even then I don’t think of UWA cognitive scientists as the public arena.

    I would be more interested in their little experiment where they were looking for the “effects of blog comments on readers’ comprehension”. They came to the conclusion that “reading the comments threads on denier blogs will make you stupid”. Knowing the way other of his investigations were conducted, my immediate reaction was to look for the design of this “experiment” and whether their conclusion really can come from that design. Apparently Cook encouraged his colleagues of Sks to fabricate skeptical looking comments on a skeptical post created by an alarmist.

    It is not really clear what the actual design was, but if they also did the same thing in the first part of their experiment, then at best they could come to the conclusion that “reading skeptical comments threads fabricated by alarmists will make you stupid” or in other cases “selected skeptical comments threads will be conceived as stupid by alarmists” or something like that.

    The same thing with the second stage of their “experiment”. Whatever comes out as the conclusion, it will not necessarily have anything to do with the effects of reading “skeptical” comments. If they were fabricating the skeptical comments themselves, then they didn’t study skeptical comments at all, but comments that are perceived as skeptical by alarmists. I can imagine vividly how their own comments would be more reasonable constructed than what they conceive to be skeptical comments. The difference would then not be from the merits of the comments alone, but from the bias of the investigators (who have a know bias against those who don’t follow the consensus).
    But that is probably not how they will frame the results of their experiment to the public of course…

    Don’t understand me wrong, I didn’t say that Cook’s impersonation of Motl is okay. It certainly isn’t and furthermore it is a very unethical thing to do. I also wouldn’t really like it when someone would misuse a similar handle than mine, even in a private forum or experiment. But I am not really sure “identity theft” or “misrepresenting someones belief” is a good way to frame it.

    Reply
    • manicbeancounter

       /  26/07/2015

      You are right about the identify theft aspect, as Brandon Shollenberg makes clear.
      http://www.hi-izuru.org/wp_blog/2013/11/lies-about-evidence/
      You also make some good points about how problematic it would be to conduct an experiment on sceptic blog postings and sceptic comments by people who are not sympathetic to sceptic views. It would be meaningless.

      Reply

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