A Case Study In Pseudoscience
Bought to you by CNN
It surprises me how easy it can be to embed a harmful piece of pseudoscience in the zeitgeist. Not the fact that it can be done, as much as the fact that it can be done:
For a minute cost, enough for a single individual to take a swing at it
For very little incentives, not “Russia trying to destabilize the West-TM”, just a guy trying to make a buck not caring about collaterals
That major institutions play along with it and nobody gives a shit
I entered the CNN website today. Fine, make fun of me, sometimes I like seeing what the higher levels of the simulation look like. You do it too sometimes even if you don’t admit it, it’s like pron.
I mindlessly scrolled through an article and got to see the ads at the end, upon which I was greeted with the following piece of misinformation:
i - A Silly Hoax
Upon clicking it I get the typical redirecatro via outbrain
Finally reaching this page (wayback machine link).
I’m greeted by promises of
god weight loss, a bullet list of claims that range from fake to outright insane, and a made-up expert doctor to back everything up.
They are citing a non-existent study. They provide no links, but I did go down a dozen pages of google scholar using a combination of keywords, the fake researcher’s name, and the name of the institute they claim ran the study.
Some of the claims are obviously nonsensical to me:
BMR going up 2-3 times, sans intense physical activity, seems impossible or at least acutely dangerous (read: the kind of thing that’d happen if you singe snorted a few grams of meth)
Losing 7-8kgs in 10 days, for an average-height obese person, water weight included, might be borderline achievable only with complete caloric restriction, if even.
“cellulite changes” and “yo-yo effect” are hardly terms or endpoints a study would use (but, I could see a journalist using them, so fine by me)
The researcher they cite, Bédier Chrétien, doesn’t seem to be an actual person, at least not a researcher, certainly not a member of any french obesity research institutes.
And, obviously, there are SCIENCE *tm reasons for why this works.
Finally, we are greeted with an affiliate link to buy the WONDERPATCH *tm. The affiliate link was broken, but I suspect it would lead to a product like this one, which is the first link I find on amazon when googling this name.
ii - The Profit Motives
Now, you might ask, why does this matter? Yeah, there are garbage internet ads, at this point magic penis enlargement, hair growth and weight loss pills are a meme.
I concur, but I think the issue is still important and interesting because it sheds light on how more serious pseudoscience and bad-faith scientific debates emerge, as well as the profit motives behind them.
I think it’s easier to look at the profit motives first.
First, why is CNN trying to indoctrinate me with pseudoscience? Roughly speaking, because, based on my IP address, outbrain gave them somewhere between 0.0005$ and 0.004$ to show it to me.
Why did outbrain ask CNN to spread pseudoscience? Roughly speaking, because, outbrain got 0.0004$ to 0.003$ from the pseudoscience website.
Why does the pseudoscience pay outbrain to spread it? Roughly speaking, because they get somewhere between 1 and 20% of those 20$ if I click their link and purchase some WONDER PATCHES, i.e. because of a small probability they’d get 0.2$ to 4$.
I’m estimating prices here based on amazon affiliate rates, the price I saw on amazon, and typical impression CPMs. I’m leaving a very wide range to be in the ballpark.
The important part here is this tough: Pseudoscience was advertised to me by one of the most trusted and large news networks in the world because somebody stood to make a few cents from it.
Not did make a few cents, stood to, there was a probability, and I don’t use cents of “few” metaphorically here.
The incentive for this is ridiculously low.
If 1 million people are fooled into believing in the existence of magic weight loss patches, the person doing the fooling will have gotten… a few hundred thousand dollars. That’s, like, the quarterly wage of an NYC doctor, it’s how much Tyler Cowen throws at blog that propagate transhumanist neoliberalism, it’s a fancy car, it’s a downpayment on an SF house, it’s a few years of labor for a warehouse worker.
That is the price you get for fooling 1 million people into believing pseudoscientific nonsense.
I find this incredible, let it sync in.
iii - Methods Of Persuasion
“Facts” can be bought for cheap.
Not all facts, if you want to buy some facts about covid drug or vaccine efficiency that’ll be rather expensive, maybe even illegal. If you want to buy facts about economic policy or ethics of governance, forget about it, the market is saturated.
But you can use a surprisingly small amount of money to sell people on utter bullshit as long as no party is opposing you.
There’s no “against wonder patch” camp, none will profit from debunking quack weight loss methods. Legitimate weight-loose product makers might, but as long as their drugs are themselves not very efficient, and they aren’t, bringing too much scientific accuracy into the field is not in their interest. Even barring that, not boosting the signal at all is often more efficient than going against it.
So thousands? hundreds of thousands? millions? dozens of millions? of people get indoctrinated into believing there’s such a thing as a weight loss wonder patch. And because placebo and self-delusion are the strongest forces in the universe, a bunch of those people keeps that opinion for life.
You have that effect snowball over hundreds of years and you get things like homeopathy. I wonder how many “facts” exist simply because of minor economic incentives to propagate them and an utter lack of incentives to debunk or counter them.
There’s also a very little social incentive for people not to help spread fake information.
I chat a lot, and I hypothesize and get excited about bullshit, not this level of bullshit, but still bullshit.
I still have a post up on cerebralab where I write about taking NMN in my 20s and recommending it. There are hundreds of thousands of views on that post. Since I wrote it I think evidence has come out that this is probably bad, or at least useless… yet nobody’s called me out on it, and nobody will.
Yes, I will get to editing or deleting it… but I need to patch my old blog’s editing interface before I do that, and I’m lazy.
People will call me out on a lot of shit, usually opinions, the mood I’m conveying, or feelings I’m sharing. But not lies I tell.
And forget about me… but people won’t call CNN out for spreading medical misinformation. Not the “contested” kind, the kind that can be proven as a lie within minutes, that reference studies and experts that don’t exist.
We as a society are perfectly alright with lies as long as they don’t build up towards a position we dislike. As long as the lie hangs around and doesn’t bother anyone too much we just let it be. Part of me believes that, as thousands of lies sit and boil, they snowball into dangerous memetic complexes, then fringe ideologies, then religion, parties, and policy.
I've had my share of trouble trying to avoid Homeopathy being implemented as a curricular discipline in my brazilian med school. Could you please share more about the evidence you've seen, is it hte study by Huang published in Frontiers in Aging?
Interesting. CNN I suspect most likely gets its ads fed to it from Google. But isn't this issue simply a restatement that for over a century plus now advertising has been accepted as a zone of 'alternative facts'. I was in a bookstore on Sunday and saw a sign saying "best new fiction". Decades ago caselaw said this is 'puffing'. In other words, I couldn't sue the bookstore because the books on that shelf were not the 'best' but instead whatever the publisher offered a bigger potential markup for them. On the other hand, if a flour producer decided to add a bit of woodshavings to top off their pound bags, I'd have a clear case of fraud.
This has become such an accepted part of our society and culture one can be excused from ceasing to even noticing it. Advertising is allowed to more or less invent whatever facts it pleases and it's been that way forever. An alien might indeed be puzzled that one sector is allowed to make wild claims backed up by no real authority of any type but fanboys will take to the Internet to complain the last Star Wars TV show had CGI that 'looked fake'.