The right way to use NaturalNews and woo sites

heath dangerThanks to the many shares, my piece on why you should not use the NaturalNews.com (NN) has gotten some wide distribution. (Not wide enough but I’m never completely happy).

My advice was to avoid it entirely, but I heard from a few who said that they link to it for creative and specific purposes.

Let me be clear, avoiding bad internet sites is a generalization. The goal of most of my skeptical advocacy is to reach the general public who have no inkling of why this stuff may be dangerous to their good self. However, because of my circle of friends and acquaintances who are smart, typically skeptical and Internet savvy, I end up preaching to the choir and people may think I state the obvious. It’s not my intent to do that. I’m trying to reach beyond my own circle which SHOULD be a goal for most skeptical advocates. (This is why sharing is so incredibly important.)

The rule of never visit NN applies to all my friends and family who might read my stuff online who have not been exposed to the skeptical side. They don’t know why it’s a terrible site. Giving them a simple guideline to steer clear of it was my sole intent.

There are, however, legitimate and important reasons to visit NN and other ridiculous web sites that actually include getting “news”. One teacher said that she uses the NN site to find out what is popular in the pseudoscience bizarro-world today. She shares the links with her students.

I don’t think you do much better to enrich a person’s lifespan than teaching them how to recognize and consider pseudoscience and garbage information. This is a very thoughtful and nuanced use of the material. It should DEFINITELY be done more. There needs to be a reasonable voice in response to the cacophony of nonsense claims. Visiting woo sites is not for everyone (it tends to make me want to hit something), yet it provides valuable insight into the other realms of what people consider reality. How else will you know how to combat bad information unless you know how bad information is being presented and spread?

tshirtSkeptical advocates share the NN stories about Dr. David Gorski and Susan Gerbic to point out the idiocy of the writers there and to spur responses. This is the same as linking to bad information that you wish to critique. Unfortunately, you may have to buy a ticket to the woo-event or purchase the book, see the movie, etc. in order to gather info and make a judgement. All fine. The purpose is a valid one. A little monetary contribution allows you to have this important view. The difference is, you don’t endorse the nonsense, you expose it with proper context and have created a teachable moment out of bad stuff. Just note, some people will not understand the context – always a potential hazard.

I still hesitate to link to poorly written blogs or books, but in some cases, you can show how low the bar can go. That is valuable information about what NOT to do.

In each of these cases, the participant accessing the woo must be prepared with a framework and context to assess the material. This is in contrast to your Aunt Judy who thinks NN and other woo sites are legitimate sources of true stories and advice. They need the guidance and context deliberately obfuscated by pseudoscientific language and gimmicks.

While I strongly advocate thoughtfully using crap sites to illustrate bad information, an additional caution remains. High profile bloggers can inadvertently call attention to silly ideas that are best ignored and forgotten. There are plenty of blogs and sites that promote garbage but their reach and subsequent impact is small. There is more to lose than gain by dragging a nobody saying a dumb things into the spotlight. You’ve just given them a whole new platform to gain attention, even if it’s negative. By exposing them to a large audience, a portion of that audience will be positively receptive to their message. You have increased their Internet cachet. Backfire! It pays to go after the big fish but let the little fish swim off in obscurity.

Experienced critics and educators consider the goals and expected outcome prior to their project and, most of all, think about the audience to reach and are prepared for contingencies. Ask: Is my effort targeted? Will it make an impact? What if something goes wrong? A “sting” or expose that doesn’t go as planned can do more damage and ruin credibility. That has happened to many individuals and groups who didn’t think it through.

That said, a careful, coordinated effort to shed critical light on dangerous claims is a great thing. When big woo fish fight with big skeptical fish, grab the popcorn and let’s watch the battle.

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4 thoughts on “The right way to use NaturalNews and woo sites

  1. On a somewhat related note, i recently got an essay research proposal from an Eng102 student to talk about the “How a full moon affects hospital emergency room census.” I approve all topics and I wasn’t sure at first which side he was going to take. He said his going-in view was that the number of admissions goes up (as is the case with many many hospital employees) but he had not done the research yet…so I OKd it, confident that his research would immediately show that scientific and scholarly consensus is practically unanimous: no correlation. Having followed this over the course of a decade, I knew exactly what he’d find, provided he stayed away from outright woo sites like NN. In fact I specifically outlawed that source. We decided, just for fun and class involvement, to take a poll of students before and after his 5-minute presentation. The vote was 11-5 in favor of full moon effects! But I was confident that my student would see the light (so to speak). He even worked with some hospital administrators where he works to study 3 or 4 months or admission data.

    Alas, the whole thing backfired.

    His hospital data — completely uncontrolled and non-blinded and with no statistical understanding of margin of error or confidence levels — “proved” his initial view correct. The number of admissions was lower on the days before and after a full moon.

    I even pointed out that one of the two studies he cited with some 58,000 subjects showed no correlation, And the other study admitted that although they showed an increase in hemorrhage victims, their sample size was small and results were too tentative to allow a real conclusion.

    The post-presentation classroom poll was even more decisive in favor of full moon effects with only two students remaining skeptical.

    i asked the student how he could just ignore the monumental amount of data against a full moon effect and he said “I don’t care what those studies say: I trust the study we just did in the hospital.”

    I guess this shows that once someone has an opinion, you can’t just persuade them with evidence.

  2. When I brought this point up at work years and years ago, my scientific colleagues under no circumstances would believe the evidence. Depressing.

  3. > I guess this shows that once someone has an opinion, you can’t just persuade them with evidence.

    I hear proof of that every night on the radio after the Toronto Blue Jays lose. A series of angry persons will call in, give a statistical “fact,” then deduce a sweeping conclusion from it that condemns the skill, strategy or character of the radio host/team managers/team owners/players, etc.

    Calmly, the show host will look up the so-called stat on a reference site, and about 98% of the time (*), the claimed “fact” is found to be egregiously false, and so, nullifies the derived conclusion. Most people, being honest, will concede, saying, “Well, it certainly FEELS like X conclusion is true.” But a surprisingly large number of callers, given a chance to respond, will merely repeat their conclusion regardless. A few rare souls will, paradoxically, reply, “I don’t care what the numbers say, you can’t tell me the opposite of X conclusion is true!”

    Someone should be able to get a masters thesis out of this phenomenon

    *In the spirit of this comment, I pulled that figure out of my nether regions.

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