Does combatting quackery and pseudoscience through rational argument and ridicule work?

As hard as it is to believe, I've been at this blogging thing for 12 years now. In fact, it's been so long that this year I didn't even remember to mention it when it happened nearly two weeks ago. Over that time period, I've dealt with a large number of conspiracy theories. Indeed, skeptics can't help but avoid it. After all, conspiracy theories are at the heart of a lot of pseudoscience, quackery, and crankery. For instance, the very first bit of pseudohistory that served as my "gateway drug" into skepticism, Holocaust denial, is based upon a massive conspiracy theory that the Jews made up or vastly exaggerated the Nazis' genocide against the Jews and are hiding evidence that it never happened or that far fewer Jews died, to the Holocaust deniers the Jews suffered no more than other groups suffering massive casualties during World War II. Similarly, most believers in alternative medicine believe in conspiracies by varying combinations of big pharma, the government, and the medical profession to suppress their favorite bits of quackery, due to a combination of ideology and (of course!), above all, to preserve big pharma's profits.

One of the most common topics that I deal with is antivaccine pseudoscience. Not surprisingly, antivaccine ideologues believe in many conspiracy theories. Chief among these is that the government and pharmaceutical industry are "covering up" evidence that vaccines cause autism. To them, this conspiracy explains why high quality evidence from large epidemiological studies in the peer-reviewed literature has consistently failed to support a link between vaccines (or the thimerosal preservative that used to be in vaccines) and autism—or any other of the conditions and diseases antivaccinationists attribute to vaccines, such as autoimmune diseases, asthma, sudden infant death syndrome, and a wide variety of neurodevelopmental disorders. Indeed, that's why I've started to refer to this conspiracy theory as the "central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement." the "CDC whistleblower" manufactroversy so quickly blossomed into a full-blown conspiracy theory two years ago and has since resulted in more than one book (such as Kevin Barry's Vaccine Whistleblower) and, of course, the propaganda film VAXXED by Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree, all promoting the idea that a troubled CDC scientist, William Thompson, has made claims that the CDC "covered up" evidence that, simply put), the MMR vaccine resulted in a much higher risk of autism in African American males. Thompson isn't portrayed the way he really was, an emotionally troubled man who has nursed a grudge for 10 years against his former supervisors and collaborators because he felt that they didn't listen to his concerns sufficiently and thus ended up spilling his guts to a biochemical engineer turned incompetent epidemiologist Brian Hooker, who tipped off Andrew Wakefield to Thompson's complaints. Hilariously, although Thompson has been silent for over two years, even he doesn't seem to believe Wakefield's claims.

So conspiracy theories are important. Conspiracy theories are harmful very harmful, too. After all, arguably conspiracy theories are a large part of what fueled the election of Donald Trump, who is himself an antivaccine loon and even met with Andrew Wakefield back in August. (There's even a picture.) It's not for nothing that I fear for medical science under Trump.

So it was with great interest that I came across an article about a study on how to counter conspiracy theories Study: Rational arguments and ridicule can both reduce belief in conspiracy theories. The study itself by Orosz et al, carried out by a group in Hungary collaborating with a group in the UK, is entitled Changing Conspiracy Beliefs through Rationality and Ridiculing. The reason it caught my eye is because it goes against two tenets of science communication that I've learned since who knows when, one in particular that I've been pummeled with since time immemorial, given the name of this blog. The first is that you can't change someone's mind about pseudoscience or a conspiracy theory by rattling off the facts and science that refute it because that will make people double down through the phenomenon of motivated reasoning, in which intelligent people are very good at finding facts to support their beliefs and picking apart evidence that does not. (Most highly intelligent people are not skeptics and, through the Dunning-Kruger effect, people often overestimate their expertise in areas outside of their .) The second is that ridicule doesn't change people's minds, a tenet that has led to considerable concern trolling in the comments of this blog and my not-so-super-secret other blog. So a study that suggests that both methods can persuade is at least of interest, even if it turns out not to support the hypothesis.

Basically, the authors looked at three strategies for decreasing belief in conspiracy theories:

  1. In order to change the link between the object and the attribute, further logical pieces of information or logical steps can be provided, thus allowing us to elaborate on the logical structure which can result in a more complex link. (Using facts and studies to refute the belief.)
  2. The second possibility of conspiracy belief change involves increasing the distance between the self and those who hold a certain link between the object and the attribute. To achieve this, one can demonstrate that those people who hold such beliefs are characterized by negative traits or they are targeted as being ridiculous. As practically no one wants to be ridiculed by others, the ridiculing argument can be fueled by the ego-protective function. (The ridicule approach.)
  3. The third form of conspiracy belief change could relate to the identification with the object of the belief. Therefore, in this case, the primary goal is not to change the link between the object and the attribute, but to focus on the reduction of the distance between the self and the object of the CT. (The empathetic approach.)

To test these methods, the researchers recruited 813 Hungarian adults selected randomly from an Internet-enabled panel, including 20,000 members, with the help of the Solid Data Ltd., in October–November 2014. To select the the sample, a multiple-step, proportionally stratified, probabilistic sampling method was employed. As described by the researchers, members of this panel used the Internet at least once a week. Also, individuals were removed from the panel if they responded too quickly (i.e., without paying attention to their response) and/or had fake (or not used) e-mail addresses. The sample was nationally representative in terms of gender, age, level of education, and location of residence.

Respondents then listened to this:

After agreeing with the informed consent form, participants listened to the first audio recording (for the transcript, see Appendix 1 in Supplementary Material). This is a 4:30 min recording that presented a conspiracy super theory including the victimization of Hungary by the financial imperium, the hidden control of Jews over the world, the EU as a non-functional oppressive power, and the bankers who exploit the Hungarian financial system. The text provided vivid, but confusing details about the mechanisms that “actually” shape the fate of Hungary and the world. This super CT met the above mentioned characteristics of CTs in terms of nothing happens by chance, nothing is what it seems, everything is interconnected with everything, and the world is divided into good and evil.

I must admit, having read the text of the speech, I found this to be a doozy, even by my standards. Here's a taste:

The Zionist world strategy, in concreto, can be seen as the global strategy to achieve world hegemony. It can be successfully accomplished if humanity does learn anything about it. For this reason, Zionists practically issued war against everyone who knew about their activity, analyzes it, judges it, and understands and publishes about their world strategy. The international Jewry created the bolshevism, and the same power disintegrated the Soviet Union. Today, the United States is the next. The Zionist monetary world elite have already successfully gained control over the political system of the United States.

After listening to the speech the subjects expressed their acceptance concerning eight questions on four main topics (victimization of Hungary, EU, power of the Jews, bankers). They were also asked about their general acceptance of the conspiracy theory. Then the subjects were randomized to four groups. The control listened to a weather forecast. The rest were randomized to listen to one of three speeches utilizing these strategies:

In the rational condition, the text tackled the claims made in the first recording in a logically plausible manner, using numbers to support the objections, and pointing out the discrepancy between high influence and concealment. This speech pointed out the logical flaws of the first speech and corrected it with in-depth arguments regarding the link between the beliefs' objects and attributes. The goal of this condition was to emphasize the logical inconsistencies and to create a more complex and coherent relationship between the objects of the belief and the attributes.

In the ridiculing condition, the script addressed the same logical flaws, but reasoned against them differently: instead of focusing on certain details, it derided the logical inconsistencies and concentrated on those who believe in the CTs, picturing them as evidently ridiculous (e.g., mentioning the believers of Lizard Men). This text intended to increase the distance between the respondents' self and those who believe in CTs.

The empathetic condition contested the original text's claim in a different manner: instead of focusing on content or those who believe in the content, it placed the objects of the CTs in the center, and compassionately called attention to the dangers of demonizing and scapegoating, while also pointing out the human character of the CT objects (i.e., Jews face similar conspiracy theories and persecution nowadays that the Early Christians faced). This condition intended to reduce the distance between the respondent and the objects of CTs and to raise empathy toward these groups.

Here's a taste of each condition. First, an excerpt from the rational:

Contrary to the text, the world’s financial core does not consist of the above-mentioned housed, nor the Zionist/Israeli/Jewish lobby. The British banks are not the most important. The Chinese banks dominate the international ranking of the banks based on the value of their tools. Among the top 10 biggest banks, 4 are Chinese, while in the top 50, 10 are Chinese, 6 are American, and 5-5 are Japanese, French, and British. In the top 10 enterprises, ranked by Forbes, 5 are Chinese (among them the Chinese ISBC with a wealth of 3124 billion dollars) and 5 are American (among them the JP Morgan with 2353 billion dollars).

Hmmm. Sounds like me...sometimes.

Now, an excerpt from the ridiculing:

The fight against the “global financial empire” and other invisible enemies is the hobby and craze of conspiracy theory believers. The important thing is to always have an evil with whom people can be scared, like the bogeyman crawling out from under the children’s bed. It is the best to choose a suspicious group with a bad reputation as enemy: secret societies, the House of Rotschilds, the illuminati, the Cabalists, international financial capital, Jews, etc. There are people who, following this train of thought, think that Lizard people want to take control over us, and for example the American presidents are disguised Lizard people in reality. Believable, right? The Facebook page of the most famous Lizard people believer, David Icke, is followed by half a million people. According to a research, 2% of the Americans, more than 6 million people, believe in the Lizard people theory. Obviously, it is easier to scare with a bogeyman than to think logically. It has also been proven by research that logical thinking is not a strength of the conspiracy believers. According to a British study, people believing Osama Bin Landen to still be alive, despite the official version, also believe in that he was already dead when American soldiers found him. He lives and dies at the same time. Believable, right?

This sounds like me a bit more of the time, although it's a bit crude. I like my ridicule a bit more amusing.

Finally, an excerpt from the empathetic:

The different influential societies, families, bankers are often accused that they maliciously control countries, the EU and the events of the world from behind the scenes. As a consequence, Hungary often appears as a marionette that is controlled by them. Along other groups in the text, the global monetary empire, the super power whose leaders are the secretly controlling Zionists, alias Jews. It is important to know that the same scapegoat theory has already led to tragedy in multiple occasions. Similar theories constituted the Nazi propaganda about the world dominance of the Jews and resulted in the killing of 6 million people, women and children among them. Not only were the Jews the target of these conspiracy theories by any means. In the Middle Ages, the Jews were accused of poisoning water wells and murdering virgin girls. In the early eras of Christianity, in Ancient Rome, the same accusations were made against the Christians, and they were hunted and killed based on these accusations. A similar logic is behind current Christian prosecutions. The influential societies are often vested with demonic power so that they can be stripped of their goods.

So what were the results? Not being a social scientist or psychologist, I'm not able to judge more than in a general sense the various tools used to assess the subjects' beliefs pre- and post-speeches, but they included:

  • Conspiracy Assessment Tool (CAT), which was created for this study to assess the individual's attitudes toward conspiracies, assessing beliefs regarding conspiracies related to four aspects: (1) Hungary as a victim of conspiracy; (2) Jews as the leaders of the world; (3) the European Union is a parasitic formation without any function; and (4) the bankers as the leaders of the world.
  • Conspiracy Mentality Questionnaire (CMQ)
  • Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding (BIDR)
  • Big Five (BFI)

The key result is here:

Figure 1

CAT scores, as you can see, decreased significantly among subjects who participated in the rational condition and the ridiculing condition, but no significant decrease was observed in the other two conditions: control and empathetic. From this the authors conclude that rational arguments and ridicule can reduce belief in conspiracy theories. The authors are, as they should be, fairly modest about their findings:

Considering these results and previous studies focusing on the benevolent effects of analytic thinking in CT belief reduction, it can be assumed that uncovering arguments regarding the logical inconsistencies of CT beliefs can be an effective way to discredit them. Our findings on the efficiency of rational argumentation go against the mainstream of the communication literature and “common wisdom,” as well as the current affective wave of social psychology emphasizing that emotions constitute the most important factor behind shaping beliefs and attitudes. Considering the modest effect sizes, we assume that rationality has a bigger impact on shaping (sometimes irrational) beliefs than previously expected, given that in the current communication environment, people are overloaded with emotional messages coming from ads, political and social campaigns. Future studies should also investigate the role of rationality and the “rationality heuristic” in belief change.

I like to joke that we have to be careful about studies whose results reinforce our preconceived biases. In this case, the question, of course, is whether these results are in any way generalizable. For one thing, the sample is relatively small and only involves one country. For another thing, this study only examines very short term measures. Most importantly, for my purposes, this study looked at a general population, not committed conspiracy theorists. In other words, this group is close to the group that I like to refer to as "fence-sitters." In the case of the antivaccine movement, fence sitters are people who might have heard the misinformation about vaccines enough to be concerned but by no means have bought into the full conspiracy theory mindset of the movement or even started to seriously believe the lies.

In this study, the investigators were almost seeking to create fence sitters, as their subjects might or might not have heard about the antisemitic conspiracy theories to which they were exposed, much as new parents might be exposed to antivaccine misinformation. I know, I know, it's a highly imperfect analogy, given how structured an experiment like this must by its very nature be compared to how parents generally find this information through friends and the Internet. Even so, these results give me hope that a combination of rational argument and targeted ridicule can be effective. I'm not so deluded not to think that such a combination probably at best doesn't work and at worst hardens attitudes among the hard-core antivaccine ideologues or believers in other pseudoscience, but those were never my targets anyway (other than for ridicule). They're so invested in their beliefs that changing them is as difficult as getting a fundamentalist to change or give up his religion. It happens, but not very commonly and usually not because of persuasion. Those of us who try, in our own way, to combat the pseudoscience and quackery that are so rampant today can only reasonably hope to try to inoculate the average citizen against such beliefs.

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Speaking of ridicule, there's a story in the book "Freakonomics". In the 50s, the KKK was undertaking a recruitment drive. An opponent of them joined in an attempt to find evidence that would damage them. He found lots of evidence that the Klan was engaging in financial impropriety, but there were numerous sympathisers in positions of authority, so his evidence was ignored. Then he went to the producers of the Superman Radio show and revealed the silly rituals of the Klan.
The result took the Klan from a feared organisation to one that was mocked at and laughed. It never recovered.
Derision did what the Law refused to do.

By Julian Frost (not verified) on 23 Dec 2016 #permalink

I think an important part of ridicule is preventing people from embracing conspiracies in the first place. When I was growing up, it was common and acceptable to make homophobic jokes. These would now, rightfully, be condemned by thoughtful people. Making a gay joke now would brand me as vulgar and stupid by most people I now know.

Maybe it is wishful thinking, but I think anti-vaxxers are not thought of as "different" and "independent" the way they might have been in years past. They are thought of as dangerous and vulgar.

Hopefully young people will be less likely to be homophobic and more likely to vaccinate, largely because of the ridicule and scorn heaped on homophobes and anti-vaxxers.

Orac writes,

Those of us who try, in our own way, to combat the pseudoscience and quackery that are so rampant today can only reasonably hope to try to inoculate the average citizen against such beliefs.

MJD says,

With that final sentence, you've completely annihilated the empathetic condition.

The belittling words "innoculate the average citizen" makes me want to yell out loud "Orac NO".

It's now very clear why you failed to say "This sounds like me..." after the excerpt from the empathetic example in your posting.

Let me help you by changing one word in that unfortunate last sentence:

Those of us who try, in our own way, to combat the pseudoscience and quackery that are so rampant today can only reasonably hope to try to inoculate the honorable citizen against such beliefs.

By Michael J. Dochniak (not verified) on 23 Dec 2016 #permalink

I notice in a response to my post that some one was into name calling and that is not an effective way of trying to establish the truth. Any site that allows name calling in not helping the cause. Just maybe they are a selective false news site.

Also I thank Michael and Julian for using their full names.


Tom Spellman

By Thomas Spellman (not verified) on 23 Dec 2016 #permalink

@MJD #2:

How long did it take you to think up an alternative adjective which would fail so badly?

When you hear terms like 'the average person', 'Joe Bloggs' and 'the man on the Clapham omnibus', do you also nearly yell out loud? Has the concept of idiom completely passed you by?

By Rich Woods (not verified) on 23 Dec 2016 #permalink

"The result took the Klan from a feared organisation to one that was mocked at and laughed. It never recovered.
Derision did what the Law refused to do."

I greatly respect what Stetson Kennedy was able to accomplish. Despite his undercover work however, the Klan retained a great deal of power and influence until Presidential action and (finally!) law enforcement stepped in (after Klan violence became intolerable).

Education and ridicule play a part in refuting conspiracy theories and other dangerous nonsense. Making adherents pay a social/economic price (as in the case of SB 277 in California) and in some circumstances face legal consequences should also be part of the equation.

By Dangerous Bacon (not verified) on 23 Dec 2016 #permalink

Of course, MJD seems to have forgotten that, according to this study, the empathetic approach doesn't work. :-)

Hmm, I thought that denialists, who it seems generally share conspiracy theories, are only persuadable by authority figures they respect. No?

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 23 Dec 2016 #permalink

If you want to be effective, I suggest reading Scott Adams' blog (the Dilbert cartoonist). He has extensively described pacing and leading, which is the way to dissuade believers in quackery. Here's one of his recent posts:…

Skip down to point 8, which describes how Trump has been pacing and leading. That's how you'd pull someone out of the dark side.

By Mark Thorson (not verified) on 23 Dec 2016 #permalink

And it's not only pseudoscience and quackery that need debunking:
it's news in general .
Only 30% ( approx.) believe what the media tells them
conspiracy sites/ fake news/ naturalnews/ prn get adherents.
( the last two have become CT Centrals devolving from alt med media to an even lower form- if there is indeed a lower form of media)

I think that rationality and ridicule are sorely needed in the political arena as well.
I'm trying. I really am.

At any rate, my dear fellow and sister minions and Orac, have a fabulous holiday ( Christmas/ Chanukah/ Festivus/ etc) that includes food, drink, merry making and other pleasures. Hopefully, it won't be ridiculously cold in the Midwest, Lakes or Mountains.

It's relatively warm here in [redacted] so I'll take a few short trips over the next few days- no planes involved.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 23 Dec 2016 #permalink

Sigh. Another study in which "social science" is but an oxymoron. Of course, the authors are social psychologists, a field that's off in it's own self-referential bubble, and routinely yields stuff like this, which scholars in related fields now just ignore, have spent too much time head-scratching over previous studies.

First of all, the whole stimulus-response model is just useless for dealing with attitudes and beliefs. They don't get either created or changed from one instance of one message. Second, it's impossible for those text passages to isolate the variables they supposedly exemplify. Third, those variables are typically broad amorphous categories that can admit a wide range of otherwise drastically different exemplars, yet they are simply assumed by the researchers to be fixed specific things that are capable of having a consistent unified effect and that can be represented by a single exemplar in the study.* Fourth, since attitudes and beliefs are part of complex structures of thought hat vary by sub-group and individual, looking at averages across random samples may reveal nothing of importance. Fifth, when real-world elements are included in the tested messages -- anti-semitism, in this case -- no consideration is given to the thought-baggage the test subjects will bring in on those elements. Sixth, the test subjects' awareness of being observed by the researchers isn't accounted for -- a pretty obvious problem when you're trying to make general observations about conspiracy theory by having investigators pose questions about anti-Semitsm to Eastern Europeans. (Sheesh!) Finally, across all these matters (and maybe more) the study is absent any sort of controls to rule out other plausible explanations for the observed results.

To Orac's tentative take-away: I'd say the study doesn't get to 'fence-sitters' at all. Fence-sitters care enough about an issue to be aware of it and have given it some degree of thought. They just haven't made up their minds. For a lot of the subjects gathered in a random sample, the issue used as a test example may not even be a real fence. Thus, we might describe their responses as, since they've been asked, imagining what opinion they might have if they actually cared enough to have one.

I'll also note that the 'rational argument' used in the study isn't analogous to "rattling off the facts and science that refute" pseudo-science CTs. All three samples are structured arguments with narrative elements, all include similar levels of 'facts' in support, and they differ primarily in emotional tone. The 'ridicule' and 'empathetic' arguments are not irrational.

As such, the results are hardly surprising or illuminating. The majority of randomly selected subjects will have low investment in the anti-semitic CT. Their initial responses likely reflect recall of what they just been told to read, rather than actual investment in it. The empathetic approach will tend to be more neutral or reinforcing to many of these low-investment subjects, reducing the apparent counter-effect. These people don't need an expression of understanding to their beliefs since they don't really have any. Similarly, the ridicule will be off-putting to some, and in a way that also lowers the effect score, since it likely won't seem justified to the low-investment folk, causing them to question the credibility of anything coming at them with that degree of vehemence. I. e. the tone gets their guard up. On the other hand, the even-tempered 'rational' approach is tuned to 'where they're at.'

As far as 'noobs' to debates on a hot-button issue are concerned, I'd guess the study may seriously underestimate the value of ridicule. If the premise is that ridicule appeals to the ego in terms of 'I don't want to be in that socially disreputable crazy camp' that would work best with noobs, a caution against going in further along a certain direction. But you wouldn't expect that to show strongly in the short term, as the subjects' ego may be on guard by the inference that anyone would even consider the possibility they could be outre in that fashion. Give them time to digest that, separate themselves from it, get some reinforcement that doesn't address them specifically, and I'll wager it would have a stronger purchase against the CTs than the 'rational' approach. Which, I would guess, while more common in the short term is also weaker in most individual instances, and more likely to wane over time.

Which just goes to another problem with this kind of study's short term stimulus-repsonse model. The test subjects are considering these messages in a more isolated and uni-directional way than they would ever encounter them in the real world, which would be more ongoing, developing and shifting encounters in conversations or social media exchanges. This stuff is dynamic, not static, and the more emotionally activated.

In short, this study is all but worthless, nothing to see here, move along....
* For example, I could easily craft four alternative 'ridicule' samples, and four alternative 'empathetic' samples that would be so different from each other and the examplars used in this study that they would produce vastly different responses, at least at the levels of individuals and sub-groups.

rthe text passages that

Unfortunately no amount of rationality and logic will dissuade most people from irrational beliefs.

There was another study in the last year along the same vein that demonstrated that logical arguments, ridicule, and empathetic arguments simply strengthened the believers faith that they were correct. Lets face it, if logic was able to change a great many minds, religion would be extinct.

The alternative I've stuck with is to not care if people maintain dippy beliefs. I correct their misconceptions, ridicule them for being ignorant, suggest they educate themselves and carry on with my life. I wish human nature was different, but it's what we are all forced to work with.

By Anonymous Pseudonym (not verified) on 23 Dec 2016 #permalink

@ Anonymous Pseudonym:

I think that there are a certain percentage ( who are not mentally ill or intellectually deficient ) who are unreachable and will continue in their follies for the rest of their lives.

And there is a market for this type of "thinking"/ "writing" that has expanded since 2000.
And it's given me a job of sorts.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 23 Dec 2016 #permalink

The case of historical changes in the KKK is a good example of the folly in this sort of study. The Klan was not just subject to many different types of ridicule -- to which different individuals would have reacted very differently -- but all of this was inextricably intertwined with all sorts of other social changes and shifting influences. There's no way generalize any of this across a broad population over time. A specific form of ridicule, like the Superman shows, probably acted for some young people as Hodor noted in #2, while also acting quite differently for other folks with a greater susceptibility to virulent white supremacism, just as ridicule of homophobia seems to have led to being both less common, but arguably nastier when it does appear.

@ Denice Walter

Pulling a number out of my arse based on my experience (Yes I know the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not data), that percentage seems to run around 70%.

I catch myself believing bullshit now and again, because I remember reading about something, but misremember the conclusion or the conclusion had been refuted. Now I'm willing to put forth the effort to confirm what I think. How many others arn't motivated enough to bother. Or are motivated by other concerns not to change their minds.

Season's greetings and such.

By Anonymous Pseudonym (not verified) on 23 Dec 2016 #permalink

@ Anonymous Pseudonym:

Nope. ALL those social studies are full of so many 'believing makes it so' assumptions in their methodology as to be totally worthless. This, this one will say 'rational argument' works, and that one will say it doesn't. None of these studies actually demonstrate anything. At best they suggest, and for the most part even the suggestions are totally unwarranted leaps from ultimately meaningless numerical data.

I could just as easily say, "if logic was NOT able to change a great many minds, church membership would not have fallen as drastically as it has".But that claim and yours are equally weak, as 'logic' or absence thereof may have nothing to do with it either way.

professionals in the persuasion game have always understood that messages must be crafted to the specificiities of a target audience. For some people, on some issues, at some times, one sort of approach of the many that could be crafted on principles of 'logic, rationality and facts' will indeed be the best choice.

Even the most broadly generalizable principles with the least level of reliability qualifying as significant will be much narrower than the broad stroke notions that get bandied about.

I hope we see more of this kind of work.

I do want to point out that your point about the study being short term may be especially important for the emphathetic model - that approach may work better in the context of a long standing relationship.

By Dorit Reiss (not verified) on 23 Dec 2016 #permalink

If all I saw of this was the pre/post graph, I'd blow a raspberry and move along without further notice. Put zero on that thing and you could walk up the slopes it they were ice and you were wearing shoes with heated polished steel soles.

The best improvement is about 8%, assuming the scale is linear. If you can get results like that on important matters from a few minutes of work, it seems worthwhile. If it required much effort, I'd take my head away and look for a different wall to bang it against.

What happens to the slopes with continued input? At what CAT score do they become asymptotic? If you consider the assorted people who comment hereabouts, many seem to pack up and push off, regardless of the type of input and its duration, believing exactly what they did when they got here.

As one whose views recently (over the last five months) have changed from aligning closely with the tenets of the anti-vaccine movement (based on concerns about vaccine safety and freedom and suspicions toward establishment media, big pharma, and regulators) to being very critical of it, let me share what I personally found most and least helpful along the way. At first, ridicule on this site and others was counterproductive, giving me the impression that these authors were arrogant and closed-minded. Rational arguments were helpful, particularly when they acknowledged and responded specifically to legitimate concerns voiced by the antivax movement. Most helpful of all was the combination of rational arguments with easily accessible (linked) documentation, and for that, this site and the author's other blog were more valuable than most. Authors with a less insolent style, such as Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, as well as some online friends and acquaintences, were invaluable for persuading me to consider a different point of view and the evidence which supports it. Once I had read enough to be sympathetic to that point of view, I began to find the crass style of Orac and others tolerable, then understandable, and finally somewhat entertaining. But at first it was a major turn-off, and I suspect the same is/would be true for many of my friends and acquaintances who hold moderate-to-strong anti-vaccine views for similar reasons as I did. In terms of tone (to my ears anyway), books like Vaccine Epidemic (or many parts of it, such as the editor's introductory material) sound a lot more reasonable than they are, while blogs like this one sound a lot less reasonable than they are.

Regarding conspiracy theories in general, I believe one difficulty is that, since the mainstream media underreports many actual (proven, incontrovertible) conspiracies, those who ridicule CTs are often less informed about real conspiracies than those who believe CTs (both real and imagined ones). Display of "arrogance of ignorance", to borrow a phrase from this blog, by such people -- which in my experience is very common -- turns off CT believers, who otherwise (those who, like myself, are not fixed in our views) have the most to learn from their articles. The proportion of writers who are informed enough to acknowledge real conspiracies, especially those which are underreported, but skeptical enough to recognize that most CTs are BS, seems tragically small.

I appreciate that anyone even looked at the ridicule part. I have seen a lot of professional scicomm folk dismiss this entirely. And I think they are doing it because of their own bias--that it's distasteful to them, so they don't want to know if it's effective.

And I've now been in an argument about this strategy based on this work as well. The pro-scicommer said that the people in the ridicule condition weren't believers and it wasn't mocking them. I agree with that--I never said it was mocking them.

But I've seen mocking as a tool be very effective. There was a sea-change in attitude about The FoodBabe after the excellent piece by The SciBabe that called FoodBabe "full of shit" and other items at that time. I never expected the FoodBabe would be changed by the mocking. But people who are watching this, or had no idea she was such a nonsense peddler, were affected by this.

And nobody says this is the only strategy. But making some of the nonsense peddlers to be laughingstocks may have some utility. I don't think it should be dismissed because some people don't like that strategy.

Seems to me some people only want to try the empathy stuff on people who have been affected by the nonsense peddlers. But nobody is working on what might stop the peddlers before it got worse.

I welcome better and more research on this. But until now, nobody was really attempting it.

By Mary Mangan (not verified) on 23 Dec 2016 #permalink

#19 Mark,

Was there an underlying catalyst in your move from identifying with the anti-vax movement, to being critical of it?

If I may, do you have children, and if so, what is there vaccine status?


#21 Delphine,

Two main catalysts, besides what I already mentioned, were the publicity about Vaxxed and news/commentary about the various presidential candidates' views on vaccines. As I have no children, this issue had been peripheral to my consciousness, but this past summer as I read strongly-opposing positions from people I more or less trusted, I was finally motivated to look into it carefully myself. I was quite surprised by what I learned.

One of the most impressive experiences along the way was watching Vaxxed (after I'd started to doubt the antivax position but was still ill-informed), finding it surprisingly compelling, then reading through David Gorski's well-documented review and finding point after compelling point either challenged or blown apart. That helped me appreciate why the terms "anti-vaccine movement" and "propaganda" are merited (even though many, perhaps most, adherents of the movement believe they're standing up for legitimate concerns about vaccine safety and freedom and are neither "anti-vaccine" per se nor willfully spreading "propaganda"). Unfortunately I believe the movie's strongest point, and the hardest one to effectively answer, is the countless personal anecdotes where parents genuinely believe they observed a child's regression following a vaccine, and they feel their observations are discounted and their concerns are not taken seriously. Insulting people like this (and those who sympathize with them), in my opinion, only fuels the antivaccine movement and its members' convictions that the medical establishment and mainstream media are their enemy. Hearing them and responding in a way that respectfully acknowledges their observations, beliefs, and concerns, while also challenging their assumptions and providing information to widen their perspective, I think could do a lot to contain the fire. (I guess this is comparable to the empathetic approach described in the study above.)

By Mark (not verified) on 23 Dec 2016 #permalink

In reply to by Delphine (not verified)

Orac writes,

I’ve dealt with a large number of conspiracy theories.

MJD says,

I'm in the process of writing a book about Alheimer's disease and during my research the name David Gorski popped up in a Herman H. Fudenbergs Wikipedia profile.

According to David Gorski, it appears that Hernan H. Fudenberg once claimed that if you have a flu shot for more than five years in a row, there's ten times the likelihood that you'll get Alzheimer's disease.

Furthermore,Fudenberg was a proponent of the theory that there was a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism?

Evaluating his life work, was Dr. Fudenberg a brilliant scientist?

By Michael J. Dochniak (not verified) on 23 Dec 2016 #permalink

@ Orac,

Please explain why I have been placed in instant moderation?

You're a mean one, Mr. Orac.
You really are a heel.
You're as cuddly as a cactus,
You're as charming as an eel.
Mr. Orac.
You're a bad banana
With a greasy black peel.
You're a monster, Mr Orac
Your heart's an empty hole.
Your brain is full of spiders,
You've got garlic in your soul
Mr Orac
You're a foul one, Mr. Orac.
You're a nasty, wasty skunk.
Your heart is full of unwashed socks
Your soul is full of gunk Mr. Orac.
The three words that best describe you,
Are,and I repeat,David Gorski, David Gorski, David Gorski

By Michael J. Dochniak (not verified) on 23 Dec 2016 #permalink

MJD: You wouldn't recognize science or rationality if either of them sat on your face.I bet ducks follow you around, mistaking you for one of their own.

Mark Thorsen: Scott Adams?! Scott Adams!? He's a humorless comic writer who pretends to be smart. He doesn't have anything intelligent to say about anything, and I wouldn't trust him with a goldfish. Also, he's a vocal Trump supporter, so he has no interest in science or facts, and anything that comes from his mouth or keyboard should be dismissed immediately.

By Politicalguineapig (not verified) on 23 Dec 2016 #permalink

@16 sadmar :

It seems that is a weakness of sociology due to its nature. People's opinions and actions are a vast sea of grey compared to the black and white of math, chemistry, physics and even to an extent biology. I assume that part of your issue is the design of the experiments, but I'm at a loss to figure how they could be improved without losing any nuance. I guess it boils down to a desire to see objective assessments vice subjective ones.

In my former life, my job was to provide the knowledge of what was happening, as well as an assessment of what it meant, and a forecast of probable actions in the future, In theory I should have tried to persuade the decision makers to my way of thinking, but I never did. Why? Mainly it's not in my personality to persuade people to believe as I do. The decision and the consequences were on their head, and I ensured that was known.

By Anonymous Pseudonym (not verified) on 24 Dec 2016 #permalink

Mark: Unfortunately I believe the movie’s strongest point, and the hardest one to effectively answer, is the countless personal anecdotes where parents genuinely believe they observed a child’s regression following a vaccine, and they feel their observations are discounted and their concerns are not taken seriously.

The thing you got taken in by is that most anti-vax parents are liars and cut-rate melodramatic actors and actresses. They don't really love their children, though you have to be practiced at hearing the sentiments beneath all their wailing. They can't even tell the truth, as they've been lying since their first breath.

By Politicalguineapig (not verified) on 24 Dec 2016 #permalink

#23/24 MJD, as a first-time commenter on this blog, my comments were moderated, as they are on many blogs, I assume to filter spam. I'm sorry that you apparently took it personally and responded with a childish taunt which doesn't invite taking your other questions seriously, in fact invites counter-insults, such as #25.

#27 Pgp, I hope you are speaking hyperbolically, though I'm not sure your purpose in doing so. Maybe it's because you haven't personally known too many anti-vax parents. I've met many anti-vax parents and adults and I think their problem is inadequate education, including judgments of reality which are informed too much by feeling and not enough by clear thinking. (Many of them are also active in the arts, where feeling judgments are of greater importance than in the sciences.) To them, I believe comments such as yours would only further convince them that vaccine promoters (and perhaps even scientists or science types in general) are cold-hearted, arrogant, and untrustworthy. This is not the way to change hearts and minds and advance public health.

#23/24 MJD, as a first-time commenter on this blog, my comments were moderated, as they are on many blogs, I assume to filter spam. I’m sorry that you apparently took it personally and responded with a childish taunt

He's having an imaginary conversation with Orac.

Mark writes (#28),

I’m sorry that you apparently took it personally and responded with a childish taunt which doesn’t invite taking your other questions seriously, in fact invites counter-insults, such as #25.

MJD says,

Mark, my apologies for the childish rendition of "Dr Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" in post #24.

Although, it has been said that humor is the best medicine.

Is humor an effective communication tool?

In retrospect, I think Orac has a very good style of writing that often diminishes pseudoscience and anti-vaccine views.

Merry Christmas Orac and thank you for being....well, thanks for being Orac.

By Michael J. Dochniak (not verified) on 24 Dec 2016 #permalink

In my experience, nothing will persuade the true believers. Usually it isn't useful to spend much time trying. But it can be more effective to aim higher up. For example, university presidents don't like being ridiculed. Pile enough ridicule on them and they stop teaching junk science.

By David Colquhoun (not verified) on 24 Dec 2016 #permalink

I usually just ask questions, mostly asking the person to bring some actual scientific evidence. When they dodge, make more claims, move goal posts or post a useless Gish Gallop of studies by the Geiers, etc... then I will go into mock mode.

Though I have been called a meany just after requesting the studies that support their claims, even before I go into mock mode.

Mark: Coldhearted? I care more about their kids then they do. They're so busy bleaching their children's intestines, giving them enemas, subjecting them to 'scoping' of the stomach and intestines and feeding their kids lupron, that they never get around to realizing that their children are actual people.
I really wouldn't care to know any anti-vax people; from what I've seen online the transformation into a vile curebie is both quick and irreversible.

By Politicalguineapig (not verified) on 24 Dec 2016 #permalink

Mark -

You’re rather new here, so please let me introduce you to MJD.

MJD is a loon. Seriously. See…

He wrote a book claiming that he knew how vaccines cause autism. Our host took note of this and droped a very small amount of (not very) Respectful Insolence.…

MJD turned up and tried to defend himself, mostly by saying ‘buy my book’. This did not go well for him. In fact, it turned into a pants down spanking.

For the past 5 years, MJD would turn up in in other threads, spouting his silly ideas. His comments were almost always off topic and were always evidence free. Eventually, after several warnings, our host had enough, and put MJD on moderation, and he is not allowed to post about his fetish.

MJD takes a dim view of this, and will often lash out at our host, as you see above.

I'll leave it to others to clue you in about PGP.

It seems to me that there are people who make their living persuading people to do things that they don't think they want to do, ie, buy something by a certain date.

I've never known a successful sales person who consistently makes their quota through ridicule or factual argument.

While there are a lot of questions over how to be a successful sales person, several things seem to work.

The first is to listen to what the person who is objecting to the sale is saying and then ask them questions about these objections, allowing them to sell themselves on the product.

Whether this approach is empathetic or not is an open question, but it is certainly not ridicule and trying to overwhelm a potential customer with facts goes nowhere.

By Edward Murray (not verified) on 24 Dec 2016 #permalink

Edward Murray, and that has to do with safety how?

"The first is to listen to what the person who is objecting to the sale is saying and then ask them questions about these objections, allowing them to sell themselves on the product."

Which in the case of the anti-vaxers does not work. When I ask them questions the responses I get are a spectacular bob and weave to avoid answering honestly. One big claim by them is that the diseases were falling before the vaccines even came out. The big lie in that is they are confusing morbidity with mortality. See:…

A few years ago someone on Science Based Medicine complained that the science community only used data from 1950 to show vaccines work. I do not know why that was important, so I searched and found measles incidence rates going back to 1912 in a US Census summary of statistics during the 20th century. So I pulled out the USA measles incidence rates that were tabulated at about five year increments. This is that table of measles incidence in the USA (I am reserving my second link elsewhere, because this site has a two URL limit):

Year.... Rate per 100000 of measles
1912 . . . 310.0
1920 . . . 480.5
1925 . . . 194.3
1930 . . . 340.8
1935 . . . 584.6
1940 . . . 220.7
1945 . . . 110.2
1950 . . . 210.1
1955 . . . 337.9
1960 . . . 245.4
1965 . . . 135.1
1970 . . . . 23.2
1975 . . . . 11.3
1980 . . . . . 5.9
1985 . . . . . 1.2
1990 . . . . .11.2
1991 . . . . . .3.8
1992 . . . . . .0.9
1993 . . . . . .0.1
1994 . . . . . .0.4
1995 . . . . . .0.1
1996 . . . . . .0.2
1997 . . . . . . 0.1

Now something weird happened between 1960 and 1970. I ask what happened, and the answers have very interesting. The next link is the most outrageous, do scroll up to see where I asked that question (it is the second comment):…


Johnny: "I’ll leave it to others to clue you in about PGP."

She is young, has no filters, and is seriously trying to be "skeptical" and "progressive." But she makes many outlandish statements about entire populations with any evidence. I mostly ignore her.

Chris: I report on observed behavior and extrapolate a little to figure out what a given demographic is thinking. For example, if I want to know what an average random dude is thinking, reddit probably knows better than he does what he is thinking at any given moment. Same with anti-vaxxers; don't ask them, ask the 'net. The net is more effective as a form of communication because it allows a glimpse at the id.

By Politicalguineapig (not verified) on 24 Dec 2016 #permalink

No, PGP, you extrapolate a LOT. And you reach conclusions that are frequently absurd and typically obnoxious.

By Julian Frost (not verified) on 24 Dec 2016 #permalink

MjD #24:
WTF???? Apology (your #31) not accepted.

I am a five-foot Pole living in the city whose university has a library named after the person whose work you degraded

Most importantly, for my purposes, this study looked at a general population, not committed conspiracy theorists

the question, of course, is whether these results are in any way generalizable.

The study subjects are all Hungarian, right?
My family is from eastern Europe, and I have relatives all over the Americas who GTFO’d post WWII, and lots who still live there.

Most of the Hungarians I’ve met have a wicked sense of humor and are well on board with using ridicule as a tool. On the Polish side – not as much. But, hey, maybe it’s just my family and their friends. Or is there a cultural bias?

I’ve been commenting here and elsewhere for more than 8 years now, and since I’m just a commenter not a blogger I try to tone my comments to what feels appropriate to whom I’m responding. Empathy for those who might to respond to it, and WTF are you thinking!!! for the likes of vinu.

No one approach reaches everyone.

In the meantime, Santa has come to my house and I have to lick the cookie plate clean and put it back on the shelf, per my dad’s cousin (one of the Hungarians).

12 years and he still can't get to the point! If had time I would start a blog re-posting Orac's posts, but edited to 1/4 or less as long.

By Helena Constantine (not verified) on 25 Dec 2016 #permalink

Most of the Hungarians I’ve met have a wicked sense of humor

The first guy I wound up sharing my office with when I was an undergraduate working in a cosmic-ray lab was Hungarian. He introduced himself by telling some sort of bestiality joke that I didn't understand in the slightest. I just remember that it ended with a peculiar, loud sound effect.

I’ve been commenting here and elsewhere for more than 8 years now, and since I’m just a commenter not a blogger I try to tone my comments to what feels appropriate to whom I’m responding. Empathy for those who might to respond to it, and WTF are you thinking!!! for the likes of vinu.

This mostly tracks my line of thinking.

I think the real insight of this study, such as it is, is not so much which method works best, but which methods work at all. It seems that they all work to some degree, so it's obvious that they should all be used.

That's what our host and the minions do, and why I enjoy this forum. If the content here was fact free and snark only, well, it would be 4chan or something like it. Straight facts I can get from WebMD or the CDC - educational, but dry. Empathy you can find about anywhere. But this is a place to get them all, and, for the most part, in proper doses at the proper time.

"12 years and he still can’t get to the point!"

If after 12 years you are unable to discover the point(s) you are not competent enough to hire yourself out as an editor and not in a position to condense his words. Were I to condense your comment I'd be left with a vacuum.

If the participants were randomly allocated why are their pre test CAT scores different? And why do they all differ in the same direction as the post test scores? As far as can see this research tells us nothing about anything.

To answer my own question, my theory is that the groups with lower CAT scores were less bought-in to the theory so were more likely to respond to reason, irrespective of the method used. This theory fits the data better than claiming that the different strategies had a significantly different outcome.
Orac, I am disappointed in you, you are normally rigorous in disassembling studies like this. This study is pure pseudoscience, no underlying scientific reasoning combined with poor methodology. Dare I accuse you of confirmation bias?

Found a good comment here:

"For a period during the 1800's green arsenic pigments were popular in wallpaper, including patterns by the extremely popular William Morris. Problem is, when the air is damp, mold can grow on the wallpaper and convert the arsenic into arsene gas, which slowly poisons anyone in the room. People noticed that they tended to get weak and sickly during the damp winter months, and if they moved to a drier climate they got better quickly. Ergo, damp weather is bad for you, vacationing on a sunny island is good for you. It took a hundred years before people realized it was just the wallpaper, and by then the myth of damp being bad for you was firmly established. Homeopathy started the same way around the same time: Doing nothing (i.e. using a homeopathic remedy) was less harmful than many of the common medical treatments of the day, so when you switched from traditional medicine to homeopathy, you tended to get better. And again, by the time people figured out that it was traditional medicine being bad, not homeopathy being good, that accounted for the improvement, it was too late and the myth lives on to this day."

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 26 Dec 2016 #permalink

There are a couple things I notice about the story that are relevant to the effectiveness of ridicule:

1) Since the people in the study were "fence sitters", as Orac put it, they could treat the ridicule as being aimed at people other than themselves or those with whom they identified, so they don't feel as much need to be defensive.

2) The ridicule was accompanied by actual argument, so it doesn't look like the table-banging that one may do when one doesn't have a case.

By J. J. Ramsey (not verified) on 26 Dec 2016 #permalink

I’m at a loss to figure how [these studies] could be improved. I guess it boils down to a desire to see objective assessments [versus?] subjective ones.

For the most part these studies can't be improved, because they're just built on totally bankrupt fantasy foundations, which result exactly from the desire "to see objective assessments" where objective assessments simply cannot be made because there's no objective thing to assess. Studies like Orosz et al are as subjective as hell, but they just hide all the subjective judgments behind unsupported assumptions treated as 'just so' objective observation. The worst 'acupuncture works' study doesn't even come close to the nuclear burning stupid spewed by Orosz et al.

Look just at the assumptions implicit in using the text above with the Icke analogy to 'test' response to 'ridicule'. 'Ridicule' is construed as some defined essence that will act in much the same way across a broad population regardless of any other qualities of the form in which it delivered. Then the Icke analogy example is offered without question as an exemplar of that essence, such that whatever 'ridicule' may activate, using that text will allow that to be measured quantitatively.

Just imagine as many different responses to anti-semitism as you can that might be labelled as 'ridicule', across different communication forms, styles, tones, degrees of interactivity, levels of skill and knowledge, and presenter personas – amidst a host of other factors. Hell, I'll bet I could dramatically swing responses to the very text they used just by using different sorts of graphic design in the presentation, or by attributing the text to different authors. Now imagine the multitude of permutations of all these factors, and tell me that sample text can produce a valid representative response of how they all function. Now, think about all the factors that will differ on the other side of the communication, the different histories and personas and skills and beliefs etc etc. etc. that the different study participants will bring to the table. Calculate all the permutation of those. Then calculate the combined permutations of 'source', 'receiver' and 'context' variability. Still think this research is credible? The preceding point only scratches the surface of the meshuge methodical mishegoss.

What this study exemplifies is what most media studies scholars refer to derisively as 'the hypodermic theory of communication'.* The research model is essentially that of medical science. In the clinical trial of a new medication:
1. There's a concrete physical thing with unique and consistent defining properties being tested.
2. There are clear indicators of whether it produces the target effect or not (the effect also being a concrete physical condition with unique and consistent defining properties).
3. The effect is a clear bright-line before-and-after change in that physical condition.
4. The effect generally appears more or less directly after the 'injection', and typically doesn't change in nature (only perhaps by degree) over time.
5. This typically all follows along with a scientifically plausible theory of mechanism-of-action.

None of which are the case in dealing with what people think or believe...

Finally, on a different note, given the high ethical dudgeon proposals for placebo research or vaxed-v.-unvaxed studies receive here, I find it telling that no comment on the ethics of this study have appeared. As one of my old professors. joked about one from of 'hypodermic theory' research in the 70s and 80s – which tried to draw a link between porno and violence against women by having college undergrad men watch dirty movies and then measuring their 'aggression' ten-minutes later by methods ranging from attitude surveys to behavior in Milgrom-style delivery of 'electric shocks' to a pain feigning confederate – if the researchers (one of whom was Edward Donnerstein) actually believed their own claims they should rename the Psych 101 sections where the study participants were recruited "Eddie's School For Rapists".

So here Orasz et al fed anti-semitic hate speech to two groups of Eastern Europeans, one without following that with a debunking they expected to work well ('empathetic condition'), and another without following that with any debunking at all (the control group that just heard a weather report). So I'd have to call that 'Gabor's School For Pogroms' ('Look Ma, no Godwin!) if I thought they really believed their own theses down in their heart of hearts.

But I can't shake the thought that reality has to intrude to some degree, and no one in their right might would imagine "a nationally representative probability sample of 813 Hungarians, selected randomly from an Internet-enabled panel" isn't full of folks who've been around the block more than a few times hearing both 'Jewish banker' CTs and arguments against them, or that a 4:30 audio injection of such a CT would turn any of them toward conspiracy theory in any meaningful lasting way, or that a subsequent 3:30 audio injection of any sort of debunking would inoculate them against holding onto to any anti-semitic CT they might have been entertaining before the second recording rolled.

Dare I venture that this may be no more than playing the publish-or-perish game of tenure and promotion? Guess I just did...