There have been a couple of instances where it has been suggested I have ‘ignored’ evidence. The most recent instance was a sub-tweet so may have been someone else responsible for this grievous crime. Nonetheless it is something I feel quite strongly about and one of my values is that I present evidence (mostly this refers to scientific research) as clearly and honestly as I have perceived it. Both these accusations of me ‘ignoring’ evidence are quite interesting to dissect. They both have a similar pattern and the charge is unfair. Please allow me to explain.
The first instance was a published debate in the New Zealand Medical Journal about smoking in films. There are some observational studies, which were referred to in the article, so not strictly ignored by myself and co-authors. Truly ignoring would be not mentioning or acknowledging their existence or indeed investing time in responding to them. Anyway my co-authors and I responded via debate and the full debate is available here. In summary, some tobacco control researchers want a R rating on films with smoking scenes, because the observational studies referred to in the debate show that the more smoking scenes a teenagers sees, regardless of context and framing, the more at risk they are of smoking. This R rating would theoretically work via film producers wanting a broader market than an R rating enables. They would therefore be likely to forgo smoking scenes. However I am hoping some of you can see where the actual evidence discussed begins to have some unknowns and assumptions thrown in now between what the research was on and the actual outcome we really want (a measured reduction in uptake of smoking). I’ll just throw in one unknown I can come up with – R rated films still sell and if my teenager is anything to go by – will still be popular and actively sought out for their edginess and rebellion factor. How many producers will actually forgo their artistic licence for greater anticipated returns? So we don’t know what sort of reduction in smoking scenes viewed we will actually get and whether the magnitude of it will be large enough to have a measurable effect on risk of smoking uptake.
I’ll just flag another of my fairly strong values here. I’m deeply suspicious of censorship and grateful that I live in a place where most of the time I have the opportunity and am empowered to make my own judgement about the material I see and respond to. Censorship is dis-empowerment. Someone else, somewhere else controls what is available to shape your thinking and challenge your thinking. When censorship is enabled it will invariably favour and support prevailing power structures. So this is a segue into the second charge that I am “ignoring or rejecting evidence”.
Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw recently wrote a piece about why we shouldn’t share polarised content on social media. In a tweet that has been subsequently deleted Jess politely requested that Bryce Edwards not tweet the witch cartoon penned by Al Nisbet. The cartoon infers that the recently launched and promoted investigation led by Alison Mau is a witch hunt and will be based on rumour, gossip etc. People, of course, are outraged. The cartoon is a very weak critique of the investigation. It is an unrealistic suggestion that these women who are investigating inappropriate sexual behaviour in the workplace are just trouble-makers aka witches. Most men and women these days will parse the cartoon, recognise it carries a fading outdated attitude and unrealistic generalisation and ignore it. Others, not me, will write and talk eloquently about how and why it is crap and a weak argument. It will reinforce a viewpoint in a group of people who already had this viewpoint and will be nigh on impossible to shift from their viewpoint.
My immediate response was to disagree that Bryce shouldn’t share it. It shouldn’t be censored. So I was curious to read Jess’s elaboration of her rationale for encouraging us not to share ‘polarising content’ on social media. The definition she gives is
“Polarising communication is that which encourages people to view an issue, implicitly or explicitly, as a “them” versus “us” scenario. They are more common in areas of social controversy and present an exaggerated or extreme view. It is a type of misinformation.”
and she elaborates a little on this definition with
“polarising communications (cartoons, opinion pieces, interviews etc)”
There are two issues. Firstly, the looseness of this definition is likely to prevent most people from consistently being able to identify arising future ‘polarising content’. The only reliable way seems to be stick it out there and see the response! Who decides what is and what isn’t polarising content before it is widely shared? Who is given this power and inherent in that – who is dis-empowered?
Secondly, the reason we shouldn’t share polarising content is that it “entrenches misunderstandings” and prevents us from talking about values we hold in common. It is rather melodramatically “ripping at our social fabric”. What is the evidence that sharing “polarising content,” regardless of context, even negative context, is doing this?
Jess draws together a body of research which, in themselves, all make excellent reading for those interested in communicating science or research with the goal of solving daunting world problems such as climate change or poverty. However it is somewhat disparate research on topics that Jess herself connects, with reasonable rationale, in dot to dot style. With that dot connecting there are an awful lot of assumptions and unknowns, like the one I described earlier pertaining to R rated films and smoking, starting to creep in.
‘Polarising content’, is a type of misinformation according to Jess, because it presents an extreme or exaggerated viewpoint. This is based on studies that show that an extreme viewpoint, when repeatedly presented, may lead to individuals overestimating the number of people holding that viewpoint, this phenomenon is labelled pluralistic ignorance. The reference has this to say,
“…repetition in the echo chambers of social-media networks
particularly influential. One possible consequence of
such repetition is pluralistic ignorance,”
The reference provides a couple of examples of pluralistic ignorance developing but the contributing factors and environment were a lot more than complex than repeated sharing of ‘polarising content’. Jess hasn’t referred to a suite of studies or even one study that specifically tests the impact of well defined ‘polarising content’ on a persons estimation of the prevalence of support for it. Let alone a study that examines various contexts in which ‘polarising content’ is presented i.e. is it framed positively or negatively, is it shared between good friends who have opposing views on that particular issue? The evidence that ‘polarising content,’ consistently and regardless of context, is misinformation is definitely shaky.
There are a couple more instances where research on subtly different questions are drawn in and linked – but with that linking comes assumptions. This makes for tenuous evidence and certainly at this stage does not come close to justifying a call for government censorship of social media,
“For governments, it’s time to consider the regulation of social media, particularly the use and misuse of it by powerful groups to manipulate people into polarised positions that serve vested interests.”
I don’t like the misuse of social media for manipulation of minds and trial by media but censorship is ‘dis-empowering’ and this ultimately favours the entrenched powerful.