Category: Internet

*Yes* obstruction: ‘Active information avoidance’ and the Mueller Report

It is one of the great ironies of modern politics that Donald Trump is associated with popularising the term “fake news” to western audiences. Heck, on a number of occasions he claimed to have coined the phrase himself. (At one point he even claimed to have invented the word “fake.”)

That claim turned out to be, yes, well, you know what it turned out to be.

It’s so obvious, it’s not even funny.

And speaking of obvious, here is the final paragraph — the FINAL CONCLUDING PARAGRAPH COMPRISING THE ‘CONCLUSIONS’ SECTION — of the Mueller Report:

Surely this is the killer bit:

…if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we were unable to reach that judgement.

After 400+ pages, it’s quite an in-your-face ending. All that’s missing is a Mic Drop GIF.

Pic: giphy.com

And yet…

What is it that some people can’t see?

I guess what we have here is a case of “active information avoidance.”

Active information avoidance is the term psychologists use to describe how people knowingly choose to avoid, ignore, or downplay information that they are aware (a) is available and (b) is materially relevant. People engage in active information avoidance when they choose not to look at something that makes them feel bad.

Active information avoidance helps us to understand that the idea that humans are, by default, rational self-interested decision-makers is actually a myth. In reality, most humans default to irrational (but still self-interested) decision-making. It’s the psychology of echo chambers, groupthink, false consensus effects, and confirmation bias. And it’s really hard to get rid of.

One example is the ‘ostrich effect‘, where investors literally avoid logging into their online share data when they know the stock market is ‘down’, but log in more frequently when the stock market is ‘up’.

A second example is more common — when middle-class people avoid eye-contact with poor people they encounter begging on the street. Prosperous people also commonly avoid visiting poor areas of town for similar reasons — to avoid finding out how poor the poor really are.

The reality is that most people are prone to active information avoidance, especially when there is a risk that new information might debunk their worldview or threaten their sense of themselves.

Photo by Rosemary Ketchum on Pexels.com

Active information avoidance helps people to preserve their sense of safety, righteousness, and certainty. We are all prone to it.

So maybe that’s why US Attorney General William Barr chose to selectively quote that last Mueller paragraph in his infamous four-page teaser trailer the other week. You know, the one where he quoted the “does not conclude/does not exonerate” bit and then implied that Mueller was making some kind of philosophical point about underdetermination.

And maybe that’s why Trump himself was so quick to summarise “DOES NOT exonerate” to mean “TOTAL exoneration.” In philosophy-of-science terms, we might consider this “Not-X-is-equal-to-Total-X” stance as consistent with an extreme form of “fallibilism” — the idea that no belief is ever justified; that every claim to truth is liable to be the opposite of true.

Instead of invoking Game of Thrones imagery, he could have just tweeted the Duhem-Quine thesis.

(Or maybe he’s simply just a liar. Who knows?)

Psychologically, the ultimate range of crowdsourceable ideas is wide open. Because of active information avoidance, it can include virtually anything. We shouldn’t be surprised to see black-is-white argumentation in modern politics. In fact, we should probably be surprised if we don’t see it.

But one thing about active information avoidance is that it can’t last forever. In most cases, it is self-defeating. Information, by definition, has utility — the term information is reserved for ‘counsel from fact’ that is useful, that resolves uncertainty, that leads to better decisions. When people avoid information, they avoid something that has utility. In theory, at least, they should ultimately fall behind those who are good at facing up to things — as when the people who have their medical check-ups ultimately fare better than those who avoid them.

You never know. Maybe this is the tipping point. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s an illusion.

Yep, maybe it’s fake (thank you, sir).

If this is what the collapse of centrism looks like, then PLEASE give me more centrism

All the “worst people in Ireland” are running for election at the same time. We’re talking your racists, we’re talking your sexists, we’re talking your anti-vaxxers, your anti-fluoriders, your anti-Semites. The anti-5G brigade are in there. The anti-feminists too. And the anti-LGBT folks.

Not all of them are so negative. Some of them are actually pro stuff. For example, we have pro-lifers. We have pro-gun people. We even have pro-Illuminati Conspiracy theorists.

Pro or anti, there is something for everybody.

Conall McCallig has made a list (check out his original blog post for hyperlinks):

[Edit: The list has since been updated to include Allan Brennan (Independent) – Anti-5G, Anti-Vaxxer, Diarmaid Mulcahy (Independent) – Anti-Vaxxer, Anti-Fluoride, and James Miller (Independent) – Anti-5G, Anti-Vaxxer, Anti-Semitic, Anti-Muslim]

Is it just me, or are there rather a lot of names on that list?

In Ireland, 59 candidates are running in this year’s European Parliament elections. The above list accounts for a quarter of the field. But as Conall himself points out, there were other candidates about which he could source no information. These off-grid people could be even more fringe than the horribles he did manage to track down. In other words, we could be talking about close to a third of the slate holding extremist, esoteric, or, shall we say, eccentric views on social issues.

In the Irish part of the Euro elections, thirteen seats are up for grabs (two of which may be re-allocated back to Britain if the UK eventually decides not to leave the European Union). In other words, there are more kooky candidates than there are seats to be filled.

It seems to me that some of these folks are more sinister than others. If anything, the anti-Illuminati, anti-5G, or anti-GMO candidates are very much the lesser of evils. In fact their worst influence might not be to actually get elected. Rather, their damage would be to facilitate the seriously shady ones — the real bigots — to hide behind the crazy bush.

In other words, there’s a danger that the wackos who think that 5G internet is a deep-state conspiracy to line the pockets of Big Telecom while causing cellphone brain cancer in the masses will make the de facto racists come across as serious politicians.

But they’re not. The racists are…well…they are racists. And there are several of them. And this is precisely their opportunity to capitalize on a global trend of chaos to push xenophobic agendas through to the middle-class mainstreams of the Western world, including in our own little backwater here in grand old Ireland.

I mean, they are already setting fire to asylum centres.

This is far from a comedy election.

If you spend 20 years gaslighting your patients, perhaps you should think twice before accusing *them* of trolling *you*

This week we learned that online activists are silencing scientists in the UK:

Reuters contacted a dozen professors, doctors and researchers with experience of analysing or testing potential treatments for chronic fatigue syndrome. All said they had been the target of online harassment because activists objected to their findings. Only two had definite plans to continue researching treatments…

The idea of critics or activists challenging researchers and seeking to hold science to account isn’t new. Most researchers say they are happy to engage in discussion. But with social media, email and internet now accessible from almost every home, mass communication gives online activists a voice with unprecedented power. In the field of CFS/ME research, it’s often personal. Those at the centre of it say it’s gotten out of control.

The good news is that these poor put-upon scientists are not going down alone. They have defenders. For example, rushing to their aid on the pages of The Times was none other than that paragon of fact-checking, Mr Rod Liddle:

Yep. That Rod Liddle.

Far be it from me to say anything bad about Mr Liddle. I will leave it to Wikipedia to explain how his various writings have been described as racist, homophobic, transphobic, ablist, misogynistic, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic, and regularly just hurtful to whatever vulnerable minority or target group he chooses in the moment. I know, Wikipedia might be wrong. Bad Wikipedia.

Nonetheless, we can certainly say that Mr Liddle is very much on the side of the silenced scientists. I won’t quote him directly. Instead, I will direct you to Frances Ryan’s eloquent riposte over at The Guardian, where she identifies the vilification of myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome patients as just yet another form of 21st-century hate speech.

But won’t somebody please think of those poor scientists?

Who are they, exactly? Well, here’s an old group photo that contains some of them:

A group of people who were definitely *not* trolling anybody.
(Pic: Adapted from @BenMcNevis via Twitter)

Yep, there they are, attending a meeting on “Malingering and Illness Deception” way back in 2001 (and yes, I edited the image to blur their faces and remove their names, as a courtesy).

For 20 years, they have promoted a psychogenic model of ME/CFS. Their theory dismisses sufferers as psychiatric patients whose condition is all in the mind, rather than persons debilitated by authentic physical illness or disease.

But those terms though. “Malingering“? “Illness Deception“? Seriously? Even if the psychogenic theory were true, such labels are not very nice ways to describe patients. You might even consider them, well, abusive.

As it happens, the psychogenic theory is in fact highly unlikely to be true. The theory is defended by an ever dwindling (predominantly British) cohort of professionally interconnected psychomedical practitioners, and stands in increasing contrast to, say, the scientifically informed positions listed by the ME International Consensus Panel, the US National Academy of of Medicine and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization.

As I have written about before (here, here, here, here, and here), ME/CFS is a chronic, inflammatory, physically and neurologically disabling and likely immune-mediated disease, involving disruption and dysfunction of multiple bodily systems.

That is, unless you are in the UK’s crazy ME/CFS psycho-vortex. In that topsy-turvy place, ME/CFS is an example of “malingering” or “illness deception”. Basically, the disease is just an opinion. An idea the patient dreamed up in their free time. After all, patients have so much free time — you would too, if you were restricted to lying in your bed, unable to move, for several decades.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Note that the “Malingering and Illness Deception” conference pre-dated, by several years, the much beleaguered PACE Trial, which is so often held up as providing key evidence to support the use of psychosocial therapies for ME/CFS. According to Reuters,

…[the PACE trial] sought to evaluate the effectiveness of different types of therapy in CFS/ME patients…the results found that cognitive behavioural therapy – designed to help patients change their thinking and behaviour – and graded exercise therapy – in which patients are encouraged to start from very low levels of daily activity and then incrementally raise them – are safe and moderately effective treatments for some people.

It is striking how the Reuters reporter so readily accepts that the PACE Trial simply “found” what it said it found, just because the authors said so in the original research report. In reality, the PACE Trial has been described as flawed by several high-profile authoritative reviews, and is extensively described as such in subsequent scientific and medical literature (although not, it seems, extensively enough for the Reuters reporter to find it using, I don’t know, maybe the internet? Perhaps their broadband was down that day…).

Pro-tip: Next time, try PubMed.
(Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com)

It is notable that most of the high-profile figures who promote the PACE Trial held their views long before the PACE Trial was ever conducted. They wrote papers about their views, authored books about their views, designed therapies based on their views, developed psychometric instruments drawing on their views, and — yes — organised conferences among themselves in order to discuss their views. These views are core to their professional identities. For many, these views are the only reason they have professional identities.

Rather than providing evidence to support a new understanding of ME/CFS, the PACE Trial was conducted long after the investigators’ conclusions were formed. PACE was not the source from which insights were sprung. It was practically the last act in the play. And according to one of its authors, the PACE Trial pretty much amounts to the very last thing he will have to do with ME/CFS:

[He] no longer conducts research into CFS/ME treatments, focusing instead on helping severely ill cancer patients. “It’s just too toxic,” he explained. Of more than 20 leading research groups who were publishing treatment studies in high-quality journals 10 years ago, [he] said, only one or two continue to do so.

(Of course, an alternative view could be that research prospects are drying up because the field of psychogenic treatments for ME/CFS is scientifically unsustainable. The model is proving to be anachronistic; it is increasingly hard to get research funding for the stuff.)

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It is absolutely true that much of the discourse surrounding ME/CFS is deeply fraught and highly contentious. There is a lot of anger. There is serious pressure. There is extensive name-calling and criticism that targets individuals. Things can get messy. No doubt about it.

That said, though, we should remember what is going on here.

Namely: patients with serious physical disabilities are being told, by a small coterie of academic health professionals, that their illness is a figment of their imaginations. That’s pretty incendiary. But then they are told that, as a consequence of their “illness deception”, they must be treated effectively as psychiatric cases. They must be given psychological and behavioural therapy, instead of biophysical medicine.

It is quite the double-whammy. Many of these patients are bed-ridden for decades, emaciated and debilitated, unable to study or work or hold down a normal family life. And yet they are told: “We do not believe you are really ill. You are malingering. And precisely because you are malingering, you now will be prevented from receiving proper treatment.

I don’t know about you, but that pretty much sounds like trolling to me.

These practitioners have basically been gaslighting their patients for twenty years.

All of which makes it just a little pathetic to watch them now leverage their press contacts to publicly complain that they are the ones being insulted by, ugh, mere sick people.

A final word: We have all been trolled on the internet. I have been trolled on the internet. In fact, just about every time I write about ME/CFS, I get trolled, sometimes on Twitter, sometimes by email. And I can tell you this. The folks who troll me are far from critics of the PACE Trial.

Very far indeed.

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