A Mistranslated Word Led To Some Of The Best Fake News Of The 20th Century

A translation error is pretty much responsible for a generation of science fiction (which was initially published directly in the mainstream press as science fact).

.. Giovanni Schiaparelli was an Italian astronomer who, upon observing Mars in 1877, claimed to see channels running over the planet’s surface. In time, this would be recognized as an illusion, but “in time” was several decades. His word choice to describe the channels — “canali” — was mistranslated in English as canals.

.. when Percival Lowell (founder of the Lowell Observatory) read that there were canals on Mars, he ran with it, considering them actual irrigation systems after his initial observations of the planet in 1894.

.. Lowell claimed that the canals were incontrovertibly real and that their presence proved the existence of Martians

.. Next time a New York Times reporter gives an upstart publication guff about clickbait, refer them to the masterpiece of fan fiction published in 1906 under the headline “THERE IS LIFE ON THE PLANET MARS.”2

.. lots of people — particularly the English astronomy community — thought the Martian theory was bunk, but so many people did not.

.. Canal enthusiast Kaempffert became the Times’ science editor in 1927, a post he held for 26 years

.. Mary Proctor speculated that vast armies and fleets could be warring on the planet just as they were in the contemporary Russo-Japanese war and in the Crimean War.4

The Problem With Facts

Just before Christmas 1953, the bosses of America’s leading tobacco companies met John Hill, the founder and chief executive of one of America’s leading public relations firms, Hill & Knowlton. Despite the impressive surroundings — the Plaza Hotel, overlooking Central Park in New York — the mood was one of crisis.

Scientists were publishing solid evidence of a link between smoking and cancer. From the viewpoint of Big Tobacco, more worrying was that the world’s most read publication, The Reader’s Digest, had already reported on this evidence in a 1952 article, “Cancer by the Carton”. The journalist Alistair Cooke, writing in 1954, predicted that the publication of the next big scientific study into smoking and cancer might finish off the industry.

.. So successful was Big Tobacco in postponing that day of reckoning that their tactics have been widely imitated ever since. They have also inspired a thriving corner of academia exploring how the trick was achieved.

.. In 1995, Robert Proctor, a historian at Stanford University who has studied the tobacco case closely, coined the word “agnotology”. This is the study of how ignorance is deliberately produced ..

.. In the UK’s EU referendum, the Leave side pushed the false claim that the UK sent £350m a week to the EU. It is hard to think of a previous example in modern western politics of a campaign leading with a transparent untruth, maintaining it when refuted by independent experts, and going on to triumph anyway.

.. The instinctive reaction from those of us who still care about the truth — journalists, academics and many ordinary citizens — has been to double down on the facts.

.. The link between cigarettes and cancer was supported by the world’s leading medical scientists and, in 1964, the US surgeon general himself. The story was covered by well-trained journalists committed to the values of objectivity. Yet the tobacco lobbyists ran rings round them.

  1. First, the industry appeared to engage, promising high-quality research into the issue. The public were assured that the best people were on the case.
  2. .. The second stage was to complicate the question and sow doubt: lung cancer might have any number of causes, after all.  And wasn’t lung cancer, not cigarettes, what really mattered?
  3. .. Stage three was to undermine serious research and expertise. Autopsy reports would be dismissed as anecdotal, epidemiological work as merely statistical, and animal studies as irrelevant.
  4. Finally came normalisation: the industry would point out that the tobacco-cancer story was stale news. Couldn’t journalists find something new and interesting to say?

.. “It’s as if the president’s team were using the tobacco industry’s playbook,” says Jon Christensen

.. One infamous internal memo from the Brown & Williamson tobacco company, typed up in the summer of 1969, sets out the thinking very clearly: “Doubt is our product.” Why? Because doubt “is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.” Big Tobacco’s mantra: keep the controversy alive.

Doubt is usually not hard to produce, and facts alone aren’t enough to dispel it.

.. a simple untruth can beat off a complicated set of facts simply by being easier to understand and remember.

.. When doubt prevails, people will often end up believing whatever sticks in the mind

.. The account mentioned petrol cans and paint but later explained that petrol and paint hadn’t been present at the scene after all. The experimental subjects, tested on their comprehension, recalled that paint wasn’t actually there. But when asked to explain facts about the fire (“why so much smoke?”), they would mention the paint. Lacking an alternative explanation, they fell back on a claim they had already acknowledged was wrong

.. This should warn us not to let lie-and-rebuttal take over the news cycle. Several studies have shown that repeating a false claim, even in the context of debunking that claim, can make it stick.

.. The myth, after all, was the thing that kept being repeated. In trying to dispel the falsehood, the endless rebuttals simply make the enchantment stronger.

.. This sort of fact-checking article is invaluable to a fellow journalist who needs the issues set out and hyperlinked. But for an ordinary voter, the likely message would be: “You can’t trust politicians but we do seem to send a lot of money to the EU.”

.. he wished the bus had displayed a more defensible figure, such as £240m. But Lilico now acknowledges that the false claim was the more effective one. “In cynical campaigning terms, the use of the £350m figure was perfect,” he says. “It created a trap that Remain campaigners kept insisting on jumping into again and again and again.”

.. The false claim was vastly more powerful than a true one would have been, not because it was bigger, but because everybody kept talking about it.

.. The researchers began with data from 1.2 million internet users but ended up examining only 50,000. Why? Because only 4 per cent of the sample read enough serious news to be worth including in such a study. (The hurdle was 10 articles and two opinion pieces over three months.)

.. known as the “50 cent army”, after the amount contributors were alleged to be paid per post

.. “Almost none of the Chinese government’s 50c party posts engage in debate or argument of any kind . . . they seem to avoid controversial issues entirely . . . the strategic objective of the regime is to distract and redirect public attention.”

.. simply pick a fight with Megyn Kelly, The New York Times or even Arnold Schwarzenegger. Isn’t that more eye-catching than a discussion of healthcare reform?

.. “The tobacco industry was the leading funder of research into genetics, viruses, immunology, air pollution,” says Proctor. Almost anything, in short, except tobacco.

.. Proctor considers its main purpose was to produce interesting new speculative science.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease may be rare, but it was exciting news. Smoking-related diseases such as lung cancer and heart disease aren’t news at all.

.. Proctor describes it as “the opposite of terrorism: trivialism”. Terrorism provokes a huge media reaction; smoking does not. Yet, according to the US Centers for Disease Control, smoking kills 480,000 Americans a year. This is more than 50 deaths an hour. Terrorists have rarely managed to kill that many Americans in an entire year. But the terrorists succeed in grabbing the headlines; the trivialists succeed in avoiding them.

.. the truth can feel threatening, and threatening people tends to backfire.

.. But parents who were already wary of vaccines were actually less likely to say they’d vaccinate their children after being exposed to the facts — despite apparently believing those facts.

.. “People accept the corrective information but then resist in other ways,” says Reifler. A person who feels anxious about vaccination will subconsciously push back by summoning to mind all the other reasons why they feel vaccination is a bad idea. The fear of autism might recede, but all the other fears are stronger than before.

.. Reifler’s research suggests that you’ll accept the narrow fact that Turkey is not about to join the EU. But you’ll also summon to mind all sorts of other anxieties: immigration, loss of control, the proximity of Turkey to Syria’s war and to Isis, terrorism and so on. The original lie has been disproved, yet its seductive magic lingers.

.. Practical reasoning is often less about figuring out what’s true, and more about staying in the right tribe.

.. The Dartmouth students tended to overlook Dartmouth fouls but were quick to pick up on the sins of the Princeton players. The Princeton students had the opposite inclination. They concluded that, despite being shown the same footage, the Dartmouth and Princeton students didn’t really see the same events. Each student had his own perception, closely shaped by his tribal loyalties. The title of the research paper was “They Saw a Game”.

.. Some students were told it was a protest by gay-rights protesters outside an army recruitment office against the military’s (then) policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. Others were told that it was an anti-abortion protest in front of an abortion clinic.

.. Liberal students were relaxed about the behaviour of people they thought were gay-rights protesters but worried about what the pro-life protesters were doing; conservative students took the opposite view.

.. When we reach the conclusion that we want to reach, we’re engaging in “motivated reasoning”. Motivated reasoning was a powerful ally of the tobacco industry.

.. If you’re addicted to a product, and many scientists tell you it’s deadly, but the tobacco lobby tells you that more research is needed, what would you like to believe?

.. the industry often got a sympathetic hearing in the press because many journalists were smokers. These journalists desperately wanted to believe their habit was benign, making them ideal messengers for the industry.

.. “Groups with opposing values often become more polarised, not less, when exposed to scientifically sound information.”

.. scientific literacy can actually widen the gap between different political tribes on issues such as climate change — that is, well-informed liberals and well-informed conservatives are further apart in their views than liberals and conservatives who know little about the science

.. the role not of scientific literacy but of scientific curiosity.

.. “politically motivated reasoning . . . appears to be negated by science curiosity”. Scientifically literate people, remember, were more likely to be polarised in their answers to politically charged scientific questions. But scientifically curious people were not.

.. Curiosity brought people together in a way that mere facts did not. The researchers muse that curious people have an extra reason to seek out the facts: “To experience the pleasure of contemplating surprising insights into how the world works.”

.. Curiosity is the seed from which sensible democratic decisions can grow. It seems to be one of the only cures for politically motivated reasoning but it’s also, into the bargain, the cure for a society where most people just don’t pay attention to the news because they find it boring or confusing.

.. What we need is a Carl Sagan or David Attenborough of social science

.. One candidate would have been Swedish doctor and statistician Hans Rosling, who died in February

Tech titans’ latest project: Defy death

For centuries, explorers have searched the world for the fountain of youth. Today’s billionaires believe they can create it, using technology and data.

What many of the recent efforts have in common is a belief that computerized analysis of big data sets can deliver cures, predict outbreaks and discover patterns that would have been impossible for the human brain to process. An oft-cited example is Google’s flu heat map, which is built on the idea that an improved predictor for flu activity might be clusters of searches for, say, Tamiflu or “flu symptoms,” collected from Internet service provider addresses.

That approach turns the traditional scientific method on its head. In the United States, most biomedical research happens at a gradual and sometimes painfully deliberate pace. Scientists start with a hypothesis, conduct experiments to test it and then spend years refining and analyzing the results they collect.

.. And there are few checks and balances on such initiatives. Once, two-thirds of scientific and medical research was funded by the federal government, beholden to the public good. Now, two-thirds is funded by private industry, a growing share by billionaires accountable to no one and impatient with the pace of innovation.

.. America remains deeply ambivalent about using new medical treatments to live radically longer lives. In a 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 51 percent said they believed treatments to slow, stop or reverse aging would have a negative impact on society.

.. In that kind of world, social change comes to a standstill, he said; aging dictators could stay in power for centuries.

.. Fukuyama said in an interview. “Extending the average human life span is a great example of something that is individually desirably by almost everyone but collectively not a good thing. For evolutionary reasons, there is a good reason why we die when we do.”

.. Vinod Khosla, one of Silicon Valley’s most revered venture capitalists, likened the practice of medicine to witchcraft. He argued that machines are better than the average doctor and that disruption in health care was more likely to be driven by those outside the industry than those in the profession.

.. Since 2010, the National Institutes of Health’s budget has been cut by about $3.6 billion — or 11 percent — after adjusting for inflation

.. Prevailing theory among the tech entrepreneurs holds that the federal government is too risk-averse to properly drive medical research.  A failed project in Washington is akin to a great tragedy — with managers being called to testify at congressional hearings and Government Accountability Office investigations being launched into why so much taxpayer money was wasted. But in the entrepreneurial world, say tech leaders, failure is regarded as a learning opportunity on the way to the next innovation.

 .. scientists, motivated by the pressures to publish and entangled in a web of conflicts of interest, manipulate data so often that it’s impossible to trust the body of scientific literature that  assesses the efficacy of hormone-replacement therapy or vitamin E or low-dose aspirin. Of 45 well-accepted journal articles about medical interventions, Ioannidis found, 14, or 31 percent, were later shown to be wrong or exaggerated.
.. Thiel said the problem with the grant-making processes at NIH, the National Science Foundation and other major funders of research is that they are “consensus-oriented.”
.. everyone would be like Harriette Thompson, the 91-year-old who broke records this year after completing a marathon in 7 hours and 7 minutes.
.. The big challenge of aging research is that to make it work the way people want it to scientists would have to figure out a way to extend all human systems simultaneously and shut them all down at pretty much the same time. Otherwise you would be replacing one way of dying with another.
.. “If you did this, you might start working on some great projects you might otherwise not have attempted because you didn’t think you’d finish,” Thiel said. “You’d treat strangers a lot better because you’d likely see them again. You’d be a much better steward of the Earth than if you thought it was your last day and you were having a crazy party or something.”