We could say that the whole reason the Skeptical Inquirer exists is to counter misinformation. And in this era of ubiquitous social media and electronic outlets, that is an increasingly tall order. Everybody now has the equivalent of their own printing press, and nearly everyone seems to think they are an expert. One result is a plethora of misinformation. This may indeed be the Age of Misinformation, a term we first used as the theme of our CSICOP conference in 1996, just when widespread public Internet access and email was getting underway. Two decades later, the problem has only intensified.
In this issue, Columbia University professor David J. Helfand surveys the current situation and gives us his guide to “Surviving the Misinformation Age.” There is nothing new about misinformation in public life (Helfand gives an example from 2,400 years ago), but modern technologies to send it instantaneously to millions have given it a life of its own. Yet, as he says, facts about the physical world still exist, and for those of us still convinced that rational analysis of those facts has value in understanding that world (what a thought!), a counterattack may be in order. Helfand gives positive advice and guidelines, and they all depend on our using the methods, habits, and values of science (“the most powerful intellectual tool humankind has yet invented”) to lead us out of the morass of misinformation.
Helfand has been on the faculty of Columbia’s Department of Astronomy for four decades and is a former department chair. A fellow of our Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and a recent president of the American Astronomical Society, Helfand spoke at our 2016 CSICon conference and last year published a seminal book on these topics, A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age. I highly recommend it.
One particular type of misinformation, denialism—and a new form of it at that—is the topic of Harriet Hall’s article “Statin Denialism.” If you haven’t heard of that term before, it’s because Hall coined it here to refer to the intentional use of “alternative facts; in other words: lies” and other misinformation to attempt to discredit statins, medications that are helping millions. She gives the evidence. It is a delight to welcome back physician Hall, the “SkepDoc,” to our pages for the first time since her recovery from injuries in a fall at Ayers Rock following the Australian Skeptics convention in October.
U.S. Air Force Academy psychology professor Craig A. Foster returns to our pages with “Vaccines, Autism, and the Promotion of Irrelevant Research” (with colleague Sarenna M. Ortiz). They identify “the promotion of irrelevant research”—presenting lists of “questionable or peripherally related research studies”—as a fundamental new tactic being used to make pseudoscience look like science. As these articles indicate, fake news and fake claims are not new with this latest political cycle. We welcome all those in public life newly aware of such maladies to our world in which examining, investigating, and exposing questionable claims and fake science—pseudoscience—has been our very reason for being for a very long time.