The Power behind Misinformation

Wendy M. Grossman

“My work focuses on why and how bad ideas spread,” Angela Saini says in The Misinformation Virus, a BBC radio program she wrote and presented in December 2019. She sounds like a skeptic—one of us!—and indeed much of the program familiarly explores how people promote pseudoscience by cherry-picking and misinterpreting scientific research and revive old, discredited ideas by giving them new names. It then ponders the appeal of misinformation. In considering the role of social media, Saini interviews Rob Elliott Smith, who produces the term informational gerrymandering, which I immediately plan to steal, although there’s prior art.

If Saini were like most journalists eking out a living in the United Kingdom, her next work would be completely unrelated—a comparison review of toilet paper, perhaps (or, like me, computers). Instead, she issued a Twitter (@angeladsaini) call for people to join a panel to consider how to halt the spread of misinformation. The responses led to two meetings of the responding group of scientists, academics, journalists, and editors, and she’s mulling the next step.

“I wanted to tangibly look at the spread of pseudoscience online and in academia,” she says. “It’s always been there, but I feel the problem is exacerbated online because it’s so easy to share bad data and bad papers even after they’ve been retracted.”

Saini grew up in southeast London. “It was a very racist area,” she says. “Not that many minorities, so just every day we were made aware that we were different.” The headquarters of the fascist British National Party were nearby, and her school years were overshadowed by the racially motivated 1993 murder of black British teenager Stephen Lawrence; a 1999 review found the police were institutionally racist, and that review led to changes in practice.

“It’s why people say things are much better now,” she says, “but that’s because things were really bad before. Legislation had to be brought in.” She mentions her sister, who is eight years younger than she is. “Her generation don’t put up with anything anymore, and they don’t have to. #MeToo really showed it’s possible, if we stick together, to create change.”

On arriving at Oxford, Saini joined the Student Union’s anti-racism committee. Activism led her to writing. “All my work has always meant something to me personally,” she says. “The only reason I became a journalist in the first place was because of the social justice issue.”

She is author of three books: Geek Nation: How Indian Science Is Taking Over the World (2011); Inferior: The True Power of Women and the Science That Shows It (2017); and the recently published Superior: The Return of Race Science (2019). In addition, she writes and presents programs for the BBC, including a two-part TV documentary on the racist history of eugenics, and has written for publications including the Guardian, National Geographic, New Humanist, and Wired. She has two master’s degrees—her first from Oxford in engineering and her second in science and security from the Department of War Studies at Kings College London.

Geek Nation happened, she says, because she was moving to India for a while, and she had already written a piece about lie directors, whose use Indian courts allow in a limited way. She was led to Inferior when, coming off maternity leave, she was asked to write a piece on menopause. “I had never written much on biology.”

Inferior was my introduction to Saini. I bought it with irritated rage: hadn’t Carol Tavris finished this stuff off in 1993 in The Mismeasure of Woman? She had and she hadn’t; Tavris’s debunking was thorough, but sexists can always find some new way of re-presenting the same old, and the need to re-debunk the same old myths is a real thing. Ditto racism, the focus of Superior. These ideas have been discredited for decades, yet they persist. Why?

“People want to believe they were born into a special group. Group superiority really appeals to them,” Saini says. In addition, “Very often they’re not remarkable people in their own right, and they need to believe something about themselves that makes them feel better about who they are.”

In Superior, she says, “I’m trying hard to make the point that this is about power, and always has been. These ideas are so pseudoscientific. The reason they persist is because of power, not because the ideas have validity.”

I had not thought about it this way, which Saini’s based on observation. Superior opens with a visit the British Museum, where each ethnic group heads straight for the section where their ancestors’ artifacts are stored, and meditates on the imperial power to plunder that the museum’s collection represents.

Saini goes on to suggest that the desire to be special may partly underpin the upsurge in consumer DNA testing and genealogy. “What do they think it will tell them that will change how they live? They attach meaning because they think they may turn out to be more interesting than they really are.” After a recent talk in Seattle, she was asked whether she thought there was anything useful to be gained from DNA testing. Aside from helping find long-lost relatives, “For me, one of the useful things is that it reveals a lot about what they think about themselves and their biases. Their stereotypes come out to play.”

Her current project is trying to move forward with the combating pseudoscience project. The UK government plans to introduce legislation to regulate social media. “I would really like it if scientists could have some say in that.”

Saini also recently appeared on an episode of Point of Inquiry where she discusses her book, Superior: The Return of Race Science.

Wendy M. Grossman

Wendy M. Grossman is an American freelance writer based in London. She is the founder of Britain's The Skeptic magazine, for which she served as editor from 1987-1989 and 1998-2000. For the last 30 years she has covered computers, freedom, and privacy for publications such as the Guardian, Scientific American, and New Scientist. She is a CSI Fellow.