The Dangerous Blurring of News and Opinion Online

There is a piece on The Atlantic that typifies the way the emotional characteristics of a risk can cloud our ability to think about that risk carefully. It also represents the dangers of the new 24/7 online media world, where even the most august and supposedly thoughtful/careful/respected brands in the information media are abdicating their responsibility to the public to separate fact from opinion.


The story, “The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Foods”  reports a Chinese study that discovered that microRNAs found in plants survive the digestive process and can be found, whole, in our blood, that they aren’t broken down into their component molecular parts. MicroRNAs are natural little signaling molecules in intercellular communication, among many other normal biological functions.

We ingest them in most of the plants we eat, including rice, the plant the Nature study authors looked at. The author of the Atlantic piece, food columnist Ari Levaux, makes the gigantic and alarmist leap that the microRNAs from genetically modifided (GM) food somehow expose us to unique danger. After all, he notes, “we're eating not just vitamins, protein, and fuel, but information as well.” WHOA! Scary! And he frighteningly notes that microRNAs have been associated with cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. In fact, microRNAs are an intrinsic part of human biology, and the Chinese study suggests we ingest them when we eat all plants. So why the worry about GM foods in particular?

We know from the study of the psychology of risk perception that our fears are a combination of the facts, and how those facts feel, based on some instinctive ‘risk perception factors’, psychological characteristics that make things feel more or less frightening, the facts notwithstanding. GM foods hit several of these affective alarm buttons. They are...

  • ...HUMAN-MADE.  Human-made risks are scarier than natural risks
  • ...IMPOSED on us. A risk that’s imposed is scarier than one we take voluntarily (which is why some Europeans softened their concerns about GM foods as soon as those foods were labeled.)
  • ...Hard to understand, producing UNCERTAINTY. The less we know about a risk, the more afraid we usually are.
  • ...The technological products of a capitalist market, where power resides with a few and people’s choices are limited by economic class. That is culturally offensive to those who favor a more egalitarian society, who, as a result, are particularly hostile to some forms of modern technology (e.g. industrial chemiclals, nuclear power,) and oppose them by emphasizing their risks. (This work comes from the Theory of Cultural Cognition (http://www.culturalcognition.n...
  •             It’s pretty clear that Mr. Levaux is an advocate, and as an advocate he is perfectly entitled to emphasize these emotional characteristics, and cherry pick the facts so they support his argument. The problem is, The Atlantic does nothing to alert the reader, in advance, that they are about to read a piece of opinion. That’s a common and serious problem in this new 24/7 digital world, where ‘brand’ media organizations are expanding their presence on the web - since that’s where readership is going - and the line between reporting and advocacy is being blurred. Unlike newspapers, which run their opinion pieces on special pages in print and under separate links online, ostensibly responsible media organizations like The Atlantic too often present news and opinion all thrown in together, and leave the reader to sort through which is which.

                That’s dangerous. The news media not only influence our lives via the gatekeeper function of deciding what stories or information to include and what not to include, and which stories to emphasize and which ones to play down. They also shape what we think by the way the information is framed. When content is specified in some way as “Opinion”, we can protect ourselves against bias because we are forewarned to turn up our critical thinking, our “bu__shit detector”. But bias in what is presented as objective news content is subversive. It sneaks in, posing as fact, and unless we are really careful thinkers - and most of us are not - we are more likely to accept those facts as true, and shape our opinions accordingly.

         This is, of course, the insidious danger of Fox News, which clearly sees things through one ideological lens but claims, against all evidence, that their news content is ‘fair and balanced’. It’s not the bias in the content that’s the problem. It’s the misleading deceit that their news content is factual and objective, which is both unethically dishonest - no matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on - and dangerous for civil society whenever it happens. Like it’s happening more and more at supposedly trustworthy online news and information sites, where news stories and advocacy pieces run side by side and fact and opinion blur.

          In these new days for the New Media, the rules are still being written. Here’s one suggestion. The same wall we’ve always demanded between news and advocacy should be just as tall and resolute online as anywhere else. A media organization needs to clearly distinguish opinion and analysis from what it presents as news and information. Otherwise what the public knows about the world will be a blur of fact and all sorts of biases, which is really harmful to democracy, that needs an informed public. And it's harmful to the fiscal health of any news organization that wants to attract the broadest possible audience of visitors (not just the narrower audience of people who want their news to affirm an ideological point of view, a business strategy working just fine for Fox News) by daring to claim they can be trusted.

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    Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

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    • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
    • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
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    Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

    The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

    Mind & Brain
    • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
    • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
    • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

    Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

    Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

    "[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

    Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

    Psychoanalysis

    Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

    The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

    That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

    Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

    Repressed memories

    Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

    First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

    Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

    More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

    This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

    "The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

    The Oedipal complex

    The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

    That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

    Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

    But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

    Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

    An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

    The Freudian slip

    Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

    "Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

    In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

    According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

    "This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

    Freud's case studies

    Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

    It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

    For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

    Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

    Sigmund Freud and his legacy

    Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

    Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

    If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

    When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

    Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

    But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

    With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

    U.S. reacts to New Zealand's gun ban

    On Thursday, New Zealand moved to ban an array of semi-automatic guns and firearms components following a mass shooting that killed 50 people.

    (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
    Politics & Current Affairs
    • Gun control supporters are pointing to the ban as an example of swift, decisive action that the U.S. desperately needs.
    • Others note the inherent differences between the two nations, arguing that it is a good thing that it is relatively hard to pass such legislation in such a short timeframe.
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