Sunday, December 11, 2016

Brandolini’s Law

There was an informative editorial in Nature this week by Phil Williamson - a scientific expert on ocean acidification.  I like the concept of bullshit and have referred to Professor Harry Frankfurt's classic essay on it many times.  I was not familiar with Brandolini's Law until I read the essay.  Simply stated:

Brandolini’s Law: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”

It is also more simply known as the The Bullshit Asymmetry Principle.

Williamson uses a political example from a libertarian web site.  The central piece of that article was that ocean pH was not decreasing and that climate change would lead to reduced carbon dioxide in the oceans.   Because the climate is not changing there is no worry that the ocean pH would change.  The original publication denied Williamson's rebuttal.  An opinion piece in a professional journal led the author of libertarian piece to write online that his work should be "squashed like a slug".  Nothing like elite scientific dialogue is there?

In the UK there is apparently a press watchdog called UK Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO).  Williamson filed a complaint with them about the factual accuracy of the piece and is awaiting their verdict.  He goes on to illustrate how Brandolini's Law comes in to play in this situation.  The original author these days can essentially be anyone from a journalist to a blogger.  He points out that online journalism "seems to be subject to few if any rules."  That leaves anyone in the position of responding to a factually inaccurate claim at a distinct disadvantage.  There may not be any formal complaint procedure and there is probably no editorial hierarchy.  Many web sites count on bloggers and writers to produce content that they can attach advertising to and this content seem to have very little oversight in terms of accuracy.  Much of this content on social web sites makes up what has been referred to as fake news.

Williamson's position is very clear.  He thinks that these inaccuracies need to be responded to and corrected.  He accurately points out that the audience for the correction is not the authors, but readers who are interested in accuracy and science.  I don't think that the division is that clear for a number of reasons.  A large number of people really don't care.  They are involved in the emotion generated by the issue and don't make decisions based on facts.  That general attitude is promulgated by the political process in most countries.  This is rarely a rational discussion of the main issues of the day.  I think this goes a lot deeper than generating rebuttals.  There needs to be education on the difference between science and everything else.  A good example is Creationist based rhetoric and the denial of evolution.  Creationist advocates do not seem to recognize that they are engaged in a process that is nothing like science and therefore cannot scientifically prove anything.  They fail to recognize the basic issue that science is a process and not an immutable collection of writings written by ancient prophets and subject to many interpretations.  That failure of recognition also leads to a failure to recognize that they are  completely outside the field of science. They fail to recognize where they are and that the best critics of a scientific theory are the scientists in the field.

This failure of recognition is much wider than Creationists.  Journalists produce many examples, not the least of which is a consistent bias against psychiatry.  That bias is present whether or not there is editorial oversight.  A great example is the journalistic tendency to propose what psychiatry is and then proceed to attack that straw man.  And interestingly these outsiders with no training in medicine or psychiatry are often joined by insiders pushing the same arguments.  In one case a prominent journal editor came out and endorsed an anti-psychiatry book, proclaiming legitimate criticism when in fact the book was rhetorical.  I would not presume that medical editors are without common biases.  There are many forces producing misinformation.

I diverge a bit with Williamson's approach on refuting the misinformation and hoping for the best.  I think that there are additional considerations.  One thing is very clear - the head-in-the-sand approach taken by physician professional organizations in response to misinformation is clearly not a good idea and is sure to lose in the current propaganda war of misinformation and political corruption.  If there is a lesson with the current Presidential campaign it is that there is a very small margin between a typical fact less campaign and one where anything at all can be said whether it is true of not - and nobody seems to care about it.

That is foreboding for all levels of public policy, especially when the political spoils includes being able to appoint agency heads with not only a lack of basic footing in science but also a lack of knowledge about what constitutes science.  For the country to run and maintain some standards in science, technology, and engineering there needs to be a basic understanding of these fields in all branches of government and at the highest levels.  There is currently no better example of what happens when the unscientific manage the store than what has happened to American medicine.  We are not only cursed by work rules that are made up as we go and have little to do with the practice of medicine, but we we have to live with pseudo-scientific management practices that affect our work flow and and detract from the lifelong task of learning the science of medicine.  A few strategies I can offer as a blogger follow.  I also have additional strategies that I am going to keep to myself until just the right time.

1.  Present the facts but counter the rhetoric - It is important to recognize the common forms of rhetoric without being pedantic.  The best way to do that is by pointing out the erroneous aspects of the argument and the overall form without naming the fallacy.  This sounds easy and it should be - but physicians and psychiatrists seem to be spellbound at times by the simplest arguments.  One common example is anytime a business executive shows up and talks about "cost effectiveness" - everybody shuts down.  Nobody seems to understand that this is just business rhetoric.  It should be as obvious as the fact that with 30 years of intensive management and "cost effectiveness" - per capita health care costs are 40% higher than the country with the next highest per capita expenditures and health care is certainly no better.  In the case of treating mental illnesses and substance use disorders it is much worse.  Somebody needs to stand up and say: "We are doing our part - when are you going to start to do yours." or "Get out of the way and let us do our work." or "Give us the resources to provide the adequate service or shut it down."   Rationing is clearly a very ineffective and costly way to provide health care services.

2.  Recognize bullshit no matter where it comes from -  Many of the arguments for health care reform are just plain erroneous.  And why wouldn't they be.  We now have a continuous supply of what are essentially blogposts on the front of our most respected medical journals.  How could anyone expect that 12 or 52 health care reform ideas each year for years would be worth anything?  All of the top posts that they have been implemented like the electronic health record, managed care as business intermediaries for government purchasers, pharmaceutical benefit managers, creating various financial incentives - have all been progressively worse ideas.  Sifting through the misinformation to correct what is false, what are lies, and what is bullshit is a tedious but necessary task.  As long as medical journals legitimize this constant stream of unscientific information - countering it will remain an onerous task.  The sources of bullshit go far beyond blogs and traditional journalism.

3.  Don't let anyone define you - A common strategy these days is that detractors tend to jump in and set the stage with false criticism.  It was easy to see this in political debates.  In medicine and psychiatry the same process happens and I have pointed out the dynamic on this blog.  I also posted a recent summary of how the release of the DSM-5 was a major source of misinformation, lies, and bullshit in 2015 but there are many more examples in psychiatry.

4.  Don't let the barbarians at the gate get you down - I tell aspiring physicians and aspiring psychiatrists the same thing - don't let the detractors or in these days trolls - get you down.  Psychiatry is a tough field because there will always be a lot of people blaming you for their problems.  This is where Brandolini's Law really applies.  There are numerous dialogues on web sites available where the game is to post as much misinformation, bullshit and lies about psychiatry in particular.  Entire web sites exist for that purpose.  Entering into that discussion and taking the opposite side of the argument can be more futile than the Law suggests.  It may take several orders of magnitude of effort and even then it may be futile.  The best approach is to just get the information out there in cyberspace in an independent forum where you know that it can be safely viewed.   That is one of the reasons that this  blog exists.

5.  The Internet is still the Wild West and that will probably never change in its current form - Williamson suggests that it may be possible to "harness the collective power of the Internet to improve its quality."  He suggests the global scientific community reviewing sites and rating them like film rating sites.  I am far less optimistic.  The first problem is the scope of that project.  The second would be consistency in ratings.  The third is that a rating in some sense is legitimizing.  It is a far better approach to ignore the ignorant.  The reality is that reputation protection web sites basically work by generating a lot of information designed to bury the obnoxious web site.  Most people find that if they contact a search engine about a web site that may be slandering them that they are met with a a relatively hostile response and a complete lack of interest in correcting anything.  That is true for even the largest search engines.  Google for example, clearly doesn't give a damn about your reputation.

6.  Brandolini's Law is a significant deterrent to keeping professionals engaged in educating the public - Physicians certainly find this out in a hurry if they decide to post a rebuttal in political or media forums that are populated by the ignorant, trolls, or those with a specific agenda.  That is more true of psychiatrists than any other specialty.  That has a dual effect of limiting feedback to those who might be interested and eliminating the most informed criticism.  It also has the added effect of adding professionals who may have legitimate criticism to antipsychiatry web sites where scientific criticism is clearly not the agenda.  It is a dangerous path of least resistance when legitimate professionals start posting on web sites dedicated to the destruction of the profession.

 These are just a few ideas about Brandolini's Law.  I did not write the most important one down and that is you can always just go off the grid.  Even then there are problems.  I talked with a psychiatrist about 10 years ago who was asked to give presentations at local churches on depression.  He eventually gave up because there were people in the audience who for various reasons were so disruptive that it prevented him from giving the interested people the information that they wanted.  Only psychiatrists could end up being heckled in church.  Bullshit can be presented in person just as easily as is can by typed online.

Williamson refers to a "rising tide of populism threatens the future of evidence-based government."  I don't think that we have ever had evidence based government in the US.  I see it as mostly a power dynamic here - influencing people by emotional ideas and shouting them down.

The only reason why that Brandolini's Law doesn't work in reality in the case of psychiatry is that at the end of the day, there are still people with severe mental illness - no matter who tries to deny it and a group of people called psychiatrists who are interested in helping them.  That is not necessarily enough to prevent the widespread demoralization of a profession.        

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


1:  Phil Williamson.  Take the time and effort to correct misinformation.  Nature 8 December 2016; 540: 171.

Supplementary 1:

My brother saw this post and commented that Brandolini's Law has "never been more true."

I reflected on that true statement and the continued widespread ignorance of science and came up with the following observation that might have been made by Casey Stengel:

"Good science cancels out bullshit and vice versa."

That probably captures why misinformation grows as exponentially as scientific information in any society.  It levels the playing field (to some degree) between the informed and the uniformed.

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