I wrote an essay almost a week ago on the futility of arguing against conspiracy theorists (creationists, antivaxxers, climate change deniers etc.) but the utility of taking time to enlighten those who spout the same drivel out of ignorance rather than malice. In this, I said that a fair proportion of the world’s knowledge is online and readily available1. One of the correspondents on this site wrote a long comment and also noted that a “majority of the world’s bullshit is also out there” and too readily available. Unfortunately, this is very true, and my interlocutor to which I referred in my previous essay fell into believing some of this bullshit1.
The correspondent rightly pointed out that in the past, before the advent of the internet, you could rely on libraries and their librarians to guide you to find out anything you wanted to know. I am old enough to have relied on such librarians and their libraries. Our high school library was where I preferred to spend my time rather than in religious instruction classes. I also occasionally visited the Newcastle Library2, mostly to find out more about my main hobby which was, of course, palaeontology. The correspondent’s comments brought back memories of libraries, librarians, dictionaries and encyclopaedias, so rather than just reply to the comment, I thought I’d write this to try to explain how I look up stuff on the web.
I had a father who was almost insatiably curious, and after being demobilised from the army after the Second World War, had bought a 1947 copy of Webster’s Twentieth Century Dictionary3. This massive tome was more of a cross between a dictionary and an encyclopaedia. Even better, selected topics were illustrated. After my parents’ shop started doing reasonably well, my parents bought a 1963 copy of the 24 volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica4, which I used to pore over when I heard about something I didn’t know much about. It was a wonderful way to find out just about anything.
I agree with the correspondent that there are so many people who do not have the capability to find stuff online and to distinguish what is bullshit and what is not. I suspect the problem seems to be that people simply do not know how to use Google and the concept of keywords is alien to them. Just as an example, on Google, I typed in the keywords ‘phylogeny’ and ‘Monotremata’. While this sort of terminology is relatively commonplace in my profession of palaeontology, it would be unusual for many non-biologists and non-palaeontologists to use these words. Phylogeny refers to the evolutionary history and the origin of a group of organisms, whereas Monotremata is the formal name for the order that includes the extant platypus and echidna. Again, that is a formal name that relatively few people would know. The results returned from Google began with ‘Monotreme’ from Wikipedia. The second was of a 2014 paper entitled ‘On the phylogenetic position of monotremes (Mammalia, Monotremata)’ in an English translation of a Russian journal (Palaeontological Journal) published by Springer. The third was of a 2022 paper entitled ‘A review of monotreme (Monotremata) evolution’ published in the Australian palaeontological Journal ‘Alcheringa’. Subsequent sites listed were from University College London, ResearchGate (which is a site for professionals and others to list their papers and in some cases to allow PDFs of those papers to be downloaded), ScienceDirect (which gives several abstracts of papers relevant to the topic), Gale (which gave the text of the Russian paper listed above), the US National Library of Medicine (which includes the text of a 2009 paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the USA). All of these sites would be reliable and of interest if you were trying to find out the latest on monotreme evolution. However, this is relatively easy for me as I know the terminology, and most scientific journals are peer-reviewed, so the information in them would be reliable, even if it can become outdated fairly quickly.
If I wanted to find out something reliable on a topic with which I was less familiar and around which a large amount of bullshit has swirled, I suspect I’d have to be more careful about the results provided by any browser. For example, if I was to attempt to find out about the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccine, I suspect there would be a fair bit of bullshit to wade through, what with most antivaxxers believing that it creates autism (it doesn’t). Typing ‘Measles’, ‘Mumps’, ‘Rubella’ and ‘vaccine’ in Google gives the following results: The first was the Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care’s page on the Measles section of the Australian Immunisation Handbook. The second was from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the MMR vaccine. The third was from the Victorian Government’s Better Health Measles, mumps, rubella, varicella page. The third was from the Western Australian Government’s HealthyWA site on MMR vaccine. The fourth was the same from the South Australian Government’s SAHealth site. Then came the Wikipedia entry on the MMR vaccine followed by the same from the UK’s National Health Service, then from the New South Wales Government’s South Eastern Sydney Local Health District. I was actually surprised that there was no bullshit, but perhaps this is down to recent efforts to prevent the spread of misinformation online. I waded through 12 pages of results without finding any bullshit sites. Maybe these days, all the vegetables are on Facebook, YouTube, or some of the social media exclusively for halfwit RWNJs.
So, not finding anything much in the way of bullshit so far, I thought I’d try something I know almost nothing about. Back in the 1990s, a few topics that were used to compare print encyclopaedias, and in which comparison Encyclopaedia Britannica came out at or near the top. These topics were: circumcision, Charles Drew, Galileo, Philip Glass, heart disease, IQ, panda bear, sexual harassment, shroud of Turin and Uzbekistan. So, I thought I’d have a crack at ‘heart disease’, as I suspect it is something around which some bullshit swirls in the modern world. So, I typed it in and Google came up with 4.18 billion results, the first of which was from Heart Research Australia, a foundation supporting research. Next was from the Mayo Clinic in the US, followed by the Heart Foundation in Australia, another foundation that supports research. This in turn was followed by Healthline, a US-based ‘wellness’ company, at which my bullshit detector went off. However, the detail on the subject seemed to gel with those from the other sources. Next on the list was Healthdirect, an Australian government site, and this was followed by Medical News Today, which is owned by the same mob that own Healthline. Following that was the Sydney-based Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, the World Health Organisation and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All of the information seemed to be relatively reliable, as far as I could tell.
Again, I was surprised that there was little bullshit to be found, so I thought I’d take the bull by the horns and see what is available from Google on climate change where the bullshit is rampant among conspiracy theorists, conservatives and garden variety climate change deniers. So, I typed in ‘climate change’ and 1.92 billion results came through. In order the first few were: ‘What is climate change’ from the United Nations; Vital Signs of the Planet – Effects from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); Vital Signs of the Planet – Causes, again from NASA; Climate change from Wikipedia; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); Climate change and health from the World Health Organisation (WHO); Climate change from the WHO; Climate change, evidence and causes from the Royal Society; Climate Change in Australia from the Australian government; and Effects of Climate Change – Threats, from WWF. Again; no bullshit.
Perhaps if I looked up something purely political, the bullshit coefficient may rise. So, I tried Robodebt, the criminal scheme to extract money out of the vulnerable to help the Morrison government’s ‘bottom line’. In fact, it did the reverse, costing the government much in compensation. I just typed in Robodebt to Google, and up came 5.25 million hits, led by the Guardian’s ‘Robodebt: five years of lies mistakes and failures that caused a $1.8b scandal’. Next in line was Wikipedia on the ‘Robodebt scheme’, then the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme. Following this was a frame listing ‘top stories’. The stories in the frame were from ABC News, The New Daily, The Guardian, The Saturday Paper and The Canberra Times, followed by three videos from the ABC News. After those, was the Robodebt Class Action in its own website, then Victoria Legal Aid with ‘Learning from the failures of Robodebt’, followed by The Conversation with ‘Royal commission exposes Robodebt as ethically indefensible’, then the Attorney-General’s Department brought up the rear with ‘legal assistance for people engaging with the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme’. No Bullshit here either, so I went a couple of pages of results further into it, but even then I could find no bullshit. I suspect that part of the reason for this was that there were no articles from the Murdoch media about Robodebt. Being the PR arm of the Liberal Party as they are, the dearth of Murdoch stories about Robodebt has been remarked upon in various places; after all, it was a Coalition government program and for Murdoch to report on criminality by the Coalition government would never happen.
Going for broke to try to find some bullshit, I typed in something that, in fact, is complete bullshit. This is the ‘chemtrail’ story. This one states that all condensation trails put out by high-flying jet aircraft are in fact chemicals being released into the atmosphere by governments for nefarious purposes such as making the population compliant or to kill people5. I typed ‘chemtrails’ into Google and it produced 5.62 million results, the first of which was the Wikipedia item on ‘Chemtrail conspiracy theory’. This was followed by one from Harvard University on the Chemtrails Conspiracy Theory; the next one was from the BBC ‘Reality check’ explaining that the chemtrails are simple condensation trails. Next was New Scientist, which said they put it to the ultimate test and, of course, found there was no evidence for the conspiracy. After this was a question from the European Parliament asking what the Commission was doing about chemtrails. The Commission replied that there is no credible evidence, so no action has been taken and none is foreseen. Next was the ABC’s Checkmate, a fact checking section which was asked (apparently by cookers) if chemtrails were being used to vaccinate Australians against Covid-19. They concluded that this was recycled nonsense. Then followed the US National Institutes of Health which referred to chemtrails in the skies of Indonesia as a conspiracy to prolong the Covid-19 pandemic; they stated that it was a hoax. Following this was a Welsh Government site with a downloadable PDF entitled ‘Chemtrails over Cardiff’. They said that it wasn’t a Welsh Government responsibility and that the reader should contact the UK government. Next was Dazed Digital which also poo-pooed the conspiracy. The last one on the first page was the Facebook page of Joe Rogan, a right wing pillock who seems to believe anything. While this post may be a pisstake as the meme associated with it is true, in saying that ‘the water vapor contrails that planes leave behind can tell you about the weather. A thin, short trail indicates low humidity and fair weather’. Many of the comments are seemingly from the gullible and mention other conspiracy theories (unspent jet fuel, illuminati, illegal waste disposal). One bloke even posted a photograph of himself (presumably) and his cat both wearing aluminium foil hats. Despite the fact that this may have all been a pisstake, there were enough vegetables commenting to make one believe that this was indeed genuine bullshit.
To say I was surprised at the dearth of bullshit in any of these searches is an understatement. I can only assume that the pressure being put on social media and other internet-based organisations, to help prevent misinformation and lies being spread, is having an effect. It may also be the fact that Covid-19 has demonstrated that vaccines have had a significant effect of cutting down the severity of the disease and the death rate among those who contract it. So, the days of drinking bleach, taking hyrdroxychloroquine, horse de-wormer, or sticking an ultraviolet light down your gullet are fading despite the occasional cretin still rabbiting on about one or other of them. It may also be the fact that the effects of climate change are becoming more and more obvious as the months pass, such that many, even among those who would normally vote for conservative parties, have reached their ‘Oh, shit!’ moment, with the realisation that we are heading for disaster, and that conservative parties may have hastened the approach of that disaster. I hope that is the case, not that we are heading for disaster, but the fact that the gullible are starting to realise that they have been lied to.