Folta on Self-Referential Panic-Mongering

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Kevin Folta, writing at his Illumination 2.0 scientific outreach blog, discusses what he calls cyclical sensationalism, or reporting on the problem you create.

He begins his explanation of the problem with the help of the following metaphor:

WARNING: Misleading information can be hazardous to your health! (Image by Author Unknown, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.)
A reporter places a banana peel at the top of the staircase in a local mall. A customer walks toward the stairs only to be shoved by the reporter onto the banana peel and down the stairs. The customer dies from traumatic injuries.

The next day the reporter's headline reads, "Customer Dies on Mall Stairs."

The same reporter repeats the assassination ritual a few more times and shares the story of a negligent staircase widely on social media. he also cites his own article from the previous week, giving the impression of an epidemic of dangerous stairs. From there it spreads among local mall patrons.

The next week the reporter's headline reads, "Customers Concerned about Staircase Safety at Mall."
This, he argues is an increasingly common M.O. among anti-scientific journalists and "activists," with the cycles of self-reference and amplification, such as by social media, being used to (1) damage the credibility of legitimate scientists, and (2) create the impression (impossible for politicians to ignore!) that there is "mass interest in a non-problem that they describe as a risk."

I found Folta's comments quite enlightening, and I would hardly be surprised to see this tactic in use on a wider array of topics than science, particularly areas that require specialized training to understand, or for which most of the public is poorly-prepared to consider critically.

-- CAV

No comments: