8 January 2013


Loren Collins. Bullspotting: Finding Facts in the Age of Misinformation. Prometheus Books, 2012.

Having discovered that some of his beliefs were mistaken, Loren Collins became increasingly interested in pseudoscience and misinformation, and how to detect and deal with widely believed falsehoods. His original intention for this study was to try to kill off one of the more bizarre conspiracy theories of modern American politics, the Obama 'Birthers'.
This is the rumour that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, and is thus ineligible to be president of the United States. However, he decided that the value of what he calls 'baloney detection' went well beyond the Birthers, and he could give many other examples of the lack of critical thinking, and this book is the result.

Collins emphasises the necessity of a scientific approach to dealing with apparently false claims, which means that one should examine the evidence rather than simply assuming that a claim must be false. We are shown that when people do not want to believe something they deny that it is true, and this leads to a belief in a conspiracy theory to account for the manufacture of allegedly false evidence.

Of course, conspiracies do occur, but the believers in them usually fail to get their facts right. For instance, the Warren Commission could find no evidence that anyone other than Lee Harvey Oswald was involved in the killing of President Kennedy, whereas President Lincoln is widely believed, wrongly, to have been assassinated by John Wilkes Booth acting alone, although in fact he had three co-conspirators.

The most important subject discussed is pseudoscience. Although many pseudoscientific theories and beliefs are fairly harmless, the false ideas of practitioners of what is usually called alternative medicine are rather more serious. Collins gives examples of people who could probably have lived longer if they had not wasted time on useless treatments such as acupuncture and 'psychic surgery' -- the actor and comedian Peter Sellers, who suffered from heart trouble, and Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who had pancreatic cancer.

This being an American book, it is not surprising to see space devoted to creationism and the belief that the Earth is only several thousand years old. Collins obviously thinks that it is necessary to explain that these ideas, together with the story of Noah's Ark, do not make sense if everything in the Bible is interpreted as being literally true, as if it were a collection of historical essays and scientific papers rather than a collection of religious writings.

Tackling such unscholarly approaches to the origin of the Earth and the history of humanity is not helped by the fact that the American television History Channel, which was originally devoted to serious programmes about world history, began to change in the 2000s by including programmes such as Haunted Histories, UFO Files, UFO Hunters, and Ancient Aliens. (I don't know, though, if this dumbing-down effect is more or less confined to the USA, or is more widespread.)

There is much useful advice here on how to avoid being fooled by cranks, hoaxers, liars and confidence tricksters. It is thus a pity that this book is unlikely to be read by the people who could most benefit from the author's advice. -- John Harney

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