“And I say that if a rhetorician and a physician were to go to any city, and had there to argue in the Ecclesia or any other assembly as to which of them should be elected state-physician, the physician would have no chance […]”
– Plato, Gorgias
Critical, open, fact-based public discussion is essential to the proper functioning of modern, liberal democracies. When it works properly, such discussion promotes a widely shared understanding of the facts amon and enables constructive collective action.
The new social forces unleashed by the Internet are undermining critical, open, fact-based discussion, and the norms that safeguard it are enforceable to a much lesser extent than in the recent past. This is because the Internet has intensified competition among a new breed of media outlet for human attention; dominating the human attention economy is critical because it drives advertising revenue, which is the core business model of Internet content creators. As competition has intensified, the manipulation techniques used to increase engagement have in their own turn intensified and increased in sophistication. Perhaps the most powerful emotion leveraged to build media engagement and ensure human attention is outrage. The result is a proliferation of extreme and widely varying views driven by outrage, often conspiracy theories, all motivated by the need by content creators to maximize Internet advertising revenue.
In place of an information ecosystem that formerly produced a large degree of consensus about the nature of reality among the general population, the new information ecosystem promotes a splintering and polarization of that understanding of reality. This lack of shared understanding causes wasteful political conflict and paralyzes decision-making on some of the most important and pressing challenges of our time. This paralysis may in the final analysis prove deadly for individuals, societies, or even our very species.
Science and scientific communication are subtypes of critical, open, fact-based public discussion, and they too have been subjected to and fragmented by this very same trend. This includes not just the reception of science in the popular media but even what and how science is conducted and published in what were formerly some of the world’s most prestigious scientific publishing companies, including the British Medical Journal Publishing Group, Cell Press, and the Nature Publishing Group. The result is an increasing rejection of science by the public and a corruption of scientific practice from the inside of what were formerly science’s most hallowed professional journals.
Creativity, unorthodox thinking, and research questions that go against the grain of conventional wisdom in the research community are an important part of scientific progress. Likewise, vested economic and ideological interests can manipulate the scientific process and thereby post a major impediment to scientific advance, science-based public policy, and a scientifically literate and informed population. Society must therefore embrace, protect, and support innovative thinking and resist the manipulation of science by vested interests.
Yet, while individuals who self-publish on the Internet could in principle serve the role of independent watchdogs and/or self-styled Galileos challenging the desiccated dogmas of the scientific status quo, in practice the reality is quite different: the vast majority of such individuals, fraudulently taking on the mantle of challenger to a corrupt system, have promoted confusion, misinformation, and practiced grift on a massive scale. In the health sciences, the consequence of this trend has been to undermine medical care and public health via conspiracy theories about effective medical treatments and impede progress in public health policy by disrupting via misinformation the development of necessary consensus among policymakers. In short, while the Internet originally promised to democratize science and expertise, the outcome has been the proliferation of New York Times best-selling pseudoscientific manipulators and grifting quacks who work ceaselessly to further undermine an already dysfunctional public health system.
This grift has best been exemplified in the case of COVID-19. At the outset, the COVID-19 pandemic was used as fodder by unscrupulous and poorly educated online health experts to sell lies, conspiracy theories, and bolster reputations. On several occasions, this grift percolated to the highest office in the United States: the presidency. Throughout the pandemic, during press conferences before tens of millions of viewers, President Trump parroted inanities about COVID-19 trutherism, hydroxychloroquine pseudoscience, IV bleach treatments, mask denial, and more. This demonstrated just how pervasive and influential pseudoscience propagated over the Internet was in the United States: it was affecting policy at the highest levels, and it will continue to do so until something is done to change it.
The root cause prescription to “roll back” the wreckage of our information ecosystem is to legislate sweeping changes in how advertising over the Internet is regulated, or to abolish advertising on the Internet altogether. In the absence of such legislation, however, it is up to social media companies, media organizations, and individuals to work together to build a suite of new mechanisms and tools to combat, regulate, and ultimately reduce the current flood of misinformation that being used to wage war against our shared sense of reality and decency in the name of profit.
The following document lays out the criteria and algorithm that will be used to manage a misinformation database that tracks quackery, misinformation, and overhype in the nutrition and health space, to achieve some progress resisting some of the corrosive effects of the above forces.