The Whisper Game Effect: How facts get turned into fake news
These days, the term “Fake News” has been flying around the world, being applied to a range of different situations, some valid, some not so much. It can come into existence in many forms. Some are just made up out of whole cloth. Others take facts and mix fiction into them.
I want to focus on one way fake news finds its way to our screens - the Whisper Game Effect. If you haven’t heard the term before, the Whisper Game, otherwise known as The Broken Telephone, is a party game some of us have played as children. All the kids sit in line and a child at one end of the line whispers a sentence to the one sitting next to them, and they whisper it to the next child and so on. At the end of the line, the message is spoken out loud and compared to what the first kid said. The sentence is invariably changed to something ridiculous, and everyone starts laughing their asses off.
The same thing happens to us all in the real world, all the time! Scientists and research organisations send out press releases or do interviews on their findings, and the media picks it up and puts a spin on it to attract readers. Often, the angle is so extreme, it not only distorts the facts but, in some cases, it cooks up whole new stories which have no basis in reality. Many times it is done on purpose for propaganda, or to serve an agenda of some sort.
This is one of those times.
A little background
The story starts simply. A short while ago, I shared a video on Facebook of Adam Ruins Everything from the College Humour page about how alpha males aren’t really a thing. Soon, someone mocked me for posting a College Humor video and claiming it was scientifically accurate. Which it is, to quite an extent. Even though it’s a comedy show, the research is usually quite well done, and the facts shown are typically accurate. Which is what I tried to explain, but this person was getting quite aggressive, and we went back to an old debate we had been having about climate change, where I’ve always questioned the reliability and quality of his sources of evidence. Long story. Basically, he’s a climate change denier, and we take pot-shots at each other over claims. But this isn’t a bitching session. And I’m not going to be going into the science of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) in this article. This is about how information changes as it gets shared across the internet. So, let’s get to the point.
The Last Whisper: The Post
In the course of this discussion, which was getting increasingly heated, this guy sends me a link to a post on a group called Climate Change Is Crap. Obviously a biased page, but I indulged him. After all, just because the page is biased, doesn’t mean we throw any post out. It just made me more aware of the bias. Here’s the link if you want to check it out.
This link was accompanied with the comment that this was said by one of the authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Hans Von Storch, a meteorologist. He said, “Recent CO2 emissions have actually risen even more steeply than we feared. As a result, according to most climate models, we should have seen temperatures rise by around 0.25 degrees Celsius (0.45 degrees Fahrenheit) over the past 10 years. That hasn't happened. In fact, the increase over the last 15 years was just 0.06 degrees Celsius (0.11 degrees Fahrenheit) -- a value very close to zero. This is a serious scientific problem that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will have to confront when it presents its next Assessment Report late next year.”
However, do note that he doesn't deny climate change. He is merely saying that the temperatures haven’t gone up to the extent they expected after seeing the sharp rise in CO2 in the atmosphere.
At first glance, this looks quite compelling and quite shocking that one of the lead authors of the report would say such a thing. It raises questions like, “does an increase in CO2 really lead to higher temperatures?” Maybe this guy was on to something.
The Second Whisper: The Herald Article
But this was just an excerpt, and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t misquoted. So I decided to keep digging. I noticed a hyperlink to the post leading to the following page in The Herald Sun Australia website. The Herald Sun is a morning newspaper based in Melbourne, Australia.
This was almost identical to the Facebook post, with a little bit added on. However, there was a source linked in the article.
The Dead End
When I clicked through, I found no article. Instead, it just opens on the homepage of a website called Global Warming Heartland.
From the 2 articles posted on this website, it seems to be on the denier side of the AGW issue from the perspective that “even if climate change is real, it’s probably more expensive to prevent now than how much it’ll cost us to deal with the consequences later”. There were other websites linked on this page, and the few I went through seemed to confirm their position of just not wanting to do anything about climate change even if it was caused by humans.
So I decided to just Google the original interview. And what I found was gold!
The Original Whisper
I searched for the interview by Der Spiegel with Von Storch and found this page:
I read through the whole thing and found that Von Storch was just being honest about his concerns but was in no way denying that AGW was happening. In fact, right after the excerpt quoted by The Herald Sun, the interview goes on to this:
“SPIEGEL: That sounds quite embarrassing for your profession if you have to go back and adjust your models to fit with reality…
Storch: Why? That's how the process of scientific discovery works. There is no last word in research, and that includes climate research. It's never the truth that we offer, but only our best possible approximation of reality. But that often gets forgotten in the way the public perceives and describes our work.”
That last sentence is so incredibly ironic, am I right?
The interview goes on to:
“SPIEGEL: Does this throw the entire theory of global warming into doubt?
Storch: I don't believe so. We still have compelling evidence of a man-made greenhouse effect. There is very little doubt about it. But if global warming continues to stagnate, doubts will obviously grow stronger.”
That’s just a scientist being completely honest about the uncertainties of science. Everything is a probability ratio. If you read the IPCC report, you will hardly ever see words like “definitely” or “with absolute certainty”. But words like “extremely likely” and “high probability” are used everywhere. That’s because, in science, nothing is written in stone. There is always a margin of error, even if it’s tiny, especially in climate science, where multiple variables and millions of data points are taken into consideration over hundreds of studies concerned with every aspect of our planet – land, sea, atmosphere, winds, gasses, solar fluctuations, and so on.
Science, as crucial a tool as it is to understand nature, is a messy process, and the more factors you throw into a comprehensive model of something in nature, the more uncertainties one has to deal with, and the more conflicts of data, which mean further studies, revisions, and peer review of the results. That’s why von Storch is realistic and honest about this whole process. Do read the entire interview. It’s the perfect example of the complexities and problems of science and the way the public perceives it.
If we trace our steps back through each step of this journey, we see how an excellent interview got cherry-picked by a biased website, which then gets quoted by a news portal that wanted to capitalise on the climate change conversation and, in turn, gets shared on a Facebook page as a confirmation of all the climate change deniers’ doubts. The actual words did not change in this excerpt, but the context did.
This is a small example of what’s happening across the world as media takes scientific studies, interviews and press releases and moulds them to fit the narrative they believe in, or even to cater to their primary audience, who in turn use it to feed their confirmation biases along with everyone else that shares their echo chamber.
And social media just adds to this effect.
This is not a system that can be overhauled as it already involves millions or even billions of people, each one feeding and grooming their beliefs until it grows to fill their entire worldview.
You, however, can break out of it. It’s not easy, but it’s certainly not impossible. If I can do it, so can you.
Here are a few tips you should keep in mind:
Go back to the source: Like I did in this example, click every reference link you can until you get to something solid. Dr Steven Novella, host of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe Podcast, says in his book by the same name, “It takes a little time and effort to properly vet a science news item. It helps to have sources you can trust. But it’s also a good idea, if you care about science, to track your way back to the original sources and do a little digging. At the very least, don’t take the reporting at face value.” In this case, we went back to the original interview and the truth was revealed. But when it comes to science news, it is usually more difficult as you have to go back to the original scientific papers that spawned the story. Reading the original scientific papers or reports is not easy for the layman, to say the least. But give it a shot. Finding a meta-analysis is probably the best resource you can get. You could also check out the following resources:
NASA is another excellent science resource.
Sites like Snopes are fantastic for busting misinformation being spread on social media, email and WhatsApp.
Check out Wikipedia for a broad overview of the subject. Before you start laughing at me for suggesting this, dig into this yourself. Wikipedia really is a reliable resource as a first step into researching a subject, especially for us lay folk. Topics and edits are thoroughly vetted by experts in the field for accuracy, reliable citations and sources, and even for bias. At the very least, you can check out the links in the References section and follow those threads. There are tons more, and I'll keep sharing more in other articles as they become relevant.
Google it: No, seriously. The only difference is, try and find other reliable publications talking about the same story. Do they all match up? Are some of the details missing or changed from one article to the next? The more discrepancies they are, the more chances the story is full of holes. Also, use keywords like "science" to get results that may be closer to scientific papers or scientific critiques. In my story, I had to Google the original interview and it got me on the right track.
Finally, don’t take articles at face value. Not even mine. No matter how trusted a source is - even if it's not a news article but a friend - find independent reliable sources like the ones I've mentioned above that agree with it before you believe something. If you think I’ve missed something or have a suggestion for a source you know, let me know in the comments or on the Contact Me page. If I’m wrong about something, I want to know, and I will correct my stance on a subject if faced with undeniable empirical evidence.
For further reading on climate change, here’s another excellent article by Der Spiegel.
Have you encountered such whispers? Tell me your story in the comments.