How fake experts are used to mislead

Another excellent video from Dr. John Cook. He writes:

My eleventh Critical Thinking about COVID video explores the fake expert strategy: one of the most persuasive forms of misinformation. In the 1980s, tobacco companies were desperate to convince us smoking wouldn’t kill us. They had a secret weapon - scientists willing to promote smoking. Tobacco executives called them white coats and the PR campaign was called the Whitecoat Project. It didn’t matter if they didn’t have any expertise researching the health impacts of smoking. They just had to look like an expert.

Now, we see white coats being used to cast doubt on the scientific research into COVID-19. The arguments from these white coats are familiar denial techniques - anecdotal arguments and casting doubt on scientific research. But a white coat is persuasive. A group of white coats is even more persuasive.


How fake experts are used to mislead


Reminds me of this blog post I saw a few days ago:


This brings to mind a book I recently read: Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming

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That’s a good book. And it’s a good movie!

the key is to get past the experts and look at what the actual daya says

The key is to use academic experts from the best universities. And even they get it wrong as Imperial did initially on covid. And then corrected themselves. I challenged a team of brain surgeons from a national centre of excellence last year admittedly. And was confirmed as correct. But usually I wouldn’t go past them to look at the data.

Yes, someone has got to stand up to these experts, with all their fancy-schmancy degrees, knowledge, experience, and stuff like that.

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ideally, especially on a contentious subject, experts should use tgeir expertise to make the subject accessible, not inscrutable so people have to rely on their authority

i’ve spent many years in academia and i see more of the latter than the former

Whilst I agree with the sentiment entirely, in practice I don’t doubt it is subject and, even then, academic/writer specific.

Take one of my areas of interest, arachnology, as an example. One can pick work by academics like Marie Elisabeth Herberstien, Rainer Foelix, William Eberhard or indeed any article in the journal Arachnology and find research which is both top-of-the-field research and easy to understand (assuming a basic level of interest and understanding of key terms/concepts).

My wife however is undertaking PhD research in Bioethics. Whilst some writers seem to be able to make mud like topics appear as clear as water, others seem to take great pleasure in making even seemingly clear topics appear mud-like.

Then of course, as I alluded to, one must put in the hard work to gain a foundational knowledge on which to begin to engage with the material - especially academic material. If I publish an article written for Arachnology on the evolution and function of divided cribellum in lycosid-like Zoropsids, one has to assume a degree of prior knowledge in one’s audience. If someone then reads my article and gets in contact to say that I didn’t make the topic very engaging or accessible for the lay person, well… the cold reality is that it wasn’t written for the lay person. It was written for those with at the very least a working knowledge of arachnology. I think one must expect the same to be true other areas of academia too.

Those caveats aside, I otherwise agree: unnecessarily complicating a topic more than it need be or otherwise clouding it with excessive verbosity and/or pretention helps no one in the end. It also makes one look like a wally, IMHO. :wink:


As a little addendum:

My wife tells me that a lot of big UK funders in medical research now expect or require a lay persons’ summary to be included in published research and in clinical trials publications particularly. Whilst other UK medical research funders are beginning to insist that the raw data from studies/clinical trials also be made available on open access repositories under creative commons licences. Finally, one of UK’s biggest medical research funders, the National Institute for Health Research, is also moving to make all its funded published research and data open access.


I totally agree with that. It is a two way street. Experts should strive for accessibility and lay audience should strive for understanding. The negative trend on the lay side is to immediately discount what they do not understand.


You gotta be weird, you and @SkovandOfMitaze. :grin: (Although I do like pseudoscorpions – I was astounded when I saw my first one, and still enjoy the one or two per year that I see in our shower room.)


I definitely agree that with everything , as in each subject, there are and needs to be very technical field jargon specific writings and also easier to digest, more simplistic in its vocabulary, lay persons explanations. Everyone is different and some are able to translate their knowledge in various ways better than others. Some experts are only good at technical journal submissions. Some are great at breaking it down for 10th graders. Some can get a concept and flesh out a entire 600 page book while others equally trained on the subject matter may not be able to effectively write a 250 page book on it. Some can express their ideas clearly in blogs, podcasts, or videos.

Some people also lie outright. We see this constantly by companies with lawsuits filed against them for their product and during the investigation sometimes it comes out that a issue was purposely buried. Or they change the variables for a better outcome.

Get a 400lb person and put them on 1000 calorie a day diet of chocolate, tea and bananas and they may very well lose weight and feel healthier two weeks later. Get a very healthy athletic person and put them on the same diet and they may feel weaker and sicker. But if all you do is focus on the first study and talk about how they lost weight and then imply your tea results in weight loss it’s a deceitful.

Lastly experts are able to blur the clear cut because the person already wants to believe it. They are not willing to deconstruct their ideas. They will allow for clear contradictions but bridge the contention through compartmentalizing it. It’s why statistics are often so useless. The people focus on the result created by controlled populations and not on the issue with a wider population.

Take the recent conversations on psychopaths. The term denotes something nightmarish at the start, conjuring up these icons of horror like Michael Myers because the most common variable for studying psychopaths is pulling them from prisons after carrying out violent and terrible crimes. You don’t hardly seem to see the population control being based off of those who never committed a crime of any severity.

I feel like it would be the same as if we did like what racists do and build a portfolio of generalizations on African Americans by pulling statists and examples of only those that committed crimes and building a image off of gangster rap and hood films. If that’s the population you are picking from you won’t get the same as if you pulled from those who never did anything criminal. But if your statistics is based off of crimes committed by race verses the total population it can easily be deceitful. I see it all the time.

Someone will argue African Americans are more dangerous based off of inmates instead of realizing that the overwhelming majority never go to prison or even get arrested. So it’s a very misguided statistic and a even worse headliner built around it.

I feel like I see the same things happening with every thing including covid.

Scientist A says that the death rate is very low because the majority that gets it is mostly fine. Many don’t even know they have it.

Scientist B says that it’s very deadly because they are focused on the extra deaths found within a specific time period of those with a compromised immune system.

If you are a politician trying to open up the economy you can easily set the stage of the path you want based off of which scientist you cite while ignoring the other half of the equation.

I could make a 1300 calorie sundae every night and talk about how healthy it is because of the protein in it and focus on the healthier benefits of the toppings such as strawberries and walnuts and totally ignore the macronutrient composition , negative benefits of way to much processed sugar and excess calories.

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Eschew obsfucation.

I think it is enough if even a few experts in a field have some gift for making a complex field comprehensible to lay people. That is actually one of the greatest attributes of this forum is that so many accomplished scientists go the extra mile to help those of us less accomplished in their fields. But science has only been as fecund as it has because the majority are busy pushing the boundaries ever outward.

But rather than ask every scientist to become a communication expert too why can’t all of us accept that the scientific consensus is the gold standard while large groups of unknown people in labcoats who are dismissive of that consensus are most likely quacks. Same goes for all the videos with the impressive visual aids which build open and shut cases against the consensus of scientists in a field. Better that we lay people develop some minimal competence in critical thinking and skepticism rather than chasing after every self styled expert with a silver tongue but missing or questionable degrees?


It’s a balancing act. early 1900s scientists were big fans of eugenics. good that’s not a thing anymore, and lay people would be right to dismiss the experts. or even earlier when the experts believed africans were an inferior race. again the lay people are right in rejecting such ideas proposed by the experts.

in my own field the technology is light years away from producing general artificial intelligence, so lay people are right to dismiss the experts who claim it is right around the corner

the problem is science has become the new priesthood, we need to bring it out of the ivory towers and back into the hands of the people

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Excellent, Mark. There were and are excellent science communicators (the late Stephen Jay Gould comes to mind), but it’s okay if a scientist isn’t a good communicator. On the other hand, Carl Zimmer isn’t a scientist, but he’s a excellent science writer who understands what he’s talking about.

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These foolish and dangerous ideas were eventually corrected by scientists. And lay people readily bought into these notions. And some still do.

but should lay people have listened to and accepted these ideas? that is the question

point is scientific experts are bot infallible, and their ideas can be deadlt if followed blindly

Nobody is saying they are infallible. Science is self-correcting, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, and scientists are expected to publish their research in journals so that others can see if they get the same results.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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