Michael Smith’s students at Emporia State University have some advice for their elders.
“I think our students are correct,” Smith says, delivering the news: “People over 40 need to understand just how easy it is to create baseless nonsense that sounds true, and how quickly it can spread online.”
Smith is a political scientist. This semester, he’s one of four professors teaching a class called Alternative Facts: Understanding Bias, Source Credibility and Statistics. His colleagues are a biologist, a chemist and a physicist: Erika Martin, Qiyang Zhang and Jorge Ballester.
It was Martin, the biologist, who had the idea for such a class early in the Trump administration, after Kellyanne Conway claimed estimates of the president’s small inauguration crowd size were “alternative facts.”
“I do biostatistics and scientific reasoning, and that kind of statement is deeply concerning,” Martin says.
She saw an opportunity.
“The goal was to have students think about what they’re reading, what they’re being told, what friends and family are saying, how do you know if an expert is really an expert,” she says. “People say, ‘I can find any statistic to support my point of view,’ but any statistician worth their salt would say, ‘No you can’t.’ You can use worse models, where you take out certain variables that don’t suit you, to prove a point.”
Unlike his three colleagues, Smith is a social scientist.
“I talked about some conventional debunkings from political science, like misuse of public opinion data,” he says.
“Its core is that leading Democratic politicians, celebrities and billionaires, particularly George Soros, are orchestrating an international child trafficking conspiracy,” Smith explains. “The purpose is to obtain the blood of the children in order to isolate a substance called adrenachrome, which they say will give them health and longer lives. Another belief is that Donald Trump is a savior — that’s literal, not a metaphor, an actual savior like Christ. He will lead ‘the storm,’ when people running the child trafficking ring will be put to death.”
There’s more, but let’s not indulge.
The point is, it’s rich classroom material. There’s just enough truth, for example, in the story of billionaire sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein to grow into something like what QAnon espouses.
“We have great examples of obviously good science and great examples of obviously bad science,” Martin notes. “However, even a lot of the bad science is rooted in truth. People think, ‘That’s true, therefore maybe the rest of it is.’ ”
The key, she says, is to investigate how people get from a true thing to a clearly not-true thing. Do they just not understand, or do they have bad intentions?
“While it is easy to agree that someone’s ignorance isn’t as good as someone else’s knowledge,” she says, “human beings rarely are adept at identifying — or admitting to — their ignorance.”
But students have grown annoyed.
“They were uniformly outraged,” Smith says, “because people are investing time and energy into this instead of doing things like stopping the spread of coronavirus or putting in place policies to counter global warming.”
Most are in their late teens and early twenties, having grown up as digital natives.
“They believe they have better skills to fact-check,” he says, citing anecdotes — admittedly not ideal for a science class, but there hasn’t been enough polling, yet, for good data — about middle-aged women falling for QAnon’s co-opted “save the children” slogan. One student’s mother had fallen for it.
While it’s heartening that his students can see what’s going on, Smith is concerned about what it all means for the rest of us.
“The lines between what’s perceived to be facts and entertainment are really really blurred with QAnon and maybe in our political culture generally,” he says, noting QAnon’s connection to online gaming. “So, with people who believe and spread QAnon, I’m not sure if all of them even care if it’s true or not.”
Most recently, he says, “what’s unbelievable to me is the blatant denial of election results. The false narrative of widespread voter fraud spread over the QAnon network.”
He’s most worried about damage to what political scientists call “soft power” — the idea that a government is trustworthy. A government with legitimate soft power would have widespread buy-in for mask-wearing to stop the spread of COVID-19, for example.
“When you have only half the people wearing masks, that is not going to stop a viral pandemic,” he says. “In that sense, conspiracy theories have already killed a quarter million Americans and counting.”
The most alarming thing, I think, is how quickly Smith answered when I asked what he’d say to Kansans outside of his classroom — and the fact that he needed to say it at all: “Reality exists.”