Emotion potentially plays a bigger role than fact. Katherine Milkman and Jonah Berger have explored what makes online content go viral (full paper here ($), summary here), suggesting that information that tugs at our emotions, particularly ones that run deep — anger or anxiety or awe — is more likely to spread. Vani Hari, known as The Food Babe, plays off both the anger (can you believe that they put yoga mat in your bread?) and the anxiety (you don't know what you are eating?).
The who, where and how of the presentation matter as much or more (see the Yale Cultural Cognition Project for some well designed work on this), not just about what people conclude about the science, but about what they think scientists believe to be true. It matters not just what an expert says, but who we think the expert is - in the sense of what are their core values.
What should journalists do? What should scientists do? Should both groups ignore pseudoscience entirely?
It has me thinking about how and when I might tackle pseudoscience, either on the blog, or perhaps even more importantly, in my classroom. Given the knowledge that it may in fact reinforce the circulate myth, doing so is not necessarily benign. So what are my personal guidelines?
1. What is the risk of a lack of understanding? Can it kill you not to know? (Don't mix bleach with pesticides - it will not only kill more bugs, but more people.)
2. Is there reliable and understandable information readily available online?
3. Do I have the expertise to address the issue?
4. Can I back up any assertion I make from the peer-reviewed literature? (It's not personal opinion, but careful reading.)
5. Can I help people develop a stronger conceptual framework, so that they can be usefully skeptical on their own? In other words, I should not only assert, but communicate basic principles of science.
Additional questions I might ask myself before approach something about pseudoscience in the classroom:
1. Does it illustrate a concept this course addresses?
2. Do my students have the knowledge base and conceptual framework to debunk something themselves, if prompted?