Crystal Lee of MIT—bio: “I work broadly on topics related to the social and political dimensions of computing, data visualization, and disability. I also conduct ethnographic and computational research on social media communities like COVID skeptics, Chinese cyber-nationalist fandoms, and data hoarders” (data hoarders?)—is lead author of the paper “Viral Visualizations: How Coronavirus Skeptics Use Orthodox Data Practices to Promote Unorthodox Science Online” (pdf).
The paper is just as weird as the title indicates, and can be summed up: amateurs are beating the pros at science, which should not be allowed, because institutionalized scientists create The Science.
Indeed, they take as certain sure the opinions of institutionalized scientists (in areas the authors themselves are ignorant) while demanding amateurs (who are not ignorant) be reined in.
This odd work neatly captures a trend we’re seeing everywhere, in which the Appeal to Authority is becoming Official Policy.
Some quotations (emphasis original; reference numbers removed):
A pandemic that affects a few, [mask skeptics] reason, should not impinge on the liberties of a majority to go about life as usual. To support their arguments, these protestors and activists have created thousands of their own visualizations, often using the same datasets as health officials…
Far from ignoring scientific evidence to argue for individual freedom, antimaskers often engage deeply with public datasets and make what we call “counter-visualizations“—visualizations using orthodox methods to make unorthodox arguments—to challenge mainstream narratives that the pandemic is urgent and ongoing. [See, e.g., the CDC’s own data showing the pandemic is not urgent and ongoing.]
…this study finds that anti-mask groups practice a form of data literacy in spades. Within this constituency, unorthodox viewpoints do not result from a deficiency of data literacy; sophisticated practices of data literacy are a means of consolidating and promulgating views that fly in the face of scientific orthodoxy. Not only are these groups prolific in their creation of counter-visualizations, but they leverage data and their visual representations to advocate for and enact policy changes…
We define this counterpublic’s visualization practices as “counter-visualizations” that use orthodox scientific methods to make unorthodox arguments, beyond the pale of the scientific establishment…
Among other initiatives, these groups argue for open access to government data (claiming that CDC and local health departments are not releasing enough data for citizens to make informed decisions), and they use the language of data-driven decision-making to show that social distancing mandates are both ill-advised and unnecessary.
This study shows that there is a fundamental epistemological conflict between maskers and anti-maskers, who use the same data but come to such different conclusions…. Indeed, anti-maskers often reveal themselves to be more sophisticated in their understanding of how scientific knowledge is socially constructed than their ideological adversaries…
This is followed by a lot of “visualization” fluff about how people who like to talk to each other talk to other, and those that don’t don’t, all couched in jargon. That’s what makes it real science.
Then comes this whopper, originally in bold, and written with a shiver: “anti-maskers value unmediated access to information and privilege personal research and direct reading over ‘expert’ interpretations.” The scare quotes are theirs.
They marvel that “Data literacy is a quintessential criterion for membership within the community they have created [of mask skeptics].”
Regular readers, hold on to your drinks:
So how do these groups diverge from scientific orthodoxy if they are using the same data?…they argue that there is an outsized emphasis on deaths versus cases: if the current datasets are fundamentally subjective and prone to manipulation (e.g., increased levels of faulty testing, asymptomatic vs. symptomatic cases), then deaths are the only reliable markers of the pandemic’s severity. Even then, these groups believe that deaths are an additionally problematic category because doctors are using a COVID diagnosis as the main cause of death…
All true, but our authors don’t bother disagreeing: it’s wrong because institutionalized scientists say it is. So they’ve heard. None of authors has any background in the subjects they’re critiquing. So how do they know what they’re pushing is true and the amateurs wrong? They don’t. They take it the institutionalized experts are right because they’re institutionalized.
Then: “This study forces us to see that coronavirus skeptics champion science as a personal practice that prizes rationality and autonomy; for them, it is not a body of knowledge certified by an institution of experts.”
Nor should it be.
By the end of the paper, they had grown hot, tying independent science with “American evangelical voters” and “climate change denialism”. And finally this:
The attempted coup on January 6, 2021 has similarly illustrated that well-calibrated, well-funded systems of coordinated disinformation can be particularly dangerous when they are designed to appeal to skeptical people.
This is not hilarious because it is false—grandmas walking through the Capitol a coup? Lordy Lordy—but because these institutionalized researchers believe it is true because they were told to think it.
They have thus proven, but their own arguments and admissions, everything they have said and argued is false. Skeptics really are more trustworthy.
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