Tag Archives: Misinformation Susceptibility Test (MIST)

Thick Cambridge Professors on Misinformation Susceptibility

From Climate Scepticism


Professor Lewandowsky is tweeting his support for a new study on Susceptibility to Misinformation conducted by Maertens, van der Linden et al at Cambridge University. 

This tweet links to 2 irrelevant Cambridge University sites, plus another 15-tweet thread which reproduces the un-copy-and-pastable abstract of a paper with a long title which I leave you to read for yourself, and finally to an on-line self-completion survey inviting you to rate 16 or 20 news headlines as either ‘Fake News’ or ‘Real News’ in order to test your “misinformation susceptibility.”

This has to be the worst-designed survey ever put out by academics since Lewandowsky’s paper “NASA faked the Moon Landing..” paper, which is perhaps why he is pushing it. The questions in Lewandowsky’s fake survey on conspiracy theorising were transparent as the interrogations in Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” in comparison with this garbage.

Here are the 20 questions on the long version for you to test your resistance to the tide of misinformation that is submerging the planet: (note: there’s no “Don’t Know” option)

  1. The Government Is Knowingly Spreading Disease Through the Airwaves and Food Supply
  2. The Corporate Media Is Controlled by the Military-Industrial Complex: The Major Oil Companies Own the Media and Control Their Agenda
  3. Democrats More Supportive than Republicans of Federal Spending for Scientific Research
  4. Reflecting a Demographic Shift, 109 US Counties Have Become Majority Nonwhite Since 2000
  5. Ebola Virus ‘Caused by US Nuclear Weapons Testing’, New Study Says
  6. Left-Wing Extremism Causes ‘More Damage’ to World Than Terrorism, Says UN Report
  7. Hyatt Will Remove Small Bottles from Hotel Bathrooms
  8. Government Officials Have Manipulated Stock Prices to Hide Scandals
  9. Republicans Divided in Views of Trump’s Conduct, Democrats Are Broadly Critical
  10. International Relations Experts and US Public Agree: America Is Less Respected Globally
  11. The Government Is Manipulating the Public’s Perception of Genetic Engineering in Order to Make People More Accepting of Such Techniques
  12. One-in-Three Worldwide Lack Confidence in Non-Governmental Organizations
  13. New Study: Clear Relationship Between Eye Color and Intelligence
  14. Government Officials Have Illegally Manipulated the Weather to Cause Devastating Storms
  15. Global Warming Age Gap: Younger Americans Most Worried
  16. New Study: Left-Wingers Are More Likely to Lie to Get a Higher Salary
  17. US Support for Legal Marijuana Steady in Past Year
  18. Certain Vaccines Are Loaded with Dangerous Chemicals and Toxins
  19. Morocco’s King Appoints Committee Chief to Fight Poverty and Inequality
  20. Attitudes Toward EU Are Largely Positive, Both Within Europe and Outside It

Googling the first three statements that seemed vaguely credible revealed that they all came from survey reports from the Pew Research Center. If it has really been scientifically established by Scientists at Cambridge that everything said by the Pew Research Center is infallibly true, why don’t they just say so? It would save the rest of us a lot of ontological angst. 

The fourth one I tried: “Global Warming Age Gap: Younger Americans Most Worried” came from Gallup. They were bound to have a question or two about the climate, but here they were playing safe. Of course, younger Americans are the most worried about global warming. Anyone thinking that older Americans are the most worried can only be a Trump-voting victim of Koch Brother brainwashing and should be banned from social media, or “the Airwaves” as they apparently say in Dutch. 

Many of the false  statements can be identified on stylistic grounds, as having been written by clever lefty academics with an obsessive hatred of Trumpist populism, and for whom English is not their first language (“..through the Airwaves,” “..Certain Vaccines are Loaded..”)

This still leaves a number of questions to which the correct answer cannot be determined by stylistic features. Take Q.19: “Morocco’s King Appoints Committee Chief to Fight Poverty and Inequality.” Well, knowing the King of Morocco as I do, I wouldn’t put it past him. Although I wouldn’t put it past him not to. Luckily, Google is at hand, and indeed, according to Reuters, he did.  

A serious criticism of the survey is that knowledge of the “right” answers depends on a thorough knowledge of, and interest in, US culture and affairs.  Take Q7: “Hyatt Will Remove Small Bottles from Hotel Bathrooms.” Who the hell is Hyatt? And how would I know if he’s removing small bottles from hotel rooms?  No doubt if you’re a UK-based Dutch academic flitting from conference to conference, your knowledge of American hotel rooms is boundless. For the rest of us, these statements sound like enigmatic messages from another planet.

Leaving aside the fact that the questions betray the most heartfelt passions, concerns and anguish of the tiny proportion of the world that reads the NYT or Guardian, works in politics, PR, academia or the media, and who won’t rest until every Brexiteer and Deplorable has ceased spouting his unacceptable opinions and crept back under his MAGA-slimed stone, there’s quite a lot to criticise about this survey from the point of view of methodology.  

Take Q.13: “New Study: Clear Relationship Between Eye Color and Intelligence.” I’ve never seen a report on the relation between eye colour & intelligence. I know nothing about the subject, & the only honest response would be “don’t know.” But there’s no don’t know” box to tick. Honesty is not an option. 

So let’s calculate: “My interrogators are leftwing academics, trying to spot whether I’m a white supremacist, hiding my racism under the veneer of an interest in the importance of eye colour. So, False.”

Except that I’m not being asked whether there’s a relationship between eye colour and intelligence, but whether there’s a new study claiming there is. Which of course I can’t possibly know, not being a world expert on eye colour, and never having written such a paper myself. 

Q.2 consists of two completely different questions, on Control of the Media by the Military-Industrial Complex, and by The Major Oil Companies. Yet you’re supposed to answer with a simple true of false. Again, if I’d produced a questionnaire like this as a junior market research executive, I’d have been told I was in the wrong job. And these are professors at Cambridge for Gaia’s sake. 

A final example: The question compilers seem not to understand the necessity of distinguishing between “all,” “some,” “any,” and similar useful modifiers. Take Q.8: “Government Officials Have Manipulated Stock Prices to Hide Scandals.”

Well, have they? Not to my knowledge. I’m not even sure what the accusation means. But am I willing to vouch for the fact that no government official has ever manipulated stock prices, or that, if they have, it wasn’t in order to hide scandals, but for the much more common purpose of making money from insider trading? These are deep waters for a survey that’s supposed to take two minutes.

None of this trash would matter if it weren’t for the fact that Misinformation is one of the great Perils of the Age, and that the paper written by the authors of this survey: “The Misinformation Susceptibility Test (MIST): a psychometrically validated measure of news veracity discernment” aims to divide the “discerning” (i.e. credulous) sheep from the “yes butt..” sceptical goats, at the moment that the EU is installing a system of multimillion euro fines on media that fail to ban people who give the wrong answer to surveys like this, on subjects raised in questions like these, concerning such things as the relative strength of belief in global warming, the purity of vaccines, the honesty of governments, and the infallibility of the mainstream media.

I tell myself I’m not bothered, it’s only a bunch of unusually thick Cambridge professors. But should I be?