As the emergency sirens howl, a handful of greasy people in shabby clothes are crawling around and assessing the damage. These people never got paid much for their work, and they were often opposed by institutions and ignored as they cried the alarm. These are people who look into weird stuff and the intersections between pop culture and pseudoscience such as Monster Talk podcast.
A good example of what they do is their series on the Shaver Mysteries (part 1 and part 2). Not many people who have fought the evil mind-controlling derro-dwarves in Dungeons and Dragons know that they come from the writings of Richard Shaver. Richard Shaver was a crazy person who happened to write to an editor who polished up his rantings about sinister underground forces and printed them as fiction. Many ideas from the weird fiction of the early 20th century are behind today’s nonsense, and that fiction often drew on earlier nonsense presented as fact such as Margaret Murray’s book on The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921). In their spinoff In ReSearch Of (patreon), they show how a series in the 1970s lies behind today’s American paranormal television.
This work is necessary because the flim-flam artists hide where they got their latest bunkum from. Often they don’t know themselves, they just read the last generation of books and watch the last generation of documentaries and commune with the last generation of gurus and start throwing things around and seeing which bits attract marks. So you can save a great deal of time by finding the original version drifting in the fog, opening the seacocks, and let it drag all the dinghies tied to it into the deeps.
Many people who have not been following projects like Monster Talk, just what appears in newspapers and respectable magazines, had terrible blind spots. I was surprised to learn that a prominent American professor of statistics does not know that there are whole TV channels in the United States pushing ancient aliens, Templar treasures at Oak Island, and other alternative archaeology. These probably reach a larger audience in the United States than academic archaeology reaches. Many people had not seen how the anti-vax movement has persuaded 10-40% of parents in many areas not to vaccinate their children, so that childhood diseases like measles are coming back. So they expected that everyone would promptly get vaccinated against COVID if public health officials told them.
Because they were so unprepared, their reactions have often made the problem worse (these people do not accept the authority which the establishment brandishes, and they get very worked up at the idea of being forced to get vaccinated). Demanding that people chant the latest orthodoxy in unison just increases skeptics’ suspicions that the ‘mainstream view’ expresses fashion and power not the results of ruthless evidence-based discussions. As blogger Oracc says, he and many other people warned that if a vaccine against COVID developed, it would be opposed by a hard-working antivax movement which has learned to exploit journalists and social media companies to spread its message. Paying attention to them was not unworthy of his status as a medical doctor, it was like counting the number of salmon in the run which feeds your village.
I gave one talk last year on how ancient aliens built the science fiction of Egypt (warning: YouTube), but showing how yesterday’s nonsense and fiction is today’s documentary is not my focus. Its all too easy to slip into being angry that someone is wrong on the Internet, and in a world with 8 billion people there is always someone wrong on the Internet. Focusing on debunking can accidentally spread the ideas you mean to destroy. I don’t know how to reduce the amount of nonsense in the world, other than being my quiet, evidence-based self. But its important that someone does this work.
Some active projects which show the connections between old books, pop culture, and dangerous nonsense are Monster Talk podcast <https://www.monstertalk.org/> Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff podcast <http://www.kenandrobintalkaboutstuff.com/> and Jason Colavito’s writing (for love of Ghu, don’t read the comments) <https://www.jasoncolavito.com/blog>
(scheduled 8 February 2022, original idea from years earlier)
Edit 2022-03-17: see also Andrew J. Gelman, “Lysenko! He’s baaaaack . . .” https://statmodeling.stat.columbia.edu/2022/03/17/lysenko-hes-baaaaack/
Edit 2022-03-18: see also Maxim Mironov’s call to his fellow Russian intelligentsia: “hey guys, do you realize we spent the past 20 years building little magazines for each other while the president of Russia conquered yellow journalism and broadcast news that reach tens of millions?” And Jona Lendering, Why Pearse’s Mithras Pages are Important (2013)