The Woozle Effect

“This…whatever-it-was…has now been joined by another…whatever-it-is… and they are now proceeding in company. Would you mind coming with me, Piglet, in case they turn out to be Hostile Animals?” — A. A. Milne

Remember the puzzle of the Woozle from ‘Winnie the Pooh’? Pooh and Piglet are out for a walk in snow and start to circle a larch spinney, to end up following their own tracks. The more they circle around, the more ‘creatures’ they are tracking. Where were all the Woozles coming from, they wondered. Of course, the reader knows that Pooh and Piglet are creating the Woozle tracks; that is what makes the situation so funny. It was this humorous chapter that gave its name to ‘The Woozle Effect’.

 The Woozle Effect – sometimes referred to as a woozle – is a type of cognitive bias.  Now, this gets too confusing, a cognitive bias is the scientific term covering human psychological and behaviour in relation to habitual ways of thinking. Very broadly speaking, when you have an opinion, you tend to only notice information that confirms that opinion, and ignore information that contradicts it. There are many different types of cognitive biases, which affect the way you make decisions and behave, affect your habits and thought patterns, and affect your social behaviour. The Woozle Effect relates to how information is used in research and in policy making.

The Woozle Effect is a favourite technique utilized by pseudo-scientists, lobbyists and political parties. The Woozle Effect occurs when someone cites previous research and publications so as to support their viewpoint; the problem being that this supporting information may lack evidence or be deliberately misleading. In this manner, the audience gains a false impression that there is plenty of evidence to support whatever topic or concept under consideration.

In this manner, untruths and shaky facts become urban myths and factoids on the internet and in our culture. The perfect example of this is the proven-fraudulent study linking autism to the MMR vaccination by Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield – who has been stripped of his medical licence in the United Kingdom and isn’t licenced to practice medicine in the United States – and twelve other authors published this study in 1998. Since that time, the results have never been able to be repeated; it has come to light that Wakefield had applied for a patent on a single-dose measles vaccine; other studies have proven no causal link between the MMR vaccination and autism.  In 2010, the paper was officially retracted. And yet, this paper is one of the documents cited in just about any information provided by anti-vaccination groups and lobbyists.

 Sometimes, the offending article will cite other similar articles. Sometimes, woozles can be created by citing only the information that might support an idea, and/ or by introducing ideas and views not held by an original author or supported by evidence, and/or ignores the actual conclusion of the original article. The creation of woozles is often linked to the changing of language, changing from the scientific qualified, such as “it may”, into the absolute form “it is”, or taking a non-academic article and ‘quoting’ it using the standard academic style.  [In this manner, the data provided seems reliable and authoritative, when in actuality it is a fabric woven of assumptions, incorrect conclusions and downright lies.

 You can’t take any information provided by interest groups for granted, even interest groups that you might support. The only way to avoid the Woozle Effect is to evaluate not just the original source of your information, but also ask where did your source seek its information. This is why scientific articles are peer reviewed before publication though, as we can see from Andrew Wakefield, this isn’t always one hundred per cent effective. Scientists are people too, and have their own cognitive biases.

 The Persistence of Discredited Beliefs is closely linked to the Woozle Effect, as is the Backfire Effect; all are a part of the same type of cognitive bias. Studies have shown that, even after a correction has been made public after a misleading or fraudulent claim, the misperceptions will persist in people who liked or agreed with the original claim. In fact, corrections may increase misperceptions in certain people, because of the Backfire Effect. It is human nature, we don’t like to be proven ‘wrong’.

 Politicians count on human nature to gain votes. So do lobbyists. So do the supporters of pseudo-science. Next time, when someone start spouting factoids and statistics, ask yourself this, “Where did they get their information?”

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