transcript of episode 9: MISINFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY, 7th May 2021

[🎶 INTRO: "Spring Swing" by Dee Yan-Kee 🎶]

welcome to the error bar: where hogwash is highlighted

in this episode: the psychology of misinformation, what we can do to fight fake news & neuromyths, brain size, a new brain disease in canada & dementia - again...

here is the brain news on the 7th May 2021:



perhaps stimulated by the departure of The Orange One from the highest office in the world, ten scientific papers on the psychology of fake news & misinformation were published this month. nine of these were part of a special colloquium in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA; the tenth was in the psychology journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences

i would recommend reading all ten, but i'll pick out the best bits from three

West & Bergstrom compare misinformation & fake news in the wider world to the processes & practices typical of modern science. the comparison is illuminating but not flattering for science

Yeo & McKasy discuss the roles of emotion & humour in science education, in fact-checking & countering misinformation in the public domain. they focus on the role of humorous science posts on Twitter

Pennycook & Rand in Trends in Cognitive Sciences ask why people fall for fake news. they conclude that it's less about their political beliefs or desire to misinform, rather it's a lack of reflection, reasoning or prior knowledge


are we drowning in misinformation?

yes & no

this brilliant series of reviews - 100 pages of science facts - poses many challenges for science communication & understanding in an information ecosystem dominated by the world wild west. so many challenges, that seem so big, as to be almost overwhelming

but there is hope. the reasons to be cheerful are

first, that the vast majority of news & information consumed by the general public is not fake. perhaps 1-15% of the news food eaten by the general public is fake or comes from unreliable sources

second, well-known phenomena like the 'backfire effect' - the idea that counteracting misinformation with facts & logic will 'backfire' only strengthening your audiences' false beliefs - is, itself, an often-mis-interpreted phenomenon. the backfire effect was only present in 2 of the original 5 experiments & follow-up work has either failed to confirm it or has substantially modified it

third, there is a lot to learn from these reviews: narrative, emotion, humour, inoculation, pre-bunking & the communication of corrective messages by well-trusted, liked & elite sources can all turn the misinformation tide

there's even a study showing that adding a laughter track to a stand-up science comedian's routine increases their likeability & their perceived expertise

the error bar is here to burst science news bubbles [LAUGH], dehorn science unicorns [LAUGH] & point to the naughty bits of naked science emperors [LAUGH]


the infodemic tide of misinformation may seem overwhelming, but the power & promise of science is overwhelminger. done well, science will win. join the information crusade


the science was by West & Bergstrom 2021: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Yeo & McKasy 2021: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, & Pennycook & Rand 2021: Trends in Cognitive Sciences;



a review by Torrijos-Muelas & colleagues traces the history of popular but misleading claims about the brain & systematically assesses the role of neuromyths in education

39 neuromyths are identified & repeated in their table 2. studies of these neuromyths raise many reasons for their persistence in education & beyond

here at the error bar we use 100% of both sides of our brains & we learn things in many different ways. and you should too. we recommend reading this study


so don't repeat them


the science was by Torrijos-Muelas et al. 2021: Frontiers in Psychology;



last episode we reported that human male & female brains are different in overall size, but not in their shape, structure or function. this episode, the Daily Mail tells us that a university eduction does not protect you from dementia, heart disease or brain shrinkage

in the study, thousands of brain scans from two national databases, covering 50 years of development showed that the most- & the least-educated halves of the volunteers showed the same rates of brain decay over their lifespan

level of education did predict overall brain volume & that was most strong for the important part of the brain that controls movements of the right hand

separately, Weisbecker & Smaers report in The Conversation on their study of the relative body & brain sizes of 1400 mammal species both fossilised & alive

scientists have previously considered the ratio of brain-to-body size as a measure of an animal's intelligence. but Smaers & colleagues point out that the same brain-to-body ratio has arisen in different ways during evolution. so we should not focus only on the evolutionary pressures for larger brains, but also to consider the pressures for smaller or larger bodies


is brain size & decay really unrelated to intelligence?

yes, it seems so

the large brain scanning study followed-up on hundreds of volunteers, with scans from the same people up to 11 years apart. this so-called longitudinal design is a better way to study changes in brain volume over time than other studies which only looked at a single time in each person's life

if i must quibble, the study only presents the data as a median split - divided into the most- & least-educated halves, the units on some graphs are wrong & god only knows why the brain area that controls the right hand is so important - but the analyses & conclusions seem fair. even the Daily Mail corrected a later version of their headline, limiting their conclusions to brain shrinkage - because dementia is well-known to be less common & brain size larger in people with more education

on the brain evolution study, i'm not expert enough to judge, but this paper has some beautiful data visualisations! the conclusion that intelligence is not a simple matter of brain size or brain-to-body ratio seems a perfectly sensible one


brain size is a small but important predictor of educational outcomes in humans, but brain size alone is not enough to tell you about something's intelligence, whether human, fruit bat, capybara or sealion


the science was by Nyberg et al. 2021: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, & Smaers et al. 2021: Science Advances; reported in The Daily Mail by Ian Randall on 26/Apr/21, & The Conversation on 28/Apr/21

and the brain in brief...



over the last 2 months, health officials in New Brunswick in eastern Canada have been reporting cases of an unknown neurological disorder similar to Creutzfeld-Jacob disease

on the 18th March, the Globe & Mail reported on 43 cases, including 5 deaths, since 2015. by the 23rd April 47 cases & 6 deaths had been identified

the new disease affects men & women equally, aged 18-85 years. symptoms include uncharacteristic irritability, anxiety, depression, followed by pain, insomnia, hallucinations, loss of balance & coordination, dementia, muscle spasms, atrophy & even Capgras syndrome - the belief that familiar people have been replaced by imposters

Creutzfeld-Jacob & other prion diseases have been ruled out, but no explanation has yet been found


stay tuned


reported in The Globe and Mail on 18/Mar/21, & Government of New Brunswick on 29/Apr/21



following the error bar's intervention on its dementia coverage last episode, the Daily Mail has mended its ways & reported on a scientific article that actually relates to dementia

the study involved nearly 8000 people over a 25 year period and found that those who reported - or were recorded as - having less than 6 hours sleep a night had a slightly higher risk of dementia in later life

a rival newspaper takes up the baton of the careful scientific reporting of neurological disease, but drops it during the first changeover. last week, the Express reported news that green tea could help treat Alzheimer's disease. but this headline was sourced from a 2019 study in mice. 2019. mice


but not to green tea


the science was by Sabia et al. 2021: Nature Communications, & Mori et al. 2019: Journal Of Biological Chemistry; reported in The Daily Mail by @RyanMorrisonJer on 20/Apr/21, & The Daily Express by Chanel Georgina on 25/Apr/21



the scientific journal Neuron reports the death in late January 2021 of Professor Friedrich Bonhoeffer, a physicist, molecular biologist & neuro-embryologist

his contribution includes finding that cells in the embryonic visual brains of chickens & zebrafish create connections & form maps of the world using chemicals that attract & repel the developing nerves

a former PhD student writes of Professor Bonhoeffer's "deep sense of fairness, humility & infectious generosity" & repeats his advice "not to read too many scientific papers" lest it stifle your creativity


rest in peace


the science was by Baier 2021: Neuron;

[🎶 OUTRO: "Cosmopolitan - Margarita - Bellini"by Dee Yan-Kee 🎶]

it's closing time at the error bar, but do drop in next time for more brain news, fact-checking & neuro-opinions. take care.

the error bar was devised & produced by Dr Nick Holmes from University of Birmingham's School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences. the music by Dee Yan-Kee is available from the free music archive. find us at the error bar dot com, on twitter at bar error, or email talk at the error bar dot com