The War Against Fake News and Pseudoscience on YouTube: ‘Space Weather’ vs. ‘Suspicious0bservers’

Hello everybody, I apologize for the long absence, however, a lot has happened over the past several months!

Anyway, today’s blog post is a slow-burn introduction to two YouTube channels that are polar opposites of one another: one promotes science and the other monetizes pseudoscience.

The first channel is called, Space Weather, and it’s owned and operated by a man who has degrees in physics as well as 30+ years of experience working as a space weather forecaster. He created his YouTube channel with the purpose of correcting misinformation and making a public record to show that some of the pseudoscience circulating on social media is being challenged with real science.

Space Weather’s introductory video, “#001 – Introduction and Welcome!,” elaborates on how he’s interested in challenging incorrect claims:

@ 0:25: …there’s a few people who, I think, need to be corrected. And one of those is a guy [Ben Davidson] who happens to be one of the most popular YouTubers [Suspicious0bservers] for space weather. Well, that happens to be my professional expertise, I actually do that for a living and have for the last 30 years; so I know what I’m talking about. A number of years ago I was also a reviewer of papers for the Journal of Geophysical Research published by the American Geophysical Union…

@ 1:19: Some people on the internet publish information that they claim is correct when it is not, and some people even go so far as to say that the information they provide has been peer-reviewed. That means that it has been reviewed by other peers in that field that actually know the field and actually understand well enough to be able to detect falsehoods and make corrections to the information before it actually appears in a journal.

@ 5:12: What I’m in this for is to try and correct the misinformation that is out there and the false belief systems that are forming because of people who are promoting information that is false. It’s time that people who are educated in certain fields to start to push back and promote their fields and correct those who are misinforming the public about their fields.

The nefarious usage of social media to promote the spread of misinformation in the form of fake news and pseudoscience is a bane to the existence of democracy. Furthermore, the time has come to challenge the ability of these individuals to make a living off of the spread of misinformation, fake news and click-bait pseudoscience; things should be made as difficult as possible for any internet entrepreneur who purveys, and profits off of, bullshit.

What is pseudoscience?

The Scientific Endeavor, published by Addison Wesley, explains how the prefix “pseudo” means “false” or “deceptive” and defines pseudoscience as, “fake science, a collection of assertions that do not satisfy the requirements and practices of true science…No natural phenomena or processes previously unknown to science have ever been discovered by pseudoscience” (The Scientific Endeavor 2000).

And on that note, the other YouTube channel is called, Suspicious0bservers, which is owned and operated by the non-practicing lawyer, Ben Davidson, who was the owner of KAHB LLC., which turned into Space Weather News LLC. Ben Davidson does not have any degrees in science or journalism, yet pontificates to the public about science in videos that he often labels as “news” on a daily basis.

I know, I know…who the hell is Ben Davidson?

A profile of Ben Davidson exists in The Kernel article, “How one man turned conspiracy theories and impending doom into a YouTube empire,” written by freelance journalist Joseph L. Flatley:

“There’s no reason you would know who Ben Davidson is, unless you’re one of the 250,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, Suspicious 0bservers, which boasts of providing ‘the best open sources of information on Earth.’ Every morning, all year-round, he posts dispatches from his explorations into ‘the frontiers of solar and planetary science.’ In Davidson’s world, earthquakes can be predicted by looking at the Earth’s electromagnetic output, the sun directly influences things like suicides and crime rates, and water rains down from outer space” (Flatley 2015).

Flatley recently authored a book titled, Sirhan: or, The Hallucinatory Vanguard, in February of 2018 and a description of it reveals just how much of an impact his interview with Ben Davidson had on his fiction, art:

“Sturgis Sturdevant is a professional troll. He works for a fake news website, he can’t seem to find a decent therapist or meet a nice girl, and it looks like he’s inadvertently joined a cult. If that wasn’t bad enough, Stu might also be a hypnotically programmed assassin…The reader will encounter media startup yuppies, conspiracy theorists, ravers, and political extremists of all types in a book that doesn’t comment on conspiracy culture as much as wallow in it” (Flatley 2018).

But enough about Sturgis Sturdevant and back to Ben Davidson’s (Suspicious0bservers) startup, Space Weather News LLC. It’s important to note right off the bat that simply tagging “news” at the end of something does not make it news. Ben Davidson’s own “About” section even states that:

“I OFTEN INTERJECT MY OPINIONS ABOUT THE TOPICS PRESENTED ON THE CHANNEL AND ON THIS SITE, AND I ATTEMPT TO CLEARLY COMMUNICATE WHEN THAT IS THE CASE. OTHERWISE ALL THAT IS SAID AND SHOWN IS CITED WITH A HYPERLINK OR PROPER CITATION IN THE ABOUT TAB OF THE VIDEOS OR ON THIS WEBSITE. THE INFORMATION SHOULD NOT BE TAKEN AT FACE VALUE OR AS TRUTH SIMPLY ON MY WORD; I AM CLASSIFIED AS HUMAN AND THEREFORE AM NOT TO BE TRUSTED, AND THAT’S WHY I GIVE YOU THE ABILITY TO DO YOUR HOMEWORK AND COME TO YOUR OWN CONCLUSIONS” (Davidson 2018).

While posting text in all capital letters on the internet is a bold move, bolding it would’ve been even bolder. Either way, typing words in all caps is #7 on the list of methodology for determining a score on The Crackpot Index, “5 points for each word in all capital letters (except for those with defective keyboards)” (Baez 1998).

This all caps paragraph that Ben gives is a great example of why his “news” content constitutes opinion and not fact: you either do, or do not, communicate that something is an opinion…there is no attempt. This is why newspapers and news websites have sections that are clearly labeled “editorial” and “op-ed” to avoid any confusion; interjecting opinions and presenting them alongside cherry picked “facts” is how people create half-truths…and fake news.

According to experts, like the one behind the Space Weather YouTube channel, Ben Davidson has a habit of misinterpreting news articles, and scientific research, due to his lack of relevant education, training and expertise in the sciences.

Ben Davidson then presents his uneducated opinions to the public alongside “hyperlinks or proper citations” to legitimate research, which as we all know is simply not good enough anymore since it’s become necessary for people to show exactly how what it is they’re citing supports the argument that they’re trying to make.

When Ben Davidson says that he gives, “you the ability to do your own homework and come to your own conclusions,” all that he’s really doing is using a variation of the over-used internet adage of, “do your own research,” which according to RationalWiki:

“is a common phrase used by conspiracy theorists and pseudoscience promoters of various creeds in response to people who are skeptical of their claims. This phrase is a form of the escape hatch (Argumentum ad googlam) used by a charlatan who wants to win the argument but does not want to bear the burden of proof. Typically by this, they tend not to be suggesting you actually read through papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals—nah, they’re evil, big government shills—nor are they suggesting you conduct original research; Professor Google provides all the info needed. Some specify YouTube is the key to all your ‘research’ (RationalWiki 2018).

Ben’s take on this is that his arguments are somehow valid since he’s offering links to legitimate and credible sources, such as NASA, NOAA, Phys.org and so on; Flatley noted Ben’s typical habits where he, “offers a series of seemingly related news items as proof,” (Flatley 2015) in The Kernel article.

In the book, A Field Guide to Lies, author Daniel Levitin accurately describes the problem with information coming from sources like Ben Davidson, “Sometimes the people giving you the facts are hoping you’ll draw the wrong conclusions; sometimes they don’t know themselves” (Levitin 2016).

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:

“…there’s a big difference between being an ‘authority on science’ and ‘speaking authoritatively on science,’ the latter of which anyone can do to varying degrees of believability, however, only qualified, educated and experienced experts are capable of being authorities on science. This is the inherent difference between a scientist and a pseudoscientist: one has scientific know-how and the other just knows how to blow hot air” (RealityChallenged 2017).

Is Ben a fairly decent public speaker? Yes. Does Ben sound like an authority on the science topics that he presents? Maybe to a layperson, but when an expert listens to the terminology he misuses it throws up many red flags. Is Ben an authority on science? No, we’ve established already that he has no science degrees or relevant expertise.

That “pseudoscientists pay close attention to current events and often use new research that is carried out by qualified professionals in order to ‘confirm’ their own ‘overvalued ideas‘ and beliefs,” is something that was also established in my previous blog article, “The Tactics of Pseudoscientists and Cranks: From Misuse of Language to ‘Just Asking Questions.’” And it led to pointing out that, “this is what’s known as ‘confirmation bias,’ and often involves ‘cherry picking‘ certain bits of information that agree with their argument while ignoring every piece of evidence to the contrary” (Reality Challenged 2017).

An over-reliance on confirmation, instead of falsification, of a hypothesis while combing through current events for “proof” of their ideas are two hallmarks of a pseudoscientist.

What is falsification?

When someone forms a hypothesis that hypothesis must be tested using the scientific method. After they test their hypothesis by trying to falsify it (prove it wrong as hard as they can), and take the proper steps to make sure that they aren’t just fooling themselves, a researcher can then submit the hypothesis in the form of a paper to be reviewed by peers with education and expertise in the relevant scientific field.

It’s important to be aware of the fact that there is a big difference between a proper peer-review process through reputable scientific journals and a fake peer-review process, which is done when someone publishes in a predatory pseudoscience journal and is the equivalent of publishing a “news” article in a tabloid.

There are several reasons why Ben Davidson’s paper, “Relationship Between M8+ Earthquake Occurrences and the Solar Polar Magnetic Fields,” isn’t considered valid research, but the main one that this blog post is focused on is that: it has not been published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal and therefore is “a collection of assertions that do not satisfy the requirements and practices of true science” (Addison Wesley 2000).

If it were to one day be published in an actual peer-reviewed journal, then all of the things in this blog would still stand: Ben falsely claimed (either knowingly or unknowingly, the latter of which does not speak very highly to his “due diligence” skills) to have published peer-reviewed papers to the public for over four years.

Here’s some information on the peer-review process, and what Ben Davidson has done, in a concise explanation from the expert behind the YouTube channel, Space Weather, from his video, “Critical Review of Research by Kongpop U-Yen,”:


Transcript from Space Weather’s video on Ben Davidson and peer-review:

@ 5:14: It’s important to note that Ben Davidson and Kongpop U-Yen did not go through this peer-review process properly. They chose to publish their information in a poorly known journal, and that journal is not read by anybody in the plate tectonics field or the solar physics field or the space weather field.

@ 5:37: And anybody who did read it would really cast a huge grain of salt upon anything they read. The papers that are published in it are poorly done, they’re not properly peer-reviewed because there are no peers in that group who read that journal to do a quality job.

@ 5:57: So what Ben has done is he’s given his paper to a poor journal with no quality peers and as a result ended up with poor results and bad research.

@ 6:12: Now you would think that Ben would know better, because he should know just by visiting a university library which journals are the preeminent journals that you’d want to publish in. And I actually do believe that he’s not that bad of a researcher that he wouldn’t have known that.

@ 6:27: But he doesn’t have any science degrees, and we know that because he says so, (Voiceover of Ben Davidson saying) ‘I have no science degrees.’ And the fact that he doesn’t have any science degrees suggest that work he does should be even more carefully scrutinized for validity, but he chose not to follow that route.

@ 6:52: So, what did he do instead? He decided to publish his information on YouTube and expose it to the world, and more than that, he decided that his research was good enough to actually produce models that he could try and predict earthquakes with in front of millions of people on the internet. So if his paper isn’t good enough to survive a true peer-review process, surely people on YouTube will like it. And they do, they don’t know any better, so, they have to like it.

@ 7:24: If somebody comes along and says, “I can predict earthquakes, and here’s how,” and then that person goes on to list a whole bunch of technical reasons for it that the people following him don’t really understand, but it sounds pretty official and cool, well you’re going to snag a lot of people who believe you. And that is exactly what has happened.

@ 7:48: So what has happened here is he’s taken his bad research, and his bad results, and he’s published them on YouTube to thousands and thousands of people. But these people don’t understand that it’s bad research and bad results. He says that it was peer reviewed, but it wasn’t properly peer-reviewed and therefore it’s bad research and bad results.

@ 8:26: So these poor people have been outsmarted, they’ve been duped or scammed, whether knowingly or not, that is exactly what has happened. And what is concerning to me is that when you have a large group of people, like 200,000-300,000 people, who start to believe an idea that is based on bad research what you end up with is a large group of people that propagate those bad ideas and form new false belief systems using that bad research and those bad results.

@ 8:59: And that is precisely what I believe has happened here with Ben’s attempts to predict earthquakes and spewing this false bad results/information on the internet to so many people around the world. People are now starting to believe that Ben is right and that the actual experts are wrong…


References:

Baez, John. “The Crackpot Index.” math.ucr.edu: 1998. Website: http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/crackpot.html

Davidson, Ben. “About Ben Davidson.” Suspicious0bservers.org: March 8, 2018. Website:  http://www.suspicious0bservers.org/about-faq/

Flatley, Joseph L. “How one man turned conspiracy theories and impending doom into a YouTube empire.” The Kernel: November 29, 2015. Website:  http://kernelmag.dailydot.com/issue-sections/headline-story/15158/ben-davidson-suspicious-observers-youtube-conspiracy-entrepreneur/

Levitin, Daniel J. “A Field Guide to Lies.” Penguin Random House: 2016. Website: https://www.amazon.com/Field-Guide-Lies-Critical-Information/dp/1524702528/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1520528130&sr=1-2&keywords=a+field+guide+to+lies+critical+thinking+in+the+information+age

Space Weather. “#001 – Introduction and Welcome!” YouTube: April 15, 2017. Website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dlP1lW-3lIY&t=73s

Space Weather. “#002 – Critical Review of Research by Kongpop U-Yen.” Youtube: April 15, 2017. Website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eb3dELRN4YQ

The Rational Media Foundation, Inc. “Do your own research.” RationalWiki: February 25, 2018. Site: https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Do_your_own_research

The Scientific Endeavor. “Science/Pseudoscience List.” Addison Wesley: 2000.

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Author: Reality Challenged

I have created this blog to record, analyze, investigate and report on the ideas, events, and people that would otherwise mislead you and waste your time.

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