Andy Hoffman teaches business and sustainability courses at the University of Michigan and studies cultural issues and the knowledge that impacts decisions. He visited Costa Rica and spoke with Irene Rodríguez S. at ‘La Nación’. Translated to English from the original article.
“We are living in a technological age with massive dissemination of data telling us climate change is a myth, that vaccines are harmful, and that GMOs are going to kill us, and they offer us alternative medicine for every disease. The problem is this literature is written using the same language and style as serious news, and some people are not only buying into them but also sharing them.”
These are the words of Andrew Hoffman, a business and sustainability professor at the University of Michigan whose research focuses on how cultural aspects and knowledge influence people’s decisions. Professor Hoffman has explored the role pseudoscience plays in making what he sees as bad or wrong decisions.
“The main risk from misinformation is that it can lead us into making bad decisions. This risk has always been there but now it’s has been catapulted by social media. Unfortunately, these decisions are often brought to public forums where people vote. The problem is that not only will they vote lacking the information they need, but they will also have the wrong information. That is not democratic,” he said.
Hoffman was in Costa Rica to lecture and teach at INCAE Business School in La Garita de Alajuela. La Nación talked with him and this is an excerpt from the interview.
How has pseudoscience impacted academic life?
“Pseudoscience has changed our dynamics. Although we are not exactly science teachers, we are still exposed to it. Now we must not only teach about the facts, but also about how to filter the information reaching us, how to verify. Now more than ever we must teach people how to think.”
“Also we must tell people not to be afraid to speak their minds, even if it is quite the opposite of what others are saying. To challenge them. Respectfully, of course, but still to challenge them. Obviously, before stating your opinion make sure it is based on facts and data. Do your homework and research to avoid giving unfounded opinions.”
“But yes, it’s okay to say ‘I’m sorry, there’s no room for racists to speak here’ or ‘I’m sorry, I do not want my children to play with children who are not vaccinated.’ If we are asked for the reasons, we must be ready to reply with data. Let us not keep those data for ourselves, let’s share with others.”
In a society where misinformation is available to everyone, how can I know if my facts are well founded?
“It is true that there is more misinformation now, but there are also more people and responsible media checking and reviewing each fact and communicating what is true, what is partially true or true only under certain conditions, and what is plainly false.”
“Just to give you an example, in the first message from Donald Trump to the nation in 2019 many mass media, both large and small, and many independent journalists were pointing at what was not true, and they had data to prove it.”
“My recommendation for those who doubt if something is right or wrong is, first of all, that if you are doubting you are already in a good place, because doubting, being skeptical, is the first step to take. Next, be curious, engage in learning, read, ask when you are not sure whether or not something is true.”
“My hope is that at the end of the day science will triumph because it has data. Yes, there are gray areas, but even gray areas have information that indicates why they are not either black or white.”
How do you link fighting pseudoscience to something that at first sight seems so unrelated to that topic like your management and business courses?
“Businesses are no longer seen as only engaging in making money. Businesses are now going beyond that to have more social impact.”
“In addition, the new generations are aware of one thing: bad market practices impact climate change. Science has an impact on improving businesses, not on ruining them.”
“Just by talking to farmers you will find that perhaps they will not speak directly about ‘climate change’ but they will say that they can no longer plant certain crops on their lands because they die, or that they can now plant crops they never planted before. They will tell you that all of this has an economic impact. Many people can no longer support their families as they did because something has changed in relation to climate.”
And this does not just only impact crops...
“Right. Impact is also seen on domains that influence us directly as a society. For example, right now we are facing levels of childhood obesity never seen before. And then there is pseudoscience and fake news. The good news is that we will always have the data to affirm.”
“Some people do not believe politicians when they talk about these matters, but that is why we must all look for information and share it. There is always someone who needs accurate information and if we do our homework we can provide them with clear, reliable data”.