It’s hard to be certain of much these days.
Most people look for evidence to support a particular point of view and we usually find such evidence in journal papers, articles and authoritative websites.
The internet, in particular, lets us link to sources of information quickly and easily – giving us an impression of robust research underpinning our conclusions.
But, there are Woozles out there.
In A.A Milne’s book Winnie-the-Pooh, Pooh and Piglet start to follow tracks in the snow, believing that they are on the trail of a Woozle.
They keep going and the tracks keep increasing, until Christopher Robin eventually finds them and explains they have been, in fact, following their own tracks round and round a tree.
The Woozle effect in social science is used to describe a problem that happens when publications cite other publications that don’t have evidence, misleading people into believing that there is proof out there for a point of view – and turn suppositions into facts.
For example, there is the long held myth that 93% of communication is non-verbal.
This has been taken to mean that you don’t really need to know anything about your topic, but as long as you are personable and charming and know how to read and influence body language, you’ll do well. But it’s based on a flawed interpretation of the research.
This effect can influence many lines of research, from human trafficking, violence in society, anxiety levels and so on. You can even find circular citations, where one citation cites another, which in turn cites the first one.
This effect is perhaps even more important with the way in which the news media and the internet helps ideas to flow and multiply.
The viral way in which an idea can now spread means that it is almost impossible to counteract an incorrect version of a story.
So how do you deal with a world full of Woozles?
One approach is shut out the nonsense – retreat into a world of austere contemplation, cut out the news, ignore the internet and only get your evidence from high-quality, peer reviewed journals.
The other is to fight Woozles with Woozles, which leads to the Heffalump Conjecture, an approach apparently taken by the people that run our countries.
“Politicians, independent of ideology, in the presence of multiple verified facts and one Woozle will seek to fund Woozle related activity where either Woozle or funded activity emotively leads to increased votes and tenure in office.”