What is the “Woozle effect”, and why should we be so worried about it ?

There is a good chance you have never heard of the “Woozle effect” before. It is not as well know as similar psychological phenomenons like groupthink or the bandwagon effect, but being aware of it, and combating its effects are just as important.

The term “Woozle”, comes from the much loved children’s book “Winnie the Pooh” by A.A. Milnes. In the book Pooh Bear and Piglet go hunting for a Woozle. They follow the Woozle’s tracks, and find that there are more and more tracks appearing. Christopher Robin eventually explains that Pooh and Piglet have been following their own tracks the whole time.

Pooh Bear and Piglet in search of the Woozle.

Over time, the Woozle effect has become a term to mean evidence based on weak citation that misleads individuals, groups and the public into thinking or believing there is real evidence. These “”Woozles” lead to nonfacts becoming part of the zeitgeist, turning into urban myths, factoids and fake news. Over time, we see a citation of a study so many times that we will start to believe it to be fact when it actually lacks any real evidence. This often happens in the mainstream press where a study is cited to support an argument, yet the original study lacks evidence, lacks definitions, or has a flawed methodology.

In modern politics the Woozle effect has become even more extreme. A person in an authority position now only needs to suggest something to be true without even providing actual evidence. These people in positions of power now act as the citations for a new Woozle to start. Of course the first person that probably comes to your mind would be Donald Trump. He has used the Woozle effect masterfully. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, he has been able to persuade a large portion of the population that much of what he says is backed by hard evidence. However, it’s not just Trump who has used the Woozle effect, his predecessor used it just as effectively. When talking about issues like gun control or tax increases Barack Obama would use phrases like “common sense” gun reform, or “fair share” tax increases. Those phrases suggested that people who do not agree with them were either stupid or selfish, effectively muting their point of view, and at the same time allowing Obama to set the definitions for those phrases.

It is fake news where the Woozle effect is felt the most today. It only takes one news article with questionable credibility to create a snowball effect of following articles each citing the last as evidence. You can spot the Woozle effect if the language has changed from things like “the evidence suggests” to “the evidence shows”. The changing of words from qualified (“it may”, “it might”, “it could”) to absolute form (“Every one knows …”, “It is clear that …”, “It is obvious that …”, “It is generally agreed that …”) subconsciously suggests to the reader a firm link between evidence and conclusions.

So why does all of this matter? When we are making decisions we need to use reliable information. The only way to determine if the information is reliable is to read the original studies, not to rely upon just the presses or an influential individuals interpretation of these studies. We need be asking questions like — does the study use a flawed sample? Use a very small sample? Interpret correlation as causation? Cite original research? If the evidence is weak, the decision could be too. So the next time you watch Fox News or read the Huffington Post ask yourself are the points being presented to you backed by hard evidence or are you following the tracks of a Woozle?

David is a computer science student living in San Francisco, CA. He created woozle.news, a news website that presents the day’s top stories in an unbiased, easy to understand, conversational format.