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Thursday, 14 September 2017

The Nun, the devil and the science "news" site. IFLS may "love" science but they seem to love clickbait a whole lot more.

Back in 2015 I wrote a blog post (1) examining a single day's output of the science news website "I Fucking Love Science" or IFLS, finding that the content was particularly poor as a representation of science in general, with the articles providing a focus on extremely flawed, commercially conducted surveys in particular. The reason I found this particularly worrying was due to the vast number of people that received their science news through IFLS, standing at almost 23 million on facebook alone at the time. It's now up to 25 million likes and almost as many people following the site, receiving regular updates in their newsfeeds. What concerns me is that if this was the only access these people had to science news then their view of science, in general, would be extremely malformed.

Since that post, I've regularly checked in on IFLS, and found the content hasn't generally improved. Sure, there is the odd interesting and legitimate article, many of which are copy and pasted from other sites, but the majority of the articles have been little more than pure click-bait.

Unfortunately, with a recent article, IFLS descends from the position of "questionable click-bait" to outright supernatural bunkum and the possible propagation of the very dangerous idea of demonic possession. The article in question entitled  "Letter Written By A "Possessed" Nun Decoded Using Software From The Deep Web" by Tom Hale, published on 11th September tells us of a letter composed by a 17th century "possessed" Sicilian nun named Sister Maria Crocifissa Della Concezione. The story was also covered by such esteemed science periodicals as the NY Post (3), The Daily Mail (4) and The Daily Star (5) among others. Is this the kind of bedfellows a science website should be keeping?

Also consider the source IFLS use as it's primary source here, an Italian radio station's website. (http://www.105.net/news/tutto-news/237723/lettera-del-diavolo-dopo-oltre-300-anni-un-algoritmo-la-decifra.html?refresh_ce)

Sure The Times also published a version of the story (6) but it's short and doesn't mention the concept of possession at all. To compare how the Times report downplays the supernatural element let's juxtapose it's introduction to the story to that of IFLS and one of the tabloid sources.

What the Times says:
"A letter written in code by a 17th century Italian nun, which she claimed was dictated to her by the Devil, has been deciphered by scientists using a code-cracking algorithm after centuries of failed attempts. The nun, Sister Maria Crocifissa della Concezione, is believed to have screamed and fainted while writing letters at the convent of Palma di Montechiaro that she said were Lucifer’s ploy to convince her to serve evil rather than God."
What IFLS says:
"Back in the 17th century, a Sicilian nun wrote a letter claiming she had been possessed by the devil. Over 340 years later, scientists have finally deciphered this rambling message using a decryption program they came across on the deep web.The letter was supposedly written by Sister Maria Crocifissa Della Concezione at the Monastery of Palma di Montechiaro in the early hours of August 11, 1676. The following morning, she awoke covered in ink and claimed she had been possessed by Satan, who forced her to write the message. At the time, claims like these were taken very seriously."

What the Mail says:
"A 17th century 'letter from the devil' written by a Sicilian nun who claimed to be possessed by Lucifer, has finally been translated thanks to the dark web.The coded letter was written by Maria Crocifissa della Concezione at the Palma di Montechiaro convent in 1676, and she claimed it had been scribed by Satan using her hands."
I realise that this is somewhat subjective, but the IFLS article's tone seems to much more closely resemble the tone of the tabloid reporting of the subject. At only the conclusion of the article does the author acknowledge the possibility of psychological disorders and he never mentions the known psychological effects and afflictions that have symptoms that were previously associated with spiritual possession, leading to often fatal misidentification. I expect that from the Mail, but this is shockingly poor form for a science website.

As for the actual translation of this diabolical letter, Tom tells us:
"They (Ludum Science Center in Catania) have already translated 15 lines of the letter. So far, their work has revealed that the letter speaks of the relationship between God, Satan, and humans. It reads: "God thinks he can free mortals. This system works for no one... Perhaps now, Styx is certain."..
What Tom fails to mention is that we need to consider that the link between religious fixation and various mental illnesses such as schizophrenia is extremely well established (7). It's especially prevalent with individuals with strong religious upbringings and surrounded by religious iconography. Like a nun maybe?

I have some reason to suspect that the actual translation of the letter may not be particularly robust, particularly from this section of the article:
"It (the letter) goes on to try and convince the nun to abandon her faith, arguing that God is merely the invention of man and that Jesus and the Holy Ghost are “dead weights”...."
The letter was alleged to have been written in 1671, the origins of the term "dead weight" dates back to 1651, its first recorded mention, but its definition of a person of limited usefulness or burden was not widely used at this time. The main usage was nautical.  Also, its first uses were in English literature (8). Are we to believe its common usage had reached Italian nunneries within twelve years of it being coined?

It's possible but not likely.






I have to wonder if the editors at IFLS realise this article may have pushed the term "science" just a little too far, at the time of writing the site has turned off commenting on the post. I suspect it may disappear altogether shortly. By that point the damage may well have already been done, the post has been shared 28 thousand times. I came across it on not on a science group or page but in a small paranormal group posted by an admin who frequently posts articles about "demonic possession" and warning signs that your house is haunted.

Telling indeed.

Sources

(1) http://skepticsboot.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/where-is-love-how-ifls-is-failing.html

(2) http://www.iflscience.com/technology/letter-written-by-a-nun-possessed-by-satan-decoded-using-deep-web-software/

(3) http://nypost.com/2017/09/11/dark-web-helps-decipher-361-year-old-letter-from-lucifer/

(4) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4864708/Devil-letter-written-posessed-nun-finally-translated.html

(5) http://www.dailystar.co.uk/news/weird-news/643967/Devil-Christian-Bible-Proof-Letter-Possessed-Maria-Crocifissa-Italy-Decrypted-Decoded-God

(6) https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/nun-sister-maria-crocifissa-della-concezione-letters-from-lucifer-decoded-via-the-dar-web-d5jwx5mwk

(7)  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4031576/

(8) http://www.finedictionary.com/Dead-weight.html#etymology