A big thank you and welcome to all our followers who have joined us via our new Facebook page – this has proven a very popular platform. Anyone who wants to stay in touch this way can do so by clicking the link on the left hand side, or by following this link.It is Facebook that prompted this post.
The world has changed rapidly; we have talked about the consequences of Brexit, the election in America and the general state of the world through a series of opinion posts with a scientific slant. Today we go on to address another issue in a brief opinion post – the ever rising phenomena of fake news.
For anyone who has been living under a rock for the last few months, this is the phenomena of information which is not factually correct disseminating through society and somehow influencing society. From the offset, we are going to draw a distinction between two types of fake news, before ditching the label to avoid the reader having to constantly picture Donald Trumps orange face.
- Information which has been created in the knowledge that it is false in order to influence people; and
- Information which is spread in good faith that is correct but contains factual inaccuracy.
The first type is a problem, but not the subject of this post. In truth, those individuals who participate are just information criminals and where possible they should be stopped. They are the creators, the source but they don’t spread the issue. How to we address the wildfire of incorrect information that burns through society?
We live in an era where people, particularly of my generation, read the majority of online content through information circulated on social media. This used to be a harmless endeavor, or perhaps I was just too young to realize, but it seemed that 5 or so years ago articles were just called 25 Places You Won’t Believe are Actually Real or The 10 The Sweets from your Childhood You Forgot About. While this trivial fluff still clogs the online world, the growth of political, scientific or economic content is undeniable.
Generation social media have made it really easy for anyone to speak. If I was studying 20 years ago I simply wouldn’t have had such a large a platform to discuss scientific ideas, yet now I am able to spark up a site in Starbucks one evening and along with Mekhi grow a healthy following. As such, I am the co-owner of a fairly smart looking site that presents scientific fact and opinions to a reasonable readership. (You might argue that there are no facts and only opinions, but that’s for another time).
On this site some of the things we discuss – particularly classical Physics are undeniably presented as facts. That might seem obvious, but actually it’s a huge statement and it comes with a responsibility. Presenting something as a fact means you have considered all possible alternatives and you are beyond any reasonable doubt that what you are saying is the truth. This is why, aside from classical posts our posts don’t have a heavy technical aspect; the highest qualification among the authors is a Bachelors degree, and it is important information beyond this level is not presented as fact.
Of course we stray into areas far beyond a Bachelors degree – but the important point is the presentation of the post. For example my post on string theory; I am certain everything I wrote is either factually accurate or appropriately flagged as a statement of opinion, because while full comprehension of string theory is advanced, the basic understanding I have offered is not beyond my comfort zone. Indeed you may have noticed in this post it was flagged at the start as opinion; which I helpfully left in bold for you.
This formula has worked well for us – it’s quite simple, to stay within our limits and as our studies expand so does the content on this site. It’s quite neat, as the site slowly becomes a digital catalog of our collective scientific knowledge. The formula for creating accurate content is so simple, yet fake news is apparently a thing. Why?
Breaking the formula
The formula I described is not followed by so many and it pains me – I see people genuinely trying to do a good thing and teach some science but the content is either slightly, or totally incorrect. The only way this can happen is through writing on subjects which you have not studied which leaves a knowledge gap. Why would anyone do this? Temptation. We all like the idea of being able to write about the very frontiers of our field, to be able to eloquently express the biggest ideas out there but the fact is there are very few who can. My goodness I want to be a Theoretical Physics genius, but I simply am not. It’s a knowledge pyramid, there are many who are able and qualified to communicate the most basic levels of knowledge with fewer and fewer as we get further to the top.
Let me caveat what I mean by qualified. The obvious would be the level of your formal education – so if you have studied to degree level there are probably a variety of degree level topics you are comfortable on, and so forth. That rule can never be absolute – perhaps you scored 50% in a final module on a subject; this implies you may be missing about half the knowledge which is far from ideal for a teacher. On the other end of the scale there are those who have relentlessly studied a topic they have sat no formal qualification in who probably have a greater breadth of knowledge than someone confined to a curriculum. So while a qualification may act as a proxy it is no license. Myself, I always obey the rule that if I have to look more than a few small details up I don’t know what I am talking about.
The majority of incorrect information on the internet would be avoided by authors writing within their domain of knowledge.
This idea is cynical but true – a large amount of poor quality information is spread through laziness. The top third of an article is always the most well read, because reading a long article – particularly when it’s technical is hard going. Often this is the fault of the author if the reader does not stay engaged, but this is a victim-less crime when the reader is disengaged and moves on. It is when part of an article or text is read and then used as a source in another piece of writing without appreciating it in its entirety. When something is written on a particular topic, if you are going to quote it in any way – be that verbally or in writing at least make an attempt to understand the full picture intended by the author.
For example if one were to be very careful with my post on Bayes then I am sure it could be selectively used to argue my belief in the existence of God. However if you were to read the entire article in full, you would understand it is about adoption a healthy and questioning mindset, with the whimsical example worked in of belief in God and how one might arrive at the truth on such a subject – this is of course a very different picture.
Selective paraphrasing is a key factor involved in spreading false information, performed both with intent and through apathetic reading.
The speed of information sharing
The final point I have to make with you is the speed at which information, which really links to the point above. I would be willing to bet a substantial wager that the vast majority of articles people share obey that top third rule – the top third of the article is read and it seems good so ping, round it goes and before you know it it’s shared with a network of people without being fully assessed. In science, medical news is the absolute worst for this. This story is made up (not that it matters anymore!) but you have an article that presents the findings of a fungus that has been seen to exhibit some cancer repelling properties in lab rats, with a snappy headline “The Fungus that Fights Tumors” and just like a bush-fire in summer, the hopes of many rest on some fungus that the article concluded probably wouldn’t have any applications in humans.
The number of times we have had to cringe at the information that has been shared – from politicians tweeting their own name to presidents denying climate change. Having a platform to always express your thoughts is lethal, as thoughts need to grow and mature before they are released. My personal favorite was this graph tweeted by the Brexit department to show our “steady growth” in trade.
What this graph clearly shows is the UK reaping the benefits of European membership with the heaviest growth being over the period of membership. If you agree with the EU or not is irrelevant here – the evidence provided does not support the conclusion, it contradicts it and it is embarrassing and beneath a government department to make a mistake like this. People love to label themselves scientists; we are all scientists. We all use the evidence before us and use it to form conclusions about the way the world is – this is a long and proud tradition of being human, something which is being aggressively eroded by the world of social media. A world where style matters over substance, where sharing information that makes you look smart is more important than being smart. Never fall into this trap; intellectual prowess always has been, and always will be more important than looking like a lifestyle blogger (no offence to my lifestyle blogger followers – you can have both).
We are past the point of thinking we can have some kind of regulation on the content that gets out there, the internet is unleashed. It has become a form of society – much like when you walk down a street, there is good, bad, criminal and trivial. The difference is when you walk down a street, in London at least, you only cross paths with people in your geographic area and you certainly would not have peoples opinions pressed upon you. The internet’s greatest asset is that we can exchange freely with people we normally wouldn’t; but increasingly this is becoming a weakness.
A huge amount of incorrect information would be avoided if people were as selective with online opinions as they are face-to-face