Who should share information?

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.

  1. Information which has been created in the knowledge that it is false in order to influence people; and
  2. 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.

Laziness

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.

09-05-2017 09-37-01

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

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30 responses to “Who should share information?

  1. This is a brief first thought but this is an explosive area. Scientific areas are organized in general to wipe away mistakes but I have recently read that even here many papers that are accepted do not have reproducible results and are influenced by economic factors aside from the pressures of professional ambitions. Outside of science, as much as I admire the morality of desiring accuracy of information, the whole area of dissemination of news and policy and advertising and history is bent and has been bent since the origins of civilization towards various forms of control of populations and that is the overwhelming norm. Whatever other qualities lay in human abilities, the masterful use of all sorts of deception is among the most extensive. That is why we are so forcibly headed these days towards human extinction. Not something I am very enthusiastic about.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Not something that enthuses me either! But I do agree with you, there is incentive to present information in misleading ways so many times that you can’t help but think you will never win the batter by targeting the source. The only way would be to try and ensure nobody is falling into the trap, rendering it useless

      Like

  2. Maybe we’ll get there… Internet is new, and people are still used to editors filtering their information. They couldn’t really be trusted either, but most people think they can. Maybe it’s a good thing, that people are forced into thinking a bit further.

    Liked by 1 person

    • True, perhaps we need a bit of a “crisis” as a catalyst for people to start to think in new ways with a more questioning mindset. You are certainly correct that the internet is very young

      Liked by 1 person

      • Exactly. I am, though very worried about the close future, optimistic about mankind in tge long run. We have the capability to learn, hopefully also collectively.

        Like

      • Yes as a species we do love to leave things to the last minute. Icebergs must me melting and lungs deformed before climate change becomes a thing – but indeed I think in the long run we will be okay, and maybe over time we might even get better at tackling things early on

        Liked by 1 person

      • More or less how I handle dishwashing. Still, they always get cleaned eventually, and I’m a lot better now than during my first years as a student.

        Like

  3. I’m not so sure about my own opinion. In a certain way I feel a little guilty, because I’m part of this network, on the other hand, I don’t because I know that I do what I can to write as accurate as possible. But I keep feeling that this post refers to me. Are you referring to me? If you do please tell me why?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Of course I am not referring to you! I find that your posts clearly reference that you are theorizing which is exactly the right thing to do, which I try to do too. We need to bounce wacky ideas around and say things that are not correct – it’s just really important that everything is clearly bucketed into fact, opinion and fiction – which I like to think we both do a great job at!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Well written and i would say largely spot on Joseph 🙂

    I wonder about this bit though… “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”.

    Considered ALL POSSIBLE alternatives? Should that not be all currently available alternatives? Science has a way of discovering new areas of thinking and generating new theories that can dramatically alter the boundaries of previously accepted ‘Truths’. Being certain you are right or that you know the exact truth can be a very dangerous mind set. 😉

    I’d also suggest that considering all possible alternatives before declaring a Truth or a fact is something a remarkably small proportion of human beings actually do most of the time.

    love.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A very good point and I totally agree! The truth of today may be the witchcraft of tomorrow so you are quite right that is a more scientific way of presenting it. I completely agree, it sounds strange but I think often (me included) people don’t think about things. Properly thinking about something uses energy and it is a process which is tiring – engaging with information is something most of us could do better!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Agreed! You’d think there’d be some kind of institute we could go to when we were young that could help us all learn that from an early age?? 🙂

        love.

        Like

  5. I agree with the general sentiment of the post, but your conclusion from that graph is bugging me. It looks like a pretty standard S curve to me, growing exponentially then levelling out (some fluctuation is expected, but around 1975 seems unusually high). You’d need way more information to make a relevant conclusion. If you wanted to say it shows that the UK benefits from EU membership, you would need to do a comparison with other countries of that time period which did not join the EU. And then for good measure consider other possible answers for why trade would increase. Maybe which minerals/ commodities were in demand and which countries produced them. Was there a time when Britain was just really good at making things that other countries needed? Have other nations similar to Britain but not in a trade union seen similar increases in trade? Does the data need to be adjusted for other factors?
    Those medical research trials are annoying. So much laziness on the part of the people who read only the headline and pass it along.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree entirely with your sentiments and I wasn’t actually intending to come down on one side or the other of the argument on the EU (although my pro-European sentiments are no secret) but my main point on it was that the purpose of the graph was to demonstrate how Britain will be okay outside of the EU, and given this graph is the only information supplied it does a very poor job at reassuring anyone! Granted if it were analysed with other countries, perhaps standardized for average growth of developed economies outside the EU, compared to other factors such as quality of life the conclusion might have been different. But to share that graph as a single piece of pro Brexit evidence is in my opinion sharing before thinking!

      The list of questions you have thrown up is very complete and I only wish that everyone considered such as list of questions when they saw information! The readiness we have to accept things on the internet is concerning, so it feels nice to be challenged!

      Thanks for reading

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m a fan of unions too! You’re right, it’s not reassuring as the only piece of evidence. But if the only claim from it is that there has been a rise in trade post-war, then that’s true. It’s not a particularly meaningful observation, but it’s true. You went a step further and proposed a reason for that rise in trade, which leaves you with the burden of proof.
        I’m enjoying your blog so far. These are interesting topics.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Another well written and well balanced post, Joseph. i agree with everything but the last conclusion: “A huge amount of incorrect information would be avoided if people were as selective with online opinions as they are face-to-face”.

    My experience is that many people are not more selective face-to-face than online. Instead they choose to read news that they can agree with and then spread it, both online and face-to-face. I’m disturbed by how often I find myself in discussions with people who are clearly not more selective face-to-face, but keeps spreading stunning news. When I feel something’s off and pressure about sources they can often not present that. Sometimes I have been able to change someones way of judging news and sources, other times not.

    I think the problem is old: Non-critical judgement of sources existed before internet. The problem’s just increasing with the easiness to access and spread information digitally. Being a huge friend of the digital eras possibilities I’m wishing for more and better training in critical judgement in education though.

    There! I just proved to you that I read the post all the way to the end 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Although I have already commented twice on this issue I feel so strongly on the current dangers involved that an additional comment is worthwhile. Correct understandings that the efforts of science and technology have added to the fundamental mix involved in human survival makes it urgent that critical information is disseminated. Politics and the economy and business practices and the total foul-up of insane military brutality has come to the point that the desperate cries of the Pope noted today about global warming is the highlight of sanity in the news. A very detailed news item at http://www.counterpunch.org/2017/05/10/hanfords-nuclear-option-2/ clearly demonstrates a horrible danger out of restricting information about the immense stupidities over nuclear disaster at the Hanford site which has been hidden from the public since the end of WWII. The Japanese have been frightfully dishonest about Fukushima which is poisoning the entire Pacific Ocean and the ongoing obliteration of large areas around Chernobyl for human life has been played down by industry and government as a matter of policy to obtain agreement over extensions of nuclear energy installations over the false idea that will encourage less carbon pollution. The dangers are immense.

    Like

  8. It is very interesting you are writing about
    what we share & Facebook, when Facebook
    is the Panopticon 101,🏛️ self-enforcing prison.

    Oversharing and Too Much information is what
    has lead to this societal rifting between perceived
    social groups. (Everyone likes to think they are
    middle class, but the numbers show the middle
    class has been evaporating since the late 90’s.)
    Years ago companies PAID consumers for surveys,
    information, product testing, & feedback sessions.

    Real currency has been replaced by digital “Likes”
    & nobody seems to really care, they are happy blasting
    other peoples opinions & living in Facebook Wonderland.

    People do all that for free on FB for FB, & FB sells all
    of that data. = Biggest slave operation on the planet.
    A slave colony where the slaves spread the disinformation
    amongst themselves is really quite a genius invention.

    Spying has always been about having more information on
    the enemy than they do on you. If they want to give away
    all their secrets without promoting or interrogation so be it.

    welcome to the Matrix.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Today I thought about something, (it’s Sci-Fi) if a spacial object, let’s say an asteroid close enough to earth capable of subtracting or to add an atom, just one, over EVERYTHING. Could that change the whole matter? Like the difference between water and air?

    Like

  10. Aside from false information, there is also a huge danger to proper government and in business misbehavior in total lack of information. Through most of the agendas that provoke war and unfortunate health programs and the spread of highly destructive social behavior there is a suppression of knowledge about motivations creating actual injuries to society through bad policies. The secret operations of many institutions of various types is frequently more destructive than false information.

    Like

  11. ‘ Sharing information that makes you look smart is better than being smart ‘ I like it and we all like to be thought of as smart. Image is better than truth. Science is such a vast field that even the experts are mere amateurs in all but their subject. Yet it’s all ours to dabble in as we please, my goodness were in trouble.

    Like

  12. The fact that many employers use FB & social media as
    Pre-Screening tools (Spying) before employment. It
    doesn’t seem to phase the majority of people who carry
    on as business as usual. Then use FB to complain that
    they can’t find a well paying job. Is it tragic or humorous?

    Like

  13. A very well written article, but the key point with “fake news” is that people don’t actually believe what they read. Rather, they repeat what is common, but “believe” what an authority figure says.

    For most people, at most times, that authority figure is the trained responder aspect of themselves. So, the way that people act is not actually determined by what they say openly, but rather, what they say is what the circumstances demand that they say.

    Given sufficient stability, everyone is a scientist, as you say… but most people at most times are living in an unstable state closer to hypnotic receptivity. So the more pervasive, and easy to direct, a set of information is, the more it will change the person, even if they act as if they are at first rejecting it.

    Fake news is not a real problem to most people… the lack of autonomy over their own minds is the real, core problem.

    At the core, the amount of usury (fiscal, emotional) being extorted from all of us is the real problem… and for most people, most of the time, any distraction at all is better than ascending above the fray and attempting to build a more independent lifestyle.

    Like

  14. Hi Joseph

    While I generally agree with the broader sentiment, I have a few quibbles.

    You state under Breaking the Formula and misinformation that “The only way this can happen is through writing on subjects which you have not studied which leaves a knowledge gap.” That is not the only way.

    The prime way is that of having a belief that is justified in a set of contexts, and is held as a universal, that is actually simply a context sensitive heuristic.
    The very notion of “truth” seems to be a simplistic heuristic in this sense, a shortcut for “very high probability in common contexts”.

    The number of classes of systems that are not predictable seems to be infinite.

    So we have the very real issue of communicating between individuals with models of reality that are vastly different. Once one understands that what we each experience as reality is most likely actually a subconsciously generated model of reality that is only partly influenced by “objective reality”, and is also influenced by genetic and culturally selected heuristics, experience and choice; then the complexities present expand infinitely. Any sort of communication about a non-trivial subject is a non-trivial problem.

    It seems that this reality we find ourselves in is a finely balanced mix of order and chaos. Going too far either way causes problems. Maintaining an appropriate balance seems to be one of the great arts of life (science included).

    You state in respect of theoretical physics that it is a “knowledge pyramid”, but to me that conveys the wrong idea. It seems far more probable that it is a potentially infinite journey through levels of systems, algorithms and complexity. There do in fact seem to be an infinite set of classes of computational systems, some of which are predictable and some of which are not.
    The idea of a pyramid with a top doesn’t do justice to the underlying data-structure, however accurately it may represent the embodiment of knowledge in living human beings.

    I tend to use the rule that if I don’t look up the details then I am acting irresponsibly, because there are just too many details for anyone to be comfortable with. I have a large array of heuristics I use for 1st order approximations when doing scenario analysis, but when it gets down to detailed design, then I ensure I check everything, with multiple independent sources if possible, and if it seems appropriate and important enough, do the work myself.

    Peter Berg has done a good job on my final quibble, so I won’t elaborate further.

    Like

  15. Pingback: Fake News | Ted Howard NZ's Blog·

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