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Surviving the Misinformation Age


David J. Helfand

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.3, May/June 2017

In 2016 many in the mainstream media portentously declared we had entered the age of “post-truth politics” (Drezner 2016) and now live in a “post-factual democracy” (Barret 2016). With monetized “fake news” sites proliferating, tweets inconsistent with reality dominating political debate, and most citizens busily constructing echo chambers of their personal beliefs through their social media accounts, the hysteria may seem warranted. But as Alexios Mantzarlis of the Poynter Institute reminds us (Mantzarlis 2016), politicians, media commentators, and your next-door neighbor have been playing fast and loose with the “truth” for a long time.

Indeed, the classical scholar Edward M. Harris noted in his paper dissecting “Demosthenes Speech Against Medias” (Harris 1989) that 2,400 years ago in Athens, “although a witness who perjured himself could be prosecuted…an orator who spoke in court could indulge in as much fabrication as he wished without fear of punishment.” Harris went on to state: “In short, nothing aside from the knowledge of the audience and the limits of plausibility restrained the orator from inventing falsehoods and distorting the truth.”

Public prevarication, then, is nothing new. What is novel is the technology-saturated environment in which it is now embedded. It is the “knowledge of the audience” and the “limits of plausibility”—not the falsehoods and distortions—that have changed.

How has the “knowledge of the audience” evolved over the tenure of Homo sapiens on this Earth? For more than 95 percent of our history, knowledge was limited but was tested daily against reality. The hunter-gatherer who picked a basket of poisonous berries was soon eliminated from the gene pool, as was the youth who led his kin toward the hungry lions instead of the grazing gazelles. Those few who parsed the patterns of the stars and so could predict the wildebeests’ migration were accorded special veneration (we used to call them “experts”). There was also, no doubt, much misinformation abroad in those halcyon days—lightning evinced the anger of the gods, and neighboring kin groups were largely shunned as the hostile “other,” whether they were hostile or not. But with simple survival as the foremost concern, the “knowledge of the audience” in general comported well with reality.

The average citizen today lives in a very different world. As Arthur C. Clarke’s celebrated third law has it, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and such magic permeates and defines the world of the typical American adult. From self-parking cars and GPS to iPads, airplanes, and LASIK surgery, most people have no clue how the technology that envelops them works or what physical principles underlie its operation—it is, truly, “indistinguishable from magic.” And, living in this magical world, the “limits of plausibility” are easily expanded. If the talking box on your dashboard knows exactly where you are and can tell you how to get where you are going, why should talking to dead relatives not be plausible? If shining a light in your eye can eliminate your need for glasses, why shouldn’t wearing magnets cure your arthritis?

If a scientific “expert” tells you that magnet therapy is nonsense, he’s just exemplifying Clarke’s first law: “When a distinguished elderly scientist . . . states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.” And since the magnets worked wonders for your sister-in-law’s best friend, they will probably work for you. If most of one’s world is indistinguishable from magic, it is both reasonable and practical to adopt magic as an operating principle. And since only wizards understand magic, consulting them (the homeopaths, the astrologers, the mediums, and the mystics) makes perfect sense.

Thus, the “limits of plausibility” have vanished, and the “knowledge of the audience” is constructed from Facebook feeds, personal experience, and anecdote. The average American is largely insulated from the physical reality his ancestors were forced to confront daily and, as such, resides in a world of self-reinforcing magical thinking.

What we have entered, then, is not the “post-factual” or “post-truth” era but the Misinformation Age. Facts still exist. Good approximations of the truth can still be found. And information has never been more plentiful: IBM calculated a few years ago that we generate 2.5 quintillion bytes of information per day, enough to fill a bookcase half a kilometer tall and stretching around the Earth at the equator—every day. How much of that information is nonsense is anyone’s guess. The problem is that everyone feels equally well-qualified to make such a guess and then post it on their blog where it becomes their personal version of the truth that can be easily shared and propagated. And that’s how misinformation begins.

There was a time when most people writing on a particular topic did so because they had acquired some degree of specialized knowledge. They had read what was already known about the subject, had conducted some observations or even experiments of their own, and had concluded they might have something to contribute to the advancement of our understanding of the topic at hand. They might even be said to be an “expert” on the subject. The Internet has exploded this model. While the democratization of both access to knowledge and the ability to contribute to it provided by the Internet has obvious benefits, it also has a very serious downside.

Tom Nichols, writing in the Federalist (Nichols 2014), describes this downside as “The Death of Expertise,” which he characterizes as “a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers—in other words, between those with any achievement in an area and those with none at all.”

This, he says, creates a culture in which “everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s.” Thus, Jenny McCarthy can state that her “mommy instinct” is far superior to scientific medical evidence on vaccination safety, and millions of Google-fed zombies nod in agreement and back up their foundationless opinions from a treasure trove of misinformation and related nonsense on the Internet.

This cornucopia of misinformation feeds another great American pastime: conspiracy theories. A recent survey (Poppy 2017) of 1,511 American adults found that 54 percent believe the 9/11 attacks involved a U.S. government conspiracy, while 42 percent believe global warming is a conspiracy or a hoax—the same percentage who believe in alien encounters. Thirty percent believe President Obama was born in Kenya. I was a little surprised to see that only 24 percent believe the Moon landings were a hoax, but perhaps the Apollo program has faded so far from the collective memory that no one cares anymore. Most interesting was the result that 32 percent believe the North Dakota crash was a government cover up—despite the fact that the researchers completely fabricated an incident they called the “North Dakota crash” and inserted it into the survey to see how many respondents view everything as a conspiracy.

For those of us still convinced that facts about the physical world can be discovered and that a rational analysis of those facts can be useful in creating predictive models of that world, a counterinsurgency seems in order. Where should we begin?

Science is the most powerful intellectual tool humankind has yet invented. Unlike the comforting certainty other worldviews provide, science recognizes its facts as contingent and its models as limited in their application. It is important to realize, however, that science is, at once, both a system for fact discovery and a set of values—skepticism, a reliance on evidence, interpretation using deductive and inductive reasoning, etc. Scientists hold that both the fact-discovery system and these values are crucially important. But, since values are a touchy subject with most people and are at best indirectly testable against reality, it is likely wisest to defer to Jonathan Swift’s dictum that “Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired” (Swift 1721), and leave the values part aside for now. My recommendation for an opening gambit in a counterattack on the Misinformation Age is to stick to the facts.

For these purposes, my definition of a simple fact is a measurement of some physical quantity, performed with the best available instruments according to a precisely defined procedure, quoted with an associated uncertainty, and passed through a skeptical review, preferably one that repeats and verifies the measurement. A compound fact can be deduced from a number of simple facts.

A good example of a compound fact is the statement that the dominant component of the CO2 currently being added to the atmosphere arises from the burning of fossil fuel. I have given many classes and public talks on the subject of climate change, and while my audiences have not all agreed with my conclusions about the gravity of the situation or my proposals for mitigation, I have yet to encounter objection to this fact once I take the time to carefully lay out the evidence. I proceed as follows:

Step 1

I describe how we can count atoms and molecules, one by one, and show a table that lists the numbers of each kind in a sample of a million particles of air. This counting process is, of course, quite remarkable (bordering on magic?), but since most audiences have no concept of the size of an atom (and thus how remarkable it is that we can count them one by one), they can accept the atmospheric concentrations as facts, since counting is a straightforward process everyone understands.

Step 2

I show the first two years of the Keeling curve of CO2 concentration from 1958 and 1959. This plot shows the number of CO2 molecules rising steadily from October to May, and then falling symmetrically from May through September. A discussion of how plants breathe in CO2 and breathe out oxygen during the growing season, and then how bacteria break down the plant tissue and release CO2 in winter, is also a plausible story that is readily accepted. When a keenly thoughtful person objects because the southern hemisphere has opposite seasons, I reward the thoughtfulness and then show a map of the world pointing out how much more plant-covered land area there is in the temperate zone of the northern hemisphere versus that same zone in the southern hemisphere.

Step 3

I show the entire fifty-eight years of the Keeling curve in which the monotonic trend upward dwarfs the seasonal fluctuations. I then pose the question: How can we know where this additional CO2 is coming from?

Step 4

I show the O2 concentration in the atmosphere as a function of time. The decline in O2 is a surprise to almost everyone but is unmistakable in the data, as are the seasonal fluctuations that are perfectly out of phase with the CO2 annual pattern. Here I reiterate the plants’ CO2 to O2 respiration so everyone is comfortable with it— it is always good to tell people something they know, even if they just learned it five minutes ago, as it keeps them engaged with the line of argument. The interesting point to make here is that the amount of O2 that has disappeared is just equal to the amount needed to explain the CO2 increase if the CO2 comes from the combustion (combining with oxygen) of carbon-containing material: C plus O2 equals CO2. It is important to note that this is just a correlation and cannot be interpreted as causation—emphasizing the care with which we are accumulating facts and not jumping to conclusions.

Step 5

A digression into isotopes is now required— in particular, that carbon has three common isotopes (C-12, C-13, and C-14). I emphasize how these isotopes are chemically identical but that the heavier ones move more slowly and are thus discriminated against in chemical reactions. This explains why plants have less C-13 and C-14 than does the air they breathe. I also provide a brief introduction to radioactive decay to explain how C-14 gradually converts to plain old nitrogen, the dominant constituent of the atmosphere, on a timescale of 5,730 years.

Step 6

The penultimate data points are the ratios of C-13 and C-14 to C-12, both from direct measurements of the atmosphere over the past forty years and from tree rings going back many centuries. These data show a gradual decline in the C-13/C-12 ratio beginning round 1800 at the start of the industrial revolution that accelerates rapidly over the past few decades, just as the total CO2 skyrockets. The C-14/C-12 ratio has also been declining rapidly over the past thirty years. By providing pictures of the various sources of carbon (CO2 from volcanoes and ocean-air exchange, as well as C from living plants, nuclear bomb tests in the atmosphere, and that long-dead plants equal fossil fuels), I am ready for the inescapable conclusion.

Step 7

The declining ratios rule out volcanoes and ocean-atmosphere exchange, since both have higher C-13/C-12 ratios. The falling C-13 values means plants must be involved. The plunging C-14 values mean we must be adding CO2 to the air that is highly deficient in C-14 and that can’t come from modern plants whose C-14 was enriched by the bomb tests in the 1950s. It must come from long-dead plants in which the C-14 has all decayed away. Thus, the dominant fraction of the new CO2 in the atmosphere must come f rom burning fossil fuels. QED.

In my experience, this approach has two virtues. First, for all but the most committed science deniers, it establishes the unequivocal role of humans in changing the composition of the atmosphere. Second, it illustrates the process of uncovering facts about the world. I do not tout dire predictions about the future of the planet, nor do I suggest policy prescriptions to solve this problem. The former are far too uncertain to constitute “facts,” and the latter involves values about which reasonable people may differ. But starting with a fact on which we can agree establishes both a point of connection and a reality-based platform for further discussion.

The Misinformation Age provides poor support for individual decision making and poses a potential disaster for the formation of rational public policy. A counterinsurgency is definitely called for. But our actions will be ineffective if they are politicized (Foster 2017) and unpersuasive unless we scrupulously abide by the principles of a scientific mind. The reproducibility problems in biomedical research (Begley and Ellis 2012) and, more recently, in psychology (Nousek et al. 2015) undermine our credibility. Participation in—even cultivation of—media hype over scientific findings is likewise extremely unhelpful. Assertions of authority will (and perhaps should) be ignored. The power of science lies in its skeptical, rational, evidence-based approach to understanding the world. This power begins with facts, and, in my experience, these facts are the best tools with which to start the revolution.


David J. Helfand

David J. Helfand is a professor of astronomy at Columbia University and a CSI fellow, as well as past-president of the American Astronomical Society. His recent book, A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age, enumerates the scientific habits of mind needed for the counter-revolution.