Oct 13 2017

A Poor Marker of Truth

lunar animalsAs a recent Atlantic article recounts, in the early 1800s steamed powered printing presses were making the distribution of information cheaper and faster. It didn’t take long for someone to figure out that this was an opportunity. In 1833 Benjamin Day (who was just 23 – the Zuckerberg of his age) founded the New York Sun.

The paper was the first of the “penny press” – sold for just a penny to increase distribution, and then monetized through advertising. This was a new paradigm – Day was not really selling information to the masses, he was selling the attention of the masses to advertisers. This flipped the incentives. He no longer had an incentive to produce quality information (because information was not the product), but rather to print whatever information got the most attention (which was his product).

So, in 1835 Day printed a series of stories about how astronomers, using a new telescope, were seeing bat people on the moon. The story “went viral” and fooled most people. It took rival newspapers to debunk the stories until Day finally admitted the whole thing was a hoax. That hoax may have been over, but it spawned an age of tabloids that continues to this day.

The printing press of the 21st century, of course, is the internet, and attention is the coin of the realm. This creates an inherent dilemma for our society – because attention is a poor marker of truth.

The internet is not just a cheap, fast, and easy way to spread information. It is also a force multiplier. Small information campaigns can end up having a massive effect, for two important reasons. One is that the inherent structure of the web allows for and encourages the spread of information. Some kinds of information spread faster and wider than others. So we need to ask ourselves – what features of information will make it spread more through social media? It’s not accuracy, or thoroughness, or fairness. Bite-sized nuggets of drama or humor seem to do the best. If your information is unencumbered by reality, that is an advantage.

Second, information can be targeted. You don’t necessarily have to get a story to as many people as possible, just the right people. Social media algorithms, designed to meet our apparent desires, make this not only possible, not only easy, but almost the default.

Some will argue that this is all for the good. This is the democratization of information, and we should just let the free-market of ideas sort it out. While there is a kernel of truth here, this view is also profoundly naive in my opinion.

I am a strong believer in the power of the marketplace. It is, essentially, a bottom-up evolutionary force that generates information through the individual decisions of countless actors. This power should be harnessed.

However, marketplaces are not voids. They have structure and rules, and those rules have a significant influence on outcome. We need to explore how the marketplace itself is influencing outcomes. Keeping with the evolutionary analogy – the marketplace is like the environment. Evolution adapts populations to the environment. But also the behavior of individuals in the various populations helps shape the environment.

So – we need to think about human nature and how that interacts with the marketplace of ideas. As I stated above, it is pretty clear that if the marketplace favors attention above all else, then informational products that favor attention will dominate. But this may not be in the best interest of our society. It’s also not what most people actually want, but rather may just be the path of least resistance.

As an example, most people don’t want to be overweight, but they get there often just by going with the flow of their natural behavior in the context of an environment where the marketplace favors calorie-dense foods and large portions.  Therefore, there may be a disconnect between what people want when they think about it, and how they behave by default.

Similarly, most people would probably indicate that they do not want to be fed misinformation, lies, and entertaining hoaxes, even though that is exactly what they will buy on the checkout line of the grocery store. We may want accurate and true information, but then guarantee that is exactly what we will not get by the links we click and the social media we frequent.

So – should we give people what they choose with impulsive or default behavior, or what they say they want when they actually take the time to consider their choices? There is no easy answer here, because any method we choose to will inevitably require someone having control over the choices available to us, and will likely have unintended and unwanted consequences.

There is some low-hanging fruit here, some win-wins that we should definitely do. For example, printing calories on a menu is not restricting anyone’s choice, but informing that choice at the time it is being made (recent data suggests this might actually work).

Likewise, maybe Facebook, Google, and YouTube should not by default set their algorithms to give you information that will thoroughly encase you in an echochamber that may reflect your choices but not your desires. Maybe they shouldn’t sell ads to Russian propaganda outlets trying to upset our elections.

There may also be utility in exploring ways to label news stories like restaurants label menu items. But again – who gets to decide what is “fake news?” This used to be the job of editors, but there role is diminished in today’s world. Still, some kind of transparent and reasonable labeling system for news sources would probably be a net benefit.

Ultimately, the best solution is for individual providers of information to be ethical, to actually care about the truth. Individual consumers of information also need to be discriminating and skeptical. This is a cultural and educational phenomenon that no algorithm will fix.

People have to care about truth and accuracy, and then need to know what that means. Like so many issues I deal with, therefore, this ultimately gets back to educating the public to be better critical thinkers.

47 responses so far

47 thoughts on “A Poor Marker of Truth”

  1. MaryM says:

    It made me laugh (and weep) that the first article of this sort was fake science from a bogus journal. SSDD.

    But there are real consequences to the misinformation. Every day in 2017 there are new consequences to this in the US. Honestly, part of me wants it to play out–so we can show people the outcome. On the other hand, I know they’ll get fake analysis of why they no longer have health care, birth control, neighbors from Mexico, clean rivers, and everything in the west is burned to the ground.

    ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  2. Nitsuga says:

    “….editors, but there role is diminished in today’s world.” Should be “their role”. Just erase this comment.

  3. So far no actual evidence has been brought forward that Russia tried to influence the 2016 election, but there’s certainly been a very deliberate and concerted effort to convince people that they did. I can’t help but wonder if your inclusion of that little bit of propaganda was deliberate or are you victim of what you are decrying?

  4. ScubaSharky says:

    “So far no actual evidence has been brought forward that Russia tried to influence the 2016 election…”

    Yup. No evidence whatsoever.

    https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf

  5. Willy says:

    unitedcats1957’s comment just makes me want to cry.

  6. Steve Cross says:

    Evolution, whether biological or sociological, happens because of the feedback mechanisms in place. In other words, reality wins — eventually.

    Assuming that most people are trying to make choices beneficial to themselves and their offspring, any action taken on the basis of incorrect “information” will probably lead to a less desirable outcome than was hoped for. Unfortunately, there are too many, often competing, feedback mechanisms in play.

    And many of these feedback mechanisms don’t have a particularly good track track for accuracy. For instance, the in group vs. out group dynamic is powerful, but often wrong or short sighted. And the immediate gratification of feeling correct about something is extremely enticing and often leads to confirmation bias.

    I agree that better critical thinking skills are absolutely necessary to solve the problems, but by themselves, they don’t seem to be nearly enough. No matter how hard we try, even the best of us often compartmentalize and fall short of the ideal.

    As a society, we should try to implement feedback mechanisms that are both more accurate and much faster. We can’t afford to wait for future generations to sort it all out inasmuch as some challenges demanding correct answers may already be near or past the point of no return.

    I’m strongly in favor of free speech, but the time has come for us to drastically curtail anonymous speech. At least 90%, if not 99%, of the anonymous speech on the internet serves no useful purpose. It serves simply to inflame emotions and often does so based on pure lies.

    The facebook, google, etc. ads would likely have been much less effective if the source was known upfront. Even if they were still allowed to be shown, most people would probably be a lot more skeptical about the motivations and truthfulness of the ads if they knew the origins. And it would be much more difficult for the anonymous ’bot farms’ to amplify the false signal.

    And yes I know that perhaps some people genuinely need an anonymous outlet to report serious wrongdoing, domestic abuse, etc. but these needs can be better met by good whistleblower laws, confidentiality of journalistic sources, etc. Or at least some private mechanism that doesn’t have the same potential to amplify egregious falsehoods.

    We also need consequences. And I’m not talking about government censorship, but private citizens and groups should be able to more easily recover damages caused by false accusations.

    Obviously, this would be complicated. Places like the U.K. make it very expensive to defend against even frivolous libel suits, but we NEED to do something. The pendulum needs to get moved back closer to the middle.

    The monetary incentives must be adjusted to encourage truth, i.e. reality. Currently, it is far too easy to make huge amounts of money by spreading lies, scamming people, selling bogus products, etc. The occasional ‘slap on the wrist’ is often just a cost of doing business — and usually a minor one at that.

  7. Evolution is powerful but can be brutal. We don’t just want to survive, we want to lead happy fulfilling lives. Evolutionary forces can also be short sighted – animals will evolve themselves into a corner and
    assure their extinction.

    The Nobel for economics was also won this year by the economist who essentially argued that often people do not make rational or optimal economic decisions. Psychologists have documented numerous ways in which people do not act in their own best interest or in a way that will accomplish their actual goal.

    The free market is not an abstract thing, it’s not a blank slate. It is comprised of actual people with complex psychology.

  8. Willy says:

    I’m going a bit far a field here, but…NOTHING can be trusted. I had an experience recently with Expedia.com in booking a hotel room. I have, for years, naively assumed that these types of sites did what they claimed to do; find the best rate for a hotel room. I paid $160 per night for a room in a Holiday Inn Express, which seemed a bit steep for HIE, but there was an event and I assumed the room rates were jacked up for that reason, Well, the morning of departure, the hotel slipped the receipt under the door and I discovered that the actual rate charged by the hotel was just $130 per night. Expedia pocketed $90 for my three-night stay. Today, I checked Trip Adviser to see what the room rate was there. The link they provided was for Expedia and the price was $200 per night! The hotel website still showed $130!

    A bit more research reveals that most of the booking sites we see TV ads for are owned by Expedia and, best I can tell, they ALL scam us. Please do what you can to spread the word about this. I see this behavior as going far beyond just unethical; it seems down right criminal.

  9. Pete A says:

    Willy, Television adverts are very expensive. They are paid for, indirectly, only by those who are persuaded by them.

    QUOTE
    The current record for an advertising slot on British terrestrial television is quoted at being £250,000 for a 30-second slot during the 2010 series of Britain’s Got Talent.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advertisement_film
    END of QUOTE

    Caveat emptor and caveat lector always apply!

  10. mumadadd says:

    [Steve Cross] At least 90%, if not 99%, of the anonymous speech on the internet serves no useful purpose.

    You would say that, “Steve Cross”.

  11. mumadadd says:

    [PeteA] The current record for an advertising slot on British terrestrial television is quoted at being £250,000 for a 30-second slot during the 2010 series of Britain’s Got Talent.

    Isn’t BGT on the BBC? Did you mean X Factor?

  12. Pete A says:

    mumadadd,

    Each and every one of us is a totally insignificant 13 nanopercent of the circa 7.5 billion people currently living on planet Earth.

  13. mumadadd says:

    Pete A,

    I don’t get your response to what I said and was thinking about saying something seemingly completely unrelated to what you said to illustrate my confusion when it occurred to me that maybe you didn’t get my response to what you said.

    The BBC doesn’t accept advertising revenue. BGT is on the BBC. Etc.

    Does that help?

  14. Pete A says:

    mumadadd,

    “Isn’t BGT on the BBC? Did you mean X Factor?”

    I’ve no idea because I never use my television for the purpose of displaying asinine crap. I quoted from the Wikipedia article to which I provided its URL.

  15. mumadadd says:

    Pete A,

    I’ve Googled it and it seems to have been on ITV.

    When one makes a point about asinine crap, one at least hopes to be correct.

    As you were…

  16. Willy says:

    In the “first liar doesn’t have a chance” category ;«) a 30 second Super Bowl ad goes for nearly $5 million USD.

    As for Expedia, etc., I had figured they got a kickback and maybe some ad revenues, but didn’t begin to think that the lowest price claim was a total lie. My claim to being a good skeptic lies in shreds. Caveat emptor indeed. Between Trump being elected and Expedia et al. being frauds, my worldview is suffering horribly.

  17. ccbowers says:

    “The free market is not an abstract thing, it’s not a blank slate. It is comprised of actual people with complex psychology.”

    Combining complex psychology with existing societal structures- culture, traditions, rules, laws etc is the universe in which markets exist, and yet you have people making comments about “the free market” as if it is a really accurate description, with the assumption that a completely free market is the ideal.

    But in reality, we are always talking about regulated markets, and how we regulate those markets should be based upon our desired outcomes, instead of the usual ideology that drives much of how people think in politics.

  18. ccbowers says:

    Also, I like your framing on this issue. Even with the (misguided) attitude of “giving people what they want” we are still stuck with uncertainty- what exactly do we mean by that? I think it makes more sense to use what people say they want in terms of their stated desired outcomes, rather than judging by their behavior in the short term.

    Otherwise, we could just think that people really want to be overweight, or addicted to drugs, or in debt. But of course we know that isn’t the case. There is just a mismatch between what people want and what they do, because we are humans not optimize to behave optimally in all environments.

    And we should alter our environments at least as much as we criticize and judge each other about their behaviors in those environments. Doing the former will help as much as doing the latter just leads to unhappiness.

  19. Steve Cross says:

    mumadadd,

    I’m assuming that your tongue is firmly in cheek, but just in case, “Steve Cross” really is my name. Although, to be fair, according to Google, it is a very common name, so I guess I qualify as at least partially anonymous.

  20. mumadadd says:

    Steve Cross,

    My tongue was indeed in cheek. I was more trying to be ironic about the fact that I myself am anonymous.

  21. Steve Cross says:

    mumadadd,

    I understand the appeal of anonymity. In fact, most of my various accounts do indeed use pseudonyms. But not necessarily because I am shy about expressing my opinions. Rather, since the days of Usenet, there has always been a certain amount of ‘geek cred’ that comes with having a clever username. Also, perhaps even especially back then, technically adept commenters that used real names would often be subjected to endless tech support questions from friends, relatives and even strangers.

    But, to be completely honest, I wouldn’t be nearly as comfortable expressing my atheism, and even worse to my Red State neighbors, my liberal social views, if I didn’t have the partial anonymity of a relatively common name. So I value the ability to freely express opinions and I really do feel that it is important to society.

    Even so, there is a huge difference between an open discussion of differing opinions and the ability to spread lies and libel with impunity. Look at the ignorant, racist buffoon currently “leading” the U.S. Not to mention Brexit, Turkey and many other places around the world that suffer daily because humanity hasn’t been able to come up with a generally accepted, widely used way to separate fact from fiction.

    I agree with Steve N. that better critical thinking skills are absolutely necessary, but too many opposing forces have a vested interest in preventing their spread or even allowing them to be taught. Authoritarian types don’t want to be questioned at all (e.g. Donald Trump), and unfortunately, too many people are unwilling or unable to do the hard work of determining WHICH “experts” or other would-be leaders should be regarded as legitimate authorities. And by authority, I mean anyone whose pronouncements, predictions, and suggestions actually comport with reality to the best of our collective ability to understand it.

    If humanity can’t solve this problem, then I think we might have a pretty good explanation for the ‘Fermi Paradox’. We’ve reached the stage where any number of things (nuclear holocaust, runaway AGW, or global pandemic to name just a few) could cause our extinction. Each of these potential disasters requires global cooperation to prevent — which won’t be possible unless we can agree on the real causes or even the existence of the problem in the first place.

    Which means to me that we must figure out a way to neutralize ‘fake news’. One important step, IMHO, is to somehow address anonymous sources of misinformation. It is too easy for armies of fake accounts to amplify lies and misinformation. That won’t solve the whole problem, but it may reduce its influence.

  22. Pete A says:

    mumadadd,

    I sincerely hope you didn’t think that my comment was aimed at you. The reason why I refer to such television shows as “asinine crap” is because they are a deliberately-contrived sham that makes a mockery of the denizens who really do have talent and frequently go far beyond their call of duty. E.g.:

    1. Coastguards who willingly risk their own life, even for the purpose of rescuing someone’s dog from its imminent death in a very cold turbulent sea;

    2. Air-sea rescue helicopter pilots.

  23. Pete A says:

    Steve Cross,

    In which countries are the teaching of critical thinking skills a mandatory core element of the national curriculum?

  24. Steve Cross says:

    Pete A,

    Unfortunately, none that I’m aware of. If you know of any, please let me know. Lots of people may be looking at emmigration if we can’t manage to contain the damage that Donald Trump trys to inflict on a near daily basis.

  25. Willy says:

    @Steve Cross: I have been thinking about the Fermi paradox and have indeed come to a point where I think extinction by stupidity is in part a very real explanation (I think the vast interstellar distances also explain a lot). To your list of likely causes, I’d also add genetic engineering–not in terms of GMO foods but more along the lines of some nutcase brewing up a lethal microbe and releasing it into the world. Just 70-ish years ago, only the US had nuclear capabilities and now an idiot in N Korea (the US too–lol) has nukes. GE will follow the same path and a wannabe jihadist or equivalent will be able to engineer disaster fairly easily. It’s so sad to think that the admirable human quest for understanding how the universe works is so open to abuse by fools.

  26. Pete A says:

    Steve Cross,

    Likewise. I’m hoping that someone will tell us which countries have mandated critical thinking skills to be a core element of its national curriculum. I remember this issue being discussed, at government level within the UK, circa twenty years ago.

  27. Steve Cross says:

    Pete A,

    The problem, as I see it, is that this seems to be very much a ‘chicken or egg’ scenario. In other words, how will Critical Thinking Skills ever become a national priority until a majority of voters declare it to be a priority?

    Which, presumably will only happen if a majority of people are already good enough at CTS to recognize the importance of encouraging the teaching of CTS to future generations. Unfortunately, too many people are content with (or actively prefer) the illusion of truth spoken by their chosen authority figures. It is much easier than doing the work yourself. Not to mention the many “leaders” that can only retain that status by ensuring that their “followers” remain in blissful ignorance. There are too many people actively working to supplant CTS because their own beliefs don’t fare well under critical examination.

    I genuinely fear for the future. You would think that the last few hundred years of scientific advancement would be irrefutable proof of the effectiveness of CTS. Yet many, many people still prefer the ‘certainty’ of evidence free belief systems — every single one of which is unreliable and unpredictable. Yet they still criticize science for being imperfect in spite of the fact that science has a track record of success (especially in the long term) which far, far exceeds any of their alternatives.

  28. Pete A says:

    Steve Cross,

    Thank you for writing your astute words. There are some notorious regular commentators on this website who provide a never-ending fountain of evidence which confirms your succinct statements and conclusions.

  29. hardnose says:

    “this ultimately gets back to educating the public to be better critical thinkers.”

    And I always answer this one, and even though no one here agrees it needs to be repeated.

    Educating people to be better critical thinkers is like educating people to speak correctly. Yes, they do that in grammar school, don’t they, and it works.

    No, actually, it doesn’t work. People will speak “correctly” whether you educate them or not. They will speak whatever dialect they grow up with. And every dialect is “correct,” in that they are all coherent communication systems.

    Education is needed for reading and writing, of course, and for math. But not for learning to speak correctly. Unless by “correctly” you mean the snooty upper class dialect.

    Educating people to think critically really means indoctrinating them into a particular world view, usually a “progressive” ideology.

    Any time any human being becomes familiar with any domain, they think critically and scientifically within that domain.

    But no amount of critical and scientific thinking will guide you to the “truth.” Most things can’t be known, since most things are in the future and the future can’t be known. And most things are too complicated for our brains to grasp, no matter how “smart” or educated a person might seem to be.

    But of course Novella wants to shepherd the ignorant gullible masses and indoctrinate them into his preferred ideology. And maybe throw in a little censorship so that “crazy, stupid” ideas stop flooding the internet.

  30. Willy says:

    hardnose: I feel really, really sorry for you. You are so far detached from reality that I fear there is no hope for you.

  31. chikoppi says:

    [hardnose] Educating people to think critically really means indoctrinating them into a particular world view, usually a “progressive” ideology.

    Any time any human being becomes familiar with any domain, they think critically and scientifically within that domain.

    Do you even read the nonsense you write? If this were true then at minimum all the outliers pushing “alternative theories” would agree with each one another. They don’t. Not even remotely. They profer diametrically opposed, mutually exclusive, and evidence-free garbage.

    “Thinking scientifically” requires the practice of scientific methodology, including the limiting of claims to the scope of demonstrable evidence. A person doesn’t “do science” by thinking up stories to explain away the mile-wide gaps in their knowledge. That is the exact opposite of science.

    Humans are poor critical thinkers. You need look no further than the work of the most recent Nobel Prize winner in economics, Rich Thaler, for ample evidence.

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/frankarmstrong/2017/10/13/richard-thaler-a-giant-in-economics-awarded-the-nobel-prize/#1b138fe03a10

    “Most things can’t be known, since most things are in the future and the future can’t be known.”

    I can’t even.

  32. BillyJoe7 says:

    Willy,

    Don’t feel sorry for hardnose.

    Firstly, he is ignorant of all the subjects on which he presumes to pontificate. Over the many years on this blog he has demonstrated his ignorance of evolution, genetics, quantum physics, GMO, climate change, and the list goes on. He is even ignorant of the scientific method and has no idea how to evaluate a clinical trial.

    Secondly, he is willfully ignorant. There is no excuse for his ignorance. He has been provided with ample opportunity to familiarise himself with these subjects but resolutely refuses to do so. He cannot and does not engage with those who call him out for his ignorance because he is to ignorant to do so. Yet he never misses an opportunity to “speak out”. I am ignorant of economics so I shut the fuck up about it and listen to those who have expertise. This piss fart knows nothing and presumes to tell those who have done all the hard work that they are wrong.

    Thirdly, he demands ever more of science even when it has delivered in spades. No amount of evidence is ever enough. There is always an unknown future discovery that will vindicate his nonsense and blow apart the present consensus. And he gives his favourite brands of pseudoscience a free pass. No evidence needed, just an appeal to future vindication.

    Fourthly, he is a liar. If you demonstrate his ignorance often enough, he eventually responds with lies about what you said. And he continues to tell those lies no matter how many times he is corrected. Look at how he lies about our host. Up against Steven Novella, hardnose is like an ant with his front legs raised against a boot that is about to crush him into the ground. He is thoroughly loathesome and despicable character not deserving of your sympathy.

  33. BillyJoe7 says:

    OK, my comment is in moderation.
    I think it was because I swore, so I’ll adjust that and try again.
    ———————————-

    Willy,

    Don’t feel sorry for hardnose.

    Firstly, he is ignorant of all the subjects on which he presumes to pontificate. Over the many years on this blog he has demonstrated his ignorance of evolution, genetics, quantum physics, GMO, climate change, and the list goes on. He is even ignorant of the scientific method and has no idea how to evaluate a clinical trial.

    Secondly, he is willfully ignorant. There is no excuse for his ignorance. He has been provided with ample opportunity to familiarise himself with these subjects but resolutely refuses to do so. He cannot and does not engage with those who call him out for his ignorance because he is to ignorant to do so. Yet he never misses an opportunity to “speak out”. I am ignorant of economics so I shut the fv<k up about it and listen to those who have expertise. This little p!$$ f@rt knows nothing and presumes to tell those who have done all the hard work that they are wrong.

    Thirdly, he demands ever more of science even when it has delivered in spades. No amount of evidence is ever enough. There is always an unknown future discovery that will vindicate his nonsense and blow apart the present consensus. And he gives his favourite brands of pseudoscience a free pass. No evidence needed, just an appeal to future vindication.

    Fourthly, he is a liar. If you demonstrate his ignorance often enough, he eventually responds with lies about what you said. And he continues to tell those lies no matter how many times he is corrected. Look at how he lies about our host. Up against Steven Novella, hardnose is like an ant with his front legs raised against a boot that is about to crush him into the ground. He is thoroughly loathesome and despicable character not deserving of your sympathy.

  34. BillyJoe7 says:

    chikoppi,

    “I can’t even”

    Yeah, I empathise.
    It’s that bad.
    What amazes me is the hubris:

    From the mouth of an ignorant fool:
    “And I always answer this one and even though no one here agrees it needs to be repeated”

    It needs to be repeated.
    It needs to be repeated
    The messiah has spoken!!!

    Or…Shut the fv<k up you ignorant fool!

    Goddamn!
    Dunning-Kruger ignorant fool.

  35. RickK says:

    Hardnose said: “No, actually, it doesn’t work. People will speak “correctly” whether you educate them or not. They will speak whatever dialect they grow up with. And every dialect is “correct,” in that they are all coherent communication systems.
    Education is needed for reading and writing, of course, and for math. But not for learning to speak correctly. Unless by “correctly” you mean the snooty upper class dialect.”

    Ok, hardnose, so there’s no teachable skill in speaking? There’s no difference between people’s ability to wield voice and language? There’s no point in learning vocabulary, diction and oratory? Do you really think masters of “speaking correctly”, from Cicero to BBC News anchors to Young MC achieve success without training and practice?

    Critical thinking, like every other human ability, can be improved with training and practice. Your insistence that critical thinking is an exception is blatant special pleading, and just illustrates what happens when someone DOESN’T learn how to think critically.

    You think ideologically – making up your hardnosed mind first, then taking pride in its inability to change. You must be a real treat at Thanksgiving table conversation.

    Given your ability to be so consistently and demonstrably wrong in his blog, it’s a wonder you can function at all in real life.

  36. hardnose says:

    ‘A person doesn’t “do science” by thinking up stories to explain away the mile-wide gaps in their knowledge. That is the exact opposite of science.’

    Everyone explains away the mile-wide gaps in their knowledge, since most things are not known, and people like to feel they know everything. Especially all of you here.

    Science is a method for learning, which is natural to our species, and probably other species to a lesser extent.

    We resort to experimentation (trial and error) when traditional knowledge is not enough. The scientific method is just a formalization of the natural reasoning process.

    As I said, we can’t know the future, so most things are unknown because they are in the future. And we have very limited knowledge of the present, because the world is a complex system.

    Formal science is an extremely expensive and slow way to learn, but it does its best. We can’t expect it to clear an obvious path to TRUTH.

    We modern humans might seem a lot smarter than in pre-modern times, but that is only because technology snowballs as it advances. Our reasoning process is the same as the reasoning process of primitive and ancient humans. But we have more information now, and better ways of collecting and analyzing and observing it.

    You cannot teach critical thinking skills. You can indoctrinate into progressivism and materialism, but indoctrination is the opposite of critical thinking.

  37. chikoppi says:

    I don’t even know where to start.

    [hardnose] Everyone explains away the mile-wide gaps in their knowledge, since most things are not known, and people like to feel they know everything. Especially all of you here.

    Nope. This may come as a tremendous shock to you, but not everyone bases their identity on a narrative framework. I have no idea what “ultimate truth” is and I’m not bothered by it in the slightest.

    What I do know is that when we investigate existence we discover consistencies, such as the interaction of mass and gravity or the various rates of radioactive particle decay. We KNOW these things because we have methodologically studied them, painstakingly isolating variables to determine how they consistently and predictably function.

    When one (meaning you) extrapolates beyond what can reasonably be substantiated by objective evidence, that’s making up stories. Cool. Have fun with that. But to suggest that rigorously demonstrated facts be disregarded because they don’t agree with your narrative is sad.

    [hardnose] We resort to experimentation (trial and error) when traditional knowledge is not enough. The scientific method is just a formalization of the natural reasoning process.

    The scientific method is not equivalent to “trial and error.” I don’t know what the “natural reasoning process” is. The human brain has evolved to facilitate survival of the human population within our environment. The cognitive mechanisms and heuristics we possess are specific to a narrow range of conditions and behaviors. They don’t extend to conditions or scales outside our typical experience. Formal logic, and the scientific method, was developed to overcome our inherent biases.

    Intuition is generally reliable for moving about one’s day, but it’s worse than useless when examining phenomena outside the conditions those heuristics were evolved to address.

    As I said, we can’t know the future, so most things are unknown because they are in the future. And we have very limited knowledge of the present, because the world is a complex system.

    Formal science is an extremely expensive and slow way to learn, but it does its best. We can’t expect it to clear an obvious path to TRUTH.

    This is a nonsensical series of statements.

    If you were to ingest a significant quantity of cyanide, what would happen? Is it a complete mystery to you because it is an event “in the future” or do you KNOW the effect cyanide has on human biology?

    Yes. Knowledge can be established. How that differs from “truth” apparently depends on the degree to which it conflicts with the stories in your head.

    Our reasoning process is the same as the reasoning process of primitive and ancient humans. But we have more information now, and better ways of collecting and analyzing and observing it.

    Those “better ways of analyzing and observing” are the scientific method. Facts established by the scientific method supersede and replace intuition.

    You cannot teach critical thinking skills. You can indoctrinate into progressivism and materialism, but indoctrination is the opposite of critical thinking.

    The hell you can’t. Look how many practitioners of pseudoscience are incapable of designing a proper experiment.

    Also, I have some bad news for you. The scientific method is the same for “progressives” as it is for anyone and everyone else. The fact that it fails to produce evidence that contradicts “materialism” is not due to indoctrination or lack of critical thinking. That it doesn’t confirm the stories you tell yourself doesn’t indicate that “science” is flawed, it indicates that your stories are baseless.

  38. bachfiend says:

    Hardnose,

    ‘Everyone explains away the mile-wide gaps in their knowledge, since most things are not known, and people like to feel that they know everything. Especially all of you here.’

    This coming from someone who is convinced that the universe is intelligent. Or conscious. That there’s an inherent tendency in biological systems to increasing complexity and intelligence. That mutations are non-random, directed and to the benefit of the organisms. That scientists believe that natural selection is the cause of evolution. All without any evidence.

    None of your detractors think that ‘they know everything’. They do like to think that with enough time and effort, almost everything will be understood adequately by at least someone, even if only by a vanishingly small number of specialists, given enough acquired evidence.

    Incidentally, what is ‘traditional knowledge’, if not knowledge acquired by a process of trial and error (‘science’, according to your definition) and passed on culturally?

  39. RickK says:

    hardnose “You cannot teach *me* critical thinking skills.”

    There, fixed it for you.

  40. hardnose says:

    “Incidentally, what is ‘traditional knowledge’, if not knowledge acquired by a process of trial and error (‘science’, according to your definition) and passed on culturally?”

    Yes, traditional knowledge was learned by previous generations. We don’t have to discover everything ourselves, and it wouldn’t be possible. So we follow the advice of elders and experts, for most things.

    Of course traditional knowledge isn’t perfect, but it’s often good enough.

    There was a turning point in our European civilization when science started going against the authority of the church. This happened because knowledge was increasing, thanks to technology, and it gradually became obvious the church didn’t know everything.

    This is often seen as a triumph of reason over superstition, but it really wasn’t. People had more access to information, and some of it conflicted with the current traditional knowledge (from the Catholic church). When evidence conflicts with authority, the evidence eventually wins. And it has probably always been that way.

    Science isn’t new, as I said. Increasing access to information has made us less likely to accept information from authorities and experts.

    But ironically, the scientific establishment has become the new trusted authority. And like the Catholic church in medieval times, it can take advantage of that trust.

  41. chikoppi says:

    [hardnose] Science isn’t new, as I said. Increasing access to information has made us less likely to accept information from authorities and experts.

    Oh, I disagree.

    The proliferance of publishing and mass communication channels has resulted in many people merely choosing whatever source of information confirms their biases, regardless the quality of that information. They’re still citing “authorities”—they’re just more free to seek out whatever source least challenges their preconceptions. That’s why critical thinking and skepticism is necessary, to safeguard against easily satiated subjective bias.

    The neat thing about science is that it is demonstrable, consistent, predictive, and repeatable. Facts can be established no matter who is upset in the process. “Science” isn’t so much a question of WHO as it is a question of HOW. The strength of the claim is consistent with the rigor of how it is established, not who proposes it.

    But ironically, the scientific establishment has become the new trusted authority. And like the Catholic church in medieval times, it can take advantage of that trust.

    There’s no scientific theory that can’t be overturned or amended provided sufficient evidence.

    The mere fact that “science” occasionally gets it wrong is evidence of that. When evidence contradicts prior assumptions those assumptions are replaced or refined as warranted, regardless of which individuals are contradicted in the process.

  42. hardnose says:

    “The proliferance of publishing and mass communication channels has resulted in many people merely choosing whatever source of information confirms their biases, regardless the quality of that information.”

    This happens mostly with things that are unknown and controversial. People who insist the earth is flat or the moon landing was a fake are a tiny minority. But when there is no definite conclusion, then people believe what they prefer. That is just as true of you “skeptics” here as it is of anyone.

    “The neat thing about science is that it is demonstrable, consistent, predictive, and repeatable.”

    As I said, “science” is merely the normal human reasoning process. We all agree that apples fall from trees onto the ground, because it is consistently demonstrated. But modern scientific research is seldom that simple, and very often the same research can be interpreted in opposite ways.

    Science doesn’t “occasionally” get it wrong. It is only occasionally that evidence is clear and convincing to everyone. More often it is complicated and ambiguous.

    And it is a big mistake to think Big Science, the mainstream scientific establishment, is the same thing as the scientific method. Big Science is more powerful now than ever, and big money is involved.

    For example, drug research articles often sound more like advertising copy than like scientific research. Yet because it is published in established journals, almost everyone believes it.

    Science rebelled against the Catholic church centuries ago, and now we need a similar rebellion against Big Science. Because it has become a church-like authority.

  43. chikoppi says:

    [hardnose] But when there is no definite conclusion, then people believe what they prefer. That is just as true of you “skeptics” here as it is of anyone.

    No, it’s not merely “when there is no definite conclusion.” Even where the science is settled there are substantial communities that cling to their own specious sources of information rather than challenge preferred beliefs by seeking out methodologically established facts.

    And a “skeptic” should aportion belief to the evidence. Where the data is in question so too should be the certainty of the claim. Hence the oft repeated phrase, “more research is needed.”

    As I said, “science” is merely the normal human reasoning process. We all agree that apples fall from trees onto the ground, because it is consistently demonstrated. But modern scientific research is seldom that simple, and very often the same research can be interpreted in opposite ways.

    No, it isn’t.

    Observing that objects fall to the ground is not the same as methodologically testing hypothesis and isolating variables. Science is an objective process that is specifically independent and isolated from the heuristics used in common reasoning tasks.

    Science doesn’t “occasionally” get it wrong. It is only occasionally that evidence is clear and convincing to everyone. More often it is complicated and ambiguous.

    “Complicated” and “ambiguous” are not synonyms.

    The fact that a layman or even a researcher in a different field doesn’t understand the science behind a claim doesn’t make it any less definitive. Science is often “complicated,” but the fact that anyone outside a particular field of research doesn’t understand it doesn’t make it “ambiguous.”

    And the point I’m making about “science occasionally getting it wrong” is that the scientific method is self-correcting. Scientific claims are not handed down as edicts that cannot be questioned. Any established fact can be revised provided sufficient evidence.

    For example, drug research articles often sound more like advertising copy than like scientific research. Yet because it is published in established journals, almost everyone believes it.

    Science rebelled against the Catholic church centuries ago, and now we need a similar rebellion against Big Science. Because it has become a church-like authority.

    *sigh*

    Any claim can be openly refuted, but you have to actually do the work, follow the process, and submit the evidence.

    “Having ideas” is not in any way, shape, or form “science.” “Opinions” are not science. “Reasoning” is not science. Nor does “science” require the understanding or acquiescence of non-experts.

  44. skep4life says:

    How quickly we forget the past, and then analyze the present incorrectly.

    The year was 1996 and the fledgling Internet or World Wide Web or The Net (remember Sandra Bullock in this mostly tepid thriller) was starting to gain some momentum.

    Before Google or social networks (let alone Facebook) existed, the U.S. Congress made a deal with the Devil.

    They had to decide if they were going to regulate the Internet or make legal provisions that ensured U.S. businesses took the lead in building and innovating on this growing communications platform.

    They picked innovation. Conscientiously, mind you. And so was born Fake News.

    Now your ISP or any computer related service could not be held liable for third party content.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Section_230_of_the_Communications_Decency_Act

    Which is kind of like saying you can’t sue the gun manufacturer after someone shoots your child to death.

    In this case, Facebook is the gun manufacturer. The Russians, Religious Zealots, the Koch Brothers, etc are the actors with lots and lots of guns. Go ‘merica!

    Their victims: the truth, facts, decency, American Democracy, the middle class, the environment…

    Of course, why would humanity need these things? We’re truly not planning on being here for much longer.

    Yes, it’s hopeless. But someone can save the day… who? It was Congress that made the original deal. They are the only entity with the power to change anything since a conservative Supreme Court isn’t going to change decades of legal precedent.

    Or you don’t think Facebook would regulate how information spreads on their platform if they faced a class action lawsuit each time socially harmful stories burned millions of minds down? Haha. They would change or die.

    Just remember, it’s always darkest before it’s completely black. Citizens United (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizens_United_v._FEC) put a for sale sign on the White House and Congress. It’s only a matter of time before foreign governments can outbid the Koch brothers.

    Truthfully, it’s 2017 and eighty percent of the human species still believes there is some being in the sky that cares what they think and so they think really hard to him/her/it. Eighty percent.

    At least we’re around to see the beginning of the end 😉

  45. bachfiend says:

    Hardnose,

    “Science doesn’t ‘occasionally’ get it wrong. It is only occasionally that evidence is clear and convincing to everyone. More often it is complicated and ambiguous.”

    First of all, you have to understand what the science is actually stating (provisionally – science rarely provides proofs). Science is complicated and ambiguous, and its evidence usually not clear or convincing, to you, because you don’t understand it.

    One typical example of your ignorance is your persistent claim in many previous threads that according to evolutionary biologists natural selection is the cause of evolution (it’s not the cause of evolution, it’s a mechanism of evolution). And then you go on to note that since natural selection isn’t the cause of evolution, you can assert that anything you want is the real cause, including your delusions that the universe is intelligent, there’s an inherent tendency to increasing intelligence and complexity in biological systems and that mutations are non-random, directed and to the benefit of the organism.

    ‘For example, drug research articles often sound more like advertising copy than scientific research. Yet because it is published in established journals, almost everyone believes it.’

    Care to provide some examples? Sounds more like press releases or the resulting news articles than the original research articles (which sceptics such as Steve Novella have repeatedly criticised).

  46. keokil says:

    Skep4life-

    What Section 230 also does is make it so that the overly litigious cannot sue a blogger for the comments that appear on their blog. Most of the commentary I’ve read from legal /1st Amendment types count that as a big win.

  47. Kabbor says:

    hardnose,

    “Big Science is more powerful now than ever, and big money is involved.”
    “Science rebelled against the Catholic church centuries ago, and now we need a similar rebellion against Big Science. Because it has become a church-like authority.”

    In your time here on Neurologica, has no one pointed out the fact that “big money” involved in scientific funding is spread across every developed nation and thousands of institutions? It is fundamentally different than the monolithic Church of the medieval era, with literally one person with final say over the doctrine of the Catholic religion.

    Your idea that there is a ‘big science’ institution that is at all similar to the church in terms of directed influence and the concentration of wealth and power is divorced from reality. It smacks of conspiratorial thinking and you should disabuse yourself of such notions.

    The concentration of scientific funding is by no means uniform, but there is no Vatican of science.

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