Archive for the 'Culture and Society' Category

Dec 17 2018

Belief in Santa

Published by under Culture and Society

How old were you, if you ever believed in Santa, when you figured out he was not real? Is belief in Santa benign, beneficial, cruel, or ultimately harmful to the trust children place in adults? Many people have strong opinions about this, but we have little actual data. A recent survey adds some.

The survey is mainly asking adults about their childhood experiences with belief in Santa, so take that for what’s it’s worth, but here are the main results:

  • 34 per cent of people wished that they still believed in Santa with 50 per cent quite content that they no longer believe
  • Around 34 per cent of those who took part in the survey said believing in Father Christmas had improved their behaviour as a child whilst 47 per cent found it did not
  • The average age when children stopped believing in Father Christmas was 8.
  • There are significant differences between England and Scotland –
  • The mean age when people stop believing in Father Christmas was 8.03 for England and 8.58 in Scotland.
  • There was a difference in attitudes between England and Scotland, as to whether it is ok to lie to children about Santa – more people in Scotland than in England said it was ok to lie to children about Santa.
  • A total of 65 per cent of people had played along with the Santa myth, as children, even though they knew it wasn’t true.
  • A third of respondents said they had been upset when they discovered Father Christmas wasn’t real, while 15 per cent had felt betrayed by their parents and ten per cent were angry.
  • Around 56 per cent of respondents said their trust in adults hadn’t been affected by their belief in Father Christmas, while 30 per cent said it had.
  • A total of 31 per cent of parents said they had denied that Santa is not true when directly asked by their child, while 40 per cent hadn’t denied it if they are asked directly.
  • A total of 72 per cent of parents are quite happy telling their children about Santa and playing along with the myth, with the rest choosing not to.

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Nov 01 2018

Learning from Video

Is putting your toddler in front of an educational video harmful or helpful? This is an important question for many parents, especially in homes where both parents work and taking care of young children can be hectic. Putting a child in front of a video is the closest things parents have to an off switch for their kids, so it can be very tempting to rely upon the distraction of an iPad or TV to keep their attention while you make dinner or attend to some other task.

There is also a cottage industry of videos marketed to parents with very young children. Some are clearly nothing more than an entertaining distraction, like videos of other children playing with toys (which are incredibly popular). But parents can also be sold on the idea that their children are learning while being distracted, thereby alleviating any guilt from relying on the video-nanny.

There has therefore been increasing research into the effectiveness of video learning for very young children (and older children and adults, but we’ll focus on young children for now).  Here is a recent study of this topic which includes a great overview of prior research.

Previous research has mostly shown that young children do not respond to video the same way they respond to a live person. Exposing toddlers to their native language or a foreign language through a video or just audio seems to have no benefit, compared to the identical content presented through a live person. The probable reason for this is that we are programmed from birth to be extremely social, and young children typically will pay great attention to other people – more than anything else. A video of a person, unfortunately, just doesn’t cut it.

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Oct 22 2018

AI and Fake News

Published by under Culture and Society

In testimony before congress, Mark Zuckerberg predicted that artificially intelligent algorithms that will be able to filter out “fake news” will be available in 5-10 years. In a recent NYT editorial, neuroscientist Gary Marcus and computer scientist Ernest Davis argue that this prediction is overly optimistic. I think both sides have a point, so let’s dissect their arguments a bit.

Fake news is the recently popular term for deliberate and often strategic propaganda masquerading as real news. There is, of course, a continuum from rigorous and fair journalism to 100% fakery, with lots of biased, ideological, and simply lazy reporting along the way. This has always existed, but seems to be on the rise due to the ease of spread through social media. Accusations of fake news have also been on the rise, as a strategy for dismissing any news that is unwanted or inconvenient.

Obviously this is a deep social issue that will not be solved by any computer algorithm. I would argue the only real solution is to foster a well-educated electorate with the critical thinking skills to sort out real from fake news. That is a worthwhile and long term goal, but even if successful there will always be a problem with fake news, regardless of the medium of its spread.

The real context here is the role that social media serves in spreading fake news. The reason that Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, is involved is because Facebook and other social media platforms have become a main source of news for many people. Further, they represent a new model for pairing people with the news they want.

The traditional model is to build respected news outlets who cultivate a reputation for quality and have a heavy editorial policy that filters the news. People then go to news outlets they respect, and get whatever news is fed to them, perhaps divided into sections of interest. But even this model has always been corrupted by ideologically biased editorial policy, and by sensationalism. You can attract eyes not only through well-earned respect by providing quality, but also by sensational headlines, or by catering to preexisting world-views.

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Jul 31 2018

The Weaponizing of Fake News

I encounter a range of opinions regarding the current state of politics and misinformation. At one extreme are those who argue for what I think is a false equivalence – politicians have always lied, the news has always been fake, there is nothing to see here. At the other end are those who argue that social media has changed everything.

I think reality is somewhere in the middle. Lying politicians and biased journalism have existed as long as there have been politicians and journalism. But social media has fundamentally changed the dynamic, and we have yet to adapt to the new world we have created.

This appears to primarily be a problem in societies that are based on open democracy. Ironically our freedoms have been weaponized against us. Russia interfering with the 2016 election is only the most obvious example, and is perhaps not the worst or most pernicious.

The Role of Social Media

While social media is a fantastic tool for communication and accessing information, it has some vulnerabilities. Traditional media had to build a brick-and-mortar infrastructure in order to have societal penetration, and that infrastructure was often built over years. This model favored, at least to an extent, quality control. If a news outlet was persistently wrong, or “tabloid” in its style, it was relegated to the supermarket checkout lane.

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May 03 2018

What the Flat-Earth Movement Tells Us

Whenever I write about flat-earthers, those who, incredibly, actually believe in the 21st century that the world is flat, there are multiple comments to the effect that we are just getting punked. No one really believes the world is flat, they are just saying that to wind us up, and we are taking the bait.

But this view is demonstrably wrong. I have actually encountered flat-earthers out in the wild, so to speak – in meat space. They really do seriously entertain the theory that the earth is flat. Harry T Dyer also reports recently in Raw Story about a three day convention of flat-earthers. They weren’t tongue-in-cheek having a laugh. They were dead serious.

I think the flat-earth deniers, if you will, are missing the point. They are approaching the issue like most people do initially – looking at the claims from a scientific point of view. From that angle the claims of flat-earthers are beyond absurd. They are so extremely ignorant and illogical that it seems reasonable to consider that either there is some psychological pathology involved, or it’s just a hoax.

There is no doubt that the belief that the earth is flat is rooted in a profound scientific illiteracy. It is not only ignorant of the findings of science, but also of the history of science, and any knowledge of the institutions of science and the participation of countless students and citizen scientists. But flat-eartherism is not about scientific illiteracy – meaning it is not merely a manifestation of profound ignorance of science (which is also why it cannot be corrected with scientific information). As Dyer also points out, belief in a flat earth is ultimately about rejecting institutional knowledge itself.

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Apr 13 2018

Free Speech Crisis Revisited

Three weeks ago I wrote about a recent survey of attitudes on college campuses regarding free speech. I and many other bloggers used the new data as an opportunity to make a few skeptical points.

First, the data does not support the popular narrative that there is a free speech “crisis” on college campuses. The long term trends show that support for free speech is increasing, and that college education and being liberal both correlate with more support for free speech. These trends directly contradict the standard narrative that liberal college professors have “run amok” with their political correctness.

In response Sean Stevens and Jonathan Haidt wrote a couple of articles arguing that the skeptics were wrong on this issue. To be as fair as possible, I do think they have one small point to make, but overall I think they are tilting at a straw man of their own making. I also think they are making the exact kind of errors of biased interpretation that they are accusing the skeptics of making.

The legitimate point they make is that while the long term trends are positive toward free speech, recent data suggests that the current generation (iGen) entering college may be reversing that trend. At least, we should consider this recent data in formulating any opinions about the current state of affairs.

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Apr 09 2018

Ecomodernism and Science-Based Environmentalism

I have always considered myself an environmentalist, but never found common cause with the environmentalist movement. The problem was (and remains) that so much of the environmentalist movement seems to be at odds with science.

Not always, of course. When the science agrees with a pro-environmentalist position, like the consensus on human-caused global warming, then environmentalists happily cite the science and link arm-in-arm with scientists. However, when the science does not align with the environmentalist position, such as with farming practices, GMOs, and nuclear energy, they just as happily take an anti-scientific position. Then scientists are in the pocket of big industry, the science cannot be trusted, and they cherry pick only the science they like.

So I like to think of myself as a science-based environmentalist. Even if you set aside the moral dimension and take a purely selfish point of view (I don’t, but even if you do), who wants to live on a planet that is all concrete and farmland? I love nature and wildlife, and I think most people do. Nature makes people happy.

No one wants to live on a polluted planet either. Pollution lowers quality of life and causes substantial health problems and cost.

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Mar 09 2018

Fiction Spreads Farther than Truth

The battle between truth and fiction is asymmetrical. While that seems to be the case, now we have some empirical evidence to back up this conclusion. In a recent study researchers report:

To understand how false news spreads, Vosoughi et al. used a data set of rumor cascades on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. About 126,000 rumors were spread by ∼3 million people. False news reached more people than the truth; the top 1% of false news cascades diffused to between 1000 and 100,000 people, whereas the truth rarely diffused to more than 1000 people. Falsehood also diffused faster than the truth. The degree of novelty and the emotional reactions of recipients may be responsible for the differences observed.

This reflects the inherent asymmetry. Factual information is constrained by reality. You can also look at it as factual information is optimized to be true and accurate. While false information is not constrained by reality and can be optimized to evoke an emotional reaction, to be good storytelling, and for drama.

We see this in many contexts. In medicine, the rise of so-called alternative medicine has been greatly aided by the fact that alternative practitioners can tell patients what they want to hear. They can craft their diagnoses and treatments for optimal marketing, rather than optimal outcomes.

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Jan 22 2018

False Alarm

On January 13 a state-wide alarm was sent out in Hawaii warning of an incoming missile. “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” the emergency alert read. For the next 38 minutes the citizens of Hawaii had the reasonable belief that they were about to die, especially given the recent political face off with North Korea over their nuclear missiles.

However, within minutes the Governor and the Hawaiian government knew that this was a false alarm, resulting from a technician hitting the wrong button. So, there are two massive failures here – sending out the alarm in the first place, and taking 38 minutes to officially send out the correction. (They did tweet that it was a false alarm, but the retraction was not generally known and it wasn’t certain that it was official.)

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Jan 18 2018

The Dangers of Celebrity Culture

Zooey Deschanel has a Facebook page where she gives advice on complex scientific topics. I love Deschanel as an actress and enjoy much of her work (particularly the otherwise mediocre movie version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide), but that does not mean I want to take advice from her on which foods I should eat.

Celebrity culture, in one form or another, has always been part of human society. Even chimpanzees will follow a charismatic leader, and it seems likely that humans are wired also to follow those we admire, and elevate them perhaps a bit too much. There is even research that shows that when we listen to a charismatic speaker the executive function part of our frontal lobes shuts down. We literally turn off our critical thinking when basking in the glow of our glorious leader.

Recognizing that this is part of the human condition is important. First, we need to be vigilant about surrendering our thinking to others. It’s also important to remind ourselves that everyone is a flawed human, and so constantly give those pedestals a reality check.

But that does not meant we should not admire and respect those who deserve it, or even look up to them for wisdom (as long as we maintain our critical eye). It does mean we need to choose carefully those we respect and follow.

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