Archive for the 'Culture and Society' Category

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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Jan 15 2018

Oprah Would Be a Disaster

Published by under Culture and Society

I know that Oprah has not stated she is considering running for president in 2020 and the initial buzz about her is just a fantasy. But some of her people have stated that she would consider running, and it is possible that they are testing the waters. Let’s put the idea out there and see how the public responds.

Those who are enthusiastic about Oprah after her rousing speech at the Golden Globes have failed to fully appreciate what the real problem with Trump is (at least from this skeptic’s perspective). This is not about politics, and all the ways that Oprah is different than Trump don’t affect the ways in which she is the same – and those similarities are what I am primarily concerned about.

Marc Fisher, writing for The Citizen, describes what Trump apparently means when he calls himself a genius. Trump thinks that being smart is succeeding without trying. He congratulated himself on getting through school without ever really studying (like those other chumps). He admires instinct, his ability to feel in his gut what the answer is. He criticizes academics, and brags that the most important thing he learned at school was that academics don’t really know anything.

By all accounts that it his approach to the presidency. The very fact that he thought he could be president without any prior relevant experience betrays this attitude. It did not appear to bother him, or even occur to him, that being the executive of a large and complex government might requires skills and experience that he had never honed, or even tested. He thought he could sit in the Oval Office and just shoot from the hip, rely on his gut to divine the right answer to the country’s and the world’s complex problems. He would have a staff of eggheads to worry about the details.

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Dec 18 2017

CDC Word “Ban”

I received a flood of e-mails over the weekend pointing me to reports that the CDC is banned from using seven words or phrases in their upcoming budget proposals. They are not George Carlin’s famous “seven dirty words” you can never say on television.  Rather they are: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based,” according to the Washington Post, who broke the story.

First let’s discuss the status of these reports – they are not official public statements from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the HHS (department of Health and Human Services) or the Trump Administration. They are anonymous reports from CDC officials who were present during a meeting in which the seven unwanted terms were discussed. Apparently this report was confirmed with several people who were present.

CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald has pushed back against these reports without straight-up denying them.

“I want to assure you there are no banned words at CDC. We will continue to talk about all our important public health programs,” CDC  said in a Facebook post. “I want to assure you that CDC remains committed to our public health mission as a science- and evidence-based institution. As part of our commitment to provide for the common defense of the country against health threats, science is and will remain the foundation of our work.”

Meanwhile the HHS stated the reports were a “mischaracterization.”

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Dec 11 2017

Goop Nonsense – Yes It Matters

Paltrow has defended her “lifestyle brand” by saying that they are just giving women choices, and being open. Nonsense – don’t be swayed by such distractions.

I unapologetically support reason and scholarship as critical values for human civilization. This is increasingly true as our world gets more complex, as the stakes get higher, the margins for error lower, and as our culture and economy are increasingly global.

We cannot get by just shooting from the hip. We need people with specific expertise who transparently follow a process that is logically valid and based on evidence. We need standards of scholarship and intellectual rigor that are up to the challenges we face. We also need to make this work within an open and democratic society, where public opinion matters.

What all this means is that it is more important than ever to have a well-educated public, and for our public discourse to respect standards of honesty and excellence. It matters if people understand and accept what experts have to say about vaccine safety and effectiveness, the evidence base for manmade climate change, the safety of GMOs, and the nature of health and disease.

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Dec 04 2017

The Causes of Science Denial

Over the last few decades the challenges we face promoting science and critical thinking have become greater, but so have the tools at our disposal. The “science of anti-science” has been progressing nicely, and we now have a much more nuanced view of what we are up against.

Carl Sagan was fond of saying that, “Pseudoscience is embraced, it might be argued, in exact proportion as real science is misunderstood.” That was the conventional wisdom among skeptics at the time (quote from Demon Haunted World, published in 1997) – that the problem of pseudoscience or science-denial was essentially one of information deficit. Correct the deficit, and the science-denial goes away. We now know that the real situation is far more complex.

To reduce the acceptance of pseudoscience or the rejection of real science, we need to do more than just promote scientific literacy. We also need to understand what is driving the pseudoscience, and we need to give critical thinking skills.

A recent publication of a series of studies looking at the roots of science rejection is a nice cap on this research: Not All Skepticism Is Equal: Exploring the Ideological Antecedents of Science Acceptance and Rejection.

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Nov 27 2017

Renewed Antiscience Legislation

The fight over science in public education continues, and if anything picked up considerably in 2017. Earlier in the year Nature reported on various state laws designed to water down science education or allow for equal time to be given to unscientific views. They report:

Florida’s legislature approved a bill on 5 May that would enable residents to challenge what educators teach students. And two other states have already approved non-binding legislation this year urging teachers to embrace ‘academic freedom’ and present the full spectrum of views on evolution and climate change. This would give educators license to treat evolution and intelligent design as equally valid theories, or to present climate change as scientifically contentious.

New Mexico took a more direct approach – simply scrubbing “controversial” ideas from the state’s science standards. The standards no longer mention “evolution”, human contributions to climate change, or even mentioning the age of the Earth. This is not a back door approach – this is straight-up censorship of accepted scientific facts.

A new Florida bill also includes this problematic language:

Controversial theories and concepts must be taught in a factual, objective, and balanced manner.

This is part of the latest strategy. First, don’t mention any one theory (like evolution) by name. That is likely to trigger a constitutional challenge. Second, make the bill sound like it is promoting something positive, like academic freedom, democracy, or just being fair and balanced.

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Nov 16 2017

John Oliver Nails Trump

Published by under Culture and Society

Oliver-Trump 2017In the season finale of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver reviews Trump’s assault on truth and decency. If you haven’t been watching this show, you should give it a try. Not only is it funny and entertaining, but on each episode Oliver does a deep dive on something in our society that is not right and can be fixed. His researchers generally do a great job, and I also think Oliver does a good job of not being gratuitously partisan.

His season-long attacks on Trump may not make it seem that way, but I don’t think they are partisan. I also try to keep my personal politics out of my science advocacy, but I think the problems with Trump transcend politics, ideology, and party. In this last episode for the season, Oliver reviews why this is true.

The real problem with Trump is not that he is Republican or conservative – actually you could argue that he is barely either of those things. It’s not even necessarily that he is an anti-establishment populist who wants to shake things up. The real danger of Trump is that he is an anti-intellectual who has been waging war against journalism, expertise, decency, standards, and any notion of objectivity.

For Trump the only thing that appears to matter is the current struggle in which he is engaged – he needs to achieve what he perceives as victory over any adversary, at any cost. Being honest and respecting knowledge and accuracy doesn’t seem to factor in at all.

As a result Trump is willing to sacrifice the basic fabric that is necessary for a functional democracy. He seems to view democratic checks and balances as nothing but an annoyance and obstacle, so eroding that fabric is just another win for him.

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Nov 14 2017

Fact-checking on Facebook

Published by under Culture and Society

facebook-unlikeLast year Facebook announced that it was partnering with several outside news agencies, the Associated Press, Snopes, ABC News, PolitiFact and, to fact-check popular news articles and then provide a warning label for those articles on Facebook. How is that effort working out?

According to a recent survey, not so well. Yale researchers Rand and Pennycook found only tiny effects overall, and it’s possible there is a net negative effect from the warning labels. Some people just ignore the labels. Perhaps more significant, however, is the fact that fake news articles that were missed by the fact-checkers were more likely to be believed as real because they lacked the warning label. The fact-checkers could not possibly keep up with all the fake news, so they were overwhelmed and most of the dubious content not only made it through the filters, but benefited from a false implication of legitimacy.

Further, the Guardian reports that this arrangement between Facebook and these news outlets compromise the ability of those news outlets from being a proper watchdog on Facebook itself. If their journalists are being paid by Facebook to fact-check, then they have a conflict of interest when reporting on how Facebook is doing. This conflict is exacerbated by the fact that news organizations are hard-up for income, and could really use the extra income from Facebook.

So it seems that the fact-checking efforts of Facebook were insufficient to have any really benefit, and may have even backfired. Warning labels on dubious news articles may be the wrong approach. It’s simply too easy to foil this protection by overwhelming the system. You could even deliberately flood Facebook with outrageously fake news stories to serve as flack and provide cover for the propaganda you really want to get through. In the end the propaganda will be even more effective.

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Oct 13 2017

A Poor Marker of Truth

Published by under Culture and Society

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.

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