Archive for the 'Culture and Society' Category

May 31 2019

Teaching Media Literacy

Like many activist skeptics I have spoken to, on several occasions I have been summoned to jury duty, which was a short-lived experience. On voir dire I was asked what I do and the fact that I host a skeptical podcast came up. This lead to my almost instantaneous dismissal. Lawyers, apparently, don’t want a skeptical jury. They want jurors they can manipulate. Likewise, politicians often appreciate a pliable electorate, willing to internalize whatever slogan or propaganda they feed them. Democracy, however, functions best when citizens are informed and can think critically about the information politicians and their government are feeding them.

This is why there is so much hand-wringing over what many feel is a crisis of “fake news.” As is often pointed out, fake news is nothing new, but we do seem to be entering an era of “truth decay.” Media contains more appeals to emotion, and fewer verifiable facts. Social media is certainly playing a role in this, but of course it is complicated to fully define this. The prevailing question is – what do we do about it?

As CNN reports, Finland’s answer is to do something radical – teach media literacy to all citizens. As CNN also points out, Finland is a small homogeneous country with a particular culture and national identity, which means we cannot simply extrapolate their experience to other countries. The media landscape in the US, for example, is very different. But, there is also likely considerable overlap in the challenges being faced. Finland also faces Russian propaganda exploits, and is dealing with the same array of social media outlets as everyone else.

What is media literacy? The National Association for Media Literacy Education (which ironically has the horrible acronym NAMLE), defines media literacy as:

The ability to ACCESS, ANALYZE, EVALUATE, CREATE, and ACT using all forms of communication.

One example of good communication would be, for example, not overusing all caps. But seriously, the goal is essentially to teach critical thinking in the context of consuming all media. This goal might be familiar to the readers of this blog. This is also the exact topic of my recent book, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to know what’s really real in a world increasingly full of fake. The subtitle is another way to frame media literacy.

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May 13 2019

The Ending of Game of Thrones

Published by under Culture and Society

<Warning – spoilers galore if you are not up to date>

I always knew, deep down, that Game of Thrones (GOT) would not have a happy ending. Once Ned Stark got his head cut off at the end of the first book/season, I think everyone knew this was a different kind of fantasy story. I read the books first, and as I did it became clear that I was reading a tragedy and a horror story, not heroic fantasy.

I have a few thoughts I would like to share as the last episode of the series is ready to air. The people I watch the show with had a range of reactions to the second-to-last episode, but I think it was completely consistent with the story George R.R. Martin has been telling us all along. He has been deconstructing the medieval fairy tale right in front of our eyes, hitting us over the head with the reality that we already know. It’s interesting how difficult it can be for many to just accept that.

The final delusion was that Martin would bring it all back home. In the end the heroes would defeat evil, a good person would sit on the throne, and a golden age would dawn – it’s the Lord of the Rings ending. But come on – didn’t we all know this story was not LOTR?

First, the Night King, the White Walkers, and their army of the dead was always a side show, even if it was the most captivating. Most of the series has focused on the title action – a game of thrones. I liken the Night King to a natural disaster – it’s looming in the background, some are warning of it, but mostly people ignore it while they focus on their short term politics. In the end we are really not prepared when the disaster finally arrives. The living actually straight-up lose the battle of Winterfell. (Don’t get me started on the terrible battle tactics: opening with a frontal cavalry charge, putting your troops outside your own choke point, and not opening with a sustained artillery bombardment, etc. – but that’s a side point.)

I think the lesson there is that death comes for all of us, and the best we can really do when we confront it is to either say, “not today,” or to face it bravely. Somehow life manages to keep crawling forward.  It’s like the Plague, in the end it’s a distraction from what we are really interested in, our political battles.

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Apr 23 2019

Behind the Curve – Flat Earth Exposed

I finally watched Behind The Curve, a documentary about the Flat Earth movement. It is a powerful documentary which provides important insights into this fascinating phenomenon. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it.

For me the most interesting moments were those when the Flat Earth believers the film focuses on show a flash of insight. They never quite get there, but they have all the pieces in front of them, they see them, they see their significance, but can’t quite make the final emotional connection.

The other aspects that I found most interesting were those that provided generic insight into how ideological movements work. There is some basic and universal human psychology going on, and in some ways it’s a mirror to any group of humans, including skeptics.

I also was especially interested in the question, directly addressed by the film, of how best to approach Flat Earthers and the entire movement. What is our responsibility here as science communicators, and what is our best strategy?

Some reviews have focused on those moments when Flat Earthers did experiments to test their theory, and were wrong. These are, of course, delicious. For example, one group purchased a ring laser gyroscope, a $20k device that can very sensitively measure movement. They say straight up, and correctly, that if the earth is a globe and it rotates once every 24 hours, then there should be a 15 degree drift in the gyroscope every hour. That is their experimental hypothesis.

So – they set up the device and…it measures a 15 degree drift every hour. QED – the Earth is a rotating globe.

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Mar 26 2019

That’s Not a Witch Hunt

Every time I heard someone use the term “witch hunt” recently I was reminded of that quote from Indigo Montoya from The Princess Bride – “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” With the recent release of the Mueller report, many news outlets feel obliged to interview people on the street about their opinions. This is an inane practice that provides no useful information, just cherry-picks random opinions. Every single time I heard the term “witch hunt”, it was used incorrectly.

It’s not just random people who do not understand the term. Because Trump has used the term over 260 times and counting to refer to the Mueller probe, many political commentators have also been using the term – mostly incorrectly. Dana Milbank, for example, wrote in the Washington Post:

Just because Trump says something, however, doesn’t automatically mean it’s wrong. The treatment of Trump by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and other investigators does have characteristics of a witch hunt. This is because Trump has characteristics of a witch.

So says a leading authority on the history of witchcraft, Thomas J. Rushford, history professor at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale. In an anthropological sense, Trump “is really quintessentially a witch figure,” the professor tells me, and if what is happening to Trump is a witch hunt, “it is only in a good sense, that is, this is society policing the boundaries that they believe to be ethically and morally right.”

But there is no witch hunt “in a good sense.” This misunderstands the essence of what a witch hunt is. The logic here is that if Trump is analogous to a witch, then the investigation was a witch hunt. Or, on the other side, if Trump is innocent of collusion, then by definition the investigation to determine whether or not he is guilty is a witch hunt. One random interviewed person even said that because the probe found no evidence of collusion it was a “failed witch hunt.”

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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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