Misinformation Age

When I was a kid, we had a School Computer.

Yes, that’s right, singular. This was the early 90s; it was wheeled between classrooms on a trolley and played a selection of blocky educational games about as engaging as a marketing pamphlet about sensible shoes. Later, there were computer rooms, but we certainly didn’t have mobile phones to consult on any given enquiry. FBI agents on TV had mobile phones; kids at school did not. Teenagers didn’t have an important reason to warrant getting one. That last part hasn’t really changed.

Anyway. The point I’m underlining is how widely available information is. With the powerful array of devices often only a tap from the internet, we’re more plugged-in than ever. Access to incredible resources like Wikipedia have revolutionised autodidactism and even regular taught education. Thanks to the concept of crowd-content, you can find videos about any kind of esoteric thing you are trying to do; from upgrading Nerf guns to learning when to omit the phrase “watashi wa” in Japanese.

But there is a concerning side-effect to the information revolution. The widespread availability of data and the ease by which it is collated, assembled and published has made it even easier than ever for bad information to propagate. And not just spread, but spread unhindered by opposition. For example, we have people who honestly believe the moon landings were faked and can find all the vacuous drivel they need to back them up, which they will spew any time this ludicrous position is challenged. The fact that nobody worth a damn in the whole field of science can take the notion seriously doesn’t matter. Just go to the right place and you’ll find a corner of the internet where the echo chamber resonates your chosen poison.

Now, in theory, what should happen here is that the internet ought to make disproving rubbish and rumour less effort than ever. While it certainly can do that, it seemingly doesn’t. If anything, it makes it easier than ever to find garbage masquerading as reliable information, with which to support a flawed argument. This serves to highlight an awkward facet of human nature: we don’t like things that are true, we like things that are exciting. It’s the reason why any free-market media are, more often than not, scaremongering, doom-chanting hype peddlers.*  The macabre sells far better than the mediocre, after all.

So on the even playing field of the information highway, where everybody publishes everywhere, how do we determine what is valid information from what is garbage, falsehood and chaff? Well it’s not completely level, for a start. The common way to tell if something is being taken seriously is to look at where it comes from. If an article is on the front page of a well-known science journal affiliated with a national or international body of repute, like the ESA, it’s probably going to be a good source. If it’s the rantings of an angry ex-employee of the postal service uploaded to an anonymous tumblr with awful spelling and no links or citations whatsoever, it’s probably a bad one.

But of course an argument from authority is bad logic. Official-looking religious fanatics run huge organisations churning out absolute nonsense with the straightest of faces, while many the obscure whistle-blower or blogger may appear to be a nutcase but have all the facts right. Consider the facts being put forward; do they collate with other (trustworthy) sources? Do they make sense with each other, even? And what is the bias of the person giving the information, do they stand to gain from it being taken seriously? Probably more important, in fact, do they stand to lose if it is proved to be false?

Incidentally (and please forgive me but this is a point of recent contention), the argument from authority is not the same as the argument from expertise. If somebody has spent 30 years studying meteorology and climate science, their opinion will count more in a discussion on climate change than, say, “Mike from Luton” who thinks “it’s probably just a cycle or something, mate”. If somebody’s learned a lot about a subject, they will likely have already been though all your ideas and found the flaws in them. That’s not to say you should just shutup and not suggest anything; sometimes people outside a field can offer new insight. But you do not have equal opinion. I mean, this should be obvious; why does it feel like we collectively don’t understand that a chemist knows more than any random schmuck about chemistry?

I feel like I’ve dwelt a lot on the issues here without sharing my two coin on the solution. Firstly, cross-reference. If somebody says something that seems surprising or out of kilter with what you know, look it up elsewhere. You may even find you were wrong all along and they were telling the truth! I recommend Snopes as a good site for debunking anything you’re suspicious of. Get your news from multiple places when possible. Grasswire is a good impartial source of news, for global stories anyway. Build up a list of trustworthy sources for information. If one of them lies or misleads, strike them off it. You’ll get to know who tells it true by process of elimination. Sources telling the truth will usually recognise and reinforce one another, too; helping you to sort trustworthy from fakes.

And share your findings. Don’t be afraid to correct people who are being misled. Most of us, while we prefer excitement over truth, don’t like to be wrong.

(*) - State Media, on the flipside, are just terminal optimists ad absurdum

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