Posts Tagged ‘Facts’

Damaging Effects on Public Discourse

April 7, 2019

This is the eleventh post based on an important book by Roger McNamee titled: “Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook Catastrophe.” In the MIT Technology Review professor Zeynep Tufekci explained why the impact on internet platforms is so damaging and hard to fix. “The problem is that when we encounter opposing views in the age and context of social media, it’s not like reading them in a newspaper while sitting alone. It’s like hearing them from the opposing team while sitting with our fellow fans in a football stadium. Online, we’re connected with our communities and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans on the other one. In sociology terms, we strengthen our feeling of ‘in-group’ belonging by increasing our distance from and tension with the ‘out-group’—us versus them. Our cognitive universe isn’t an echo chamber, but our social one is. That is why the various projects for fact-checking claims in the news, while valuable, don’t convince people. Belonging is stronger than facts.” To this HM would add “beliefs are stronger than facts.” Belonging leads to believing what the group believes. As has been written in previous healthymemory blog posts, believing is a System One Process in Kahneman’s Two-process view of cognition. And System One processing is largely emotional. It shuts out System Two thinking and promotes stupidity.

Facebook’s scale presents unique threats for democracy. These threats are both internal and external. Although Zuck’s vision of connecting the world and bringing it together may be laudable in intent, the company’s execution has had much the opposite effect. Facebook needs to learn how to identify emotional contagion and contain it before there is significant harm. If it wants to be viewed as a socially responsible company, it may have to abandon its current policy of openness to all voices, no matter how damaging. Being socially responsible may also require the company to compromise its growth targets. In other words, being socially responsible will adversely affect the bottom line.


Beliefs vs. Facts and Knowledge

February 6, 2013

According to Rebecca Costa, civilizations collapse when beliefs do not keep up with facts and knowledge.1 Of course, the facts and knowledge must be accurate. Facts and knowledge change and grow. The rate of growth of facts and knowledge has become exponential, so it is quite difficult for beliefs to keep up. Moreover, we grow comfortable in our beliefs and are reluctant to change them. So the deadlock and stagnation many of us are experiencing is not surprising. Nevertheless, to achieve the ends of both a healthy memory and an advancing civilization it is important, to the extent possible, to try to keep our beliefs in correspondence with ever changing and developing facts and knowledge. We have to be like the great economist, John Maynard Keynes who said, when the facts change, I change my mind.

In science, tentative beliefs, called hypothesis, are tested by looking for facts and by designing experiments to determine the correct facts. The facts and knowledge in science are never certain and continually growing. Indeed, if there is no means of falsifying a belief, then it is not science. New facts lead to new knowledge and new beliefs. New knowledge identifies new problems that need to be addressed. Before the advent of science, beliefs changed slowly as facts and knowledge accumulated slowly. However, since the advent of science, finding new facts and knowledge has increased at an exponential rate. Unfortunately, beliefs are falling further and further behind .

For example, free markets are extolled. Although, there is no doubt regarding the benefits of free enterprise, the notion of a free market is an ideal. Free markets do not remain free in the real world. There are eight centuries of data proving this point.2 Markets are manipulated and monopolies are formed. Most of the world came close to a financial collapse due to ill behaving markets that were insufficiently regulated. Although it is true that regulation can be stifling if done improperly, it is almost a certainty that if they are unregulated, serious problems develop. Given the limited corrections that were implemented as a result of the previous market crisis, there is no reason to be confident that there is not a market collapse in the future.

Another example is global warming. There seems to be a scientific consensus that global warming is a serious problem. Now science is never certain. Facts and knowledge can be change. But the ramifications of global warming should not be ignored and considerations need to be given to how global warming could be mitigated or eliminated. Even in the unlikely event that the predictions of global warming are wrong, we would have erred on the side of caution. But it is easier to cling to the belief that there is no global warming, as it avoids the inconvenience and costs of taking action. Our situation is analogous to the Mayans who failed to deal with their conditions of drought.

Evolution is another belief widely held in the scientific community. Nevertheless, there are people who disagree with evolution and do not want it taught in the schools. They offer an alternative theory, creationism. It should be understood that a belief in God does not preclude one from believing in evolution. Nevertheless, some religious people do find the concept of evolution uncomfortable. Frankly, I think both creationism and evolution should be taught together in school because it provides an ideal means of explaining how science works. The first question to ask a creationist is whether creationism can be proven false, and if so, how. If it cannot be proven false, then it is not science. An evolutionist should also admit that evolution could be proven false. The evolutionist certainly can explain how the theory of evolution has been changing over the years, but the fundamental premise remains. I find it ironic that one of the proofs, a teleological proof, for the existence of God is the human eye. But when you examine the eye, it appears that the retina is designed backward. Before light hits the cones and rods it first goes through the neurological wiring from the eye to the brain. Although it is true that there are many beauties in nature, there are also many uglies. And there are millions and millions, perhaps billions of extinct species that did not survive. It was the humorist and sports maven Tony Kornheiser, I believe, who remarked, after he had experienced vomiting and diarrhea at the same time, what a perverse sense of humor God had when he designed the human body! One of the primary deficiencies we humans have is that we look for confirmations of our beliefs, but fail to look for disproofs of our beliefs.

1Costa, R.D. (2010).The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse. Philadelphia: Vanguard Press.

2Reinhart, C.H. & Rogoff (2009). This Time is Different. Princeton University Press.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Truth Decay

November 11, 2012

Truth Decay is the title of an intriguing and important article in the New Scientist.1 The author writes that when his grandfather was in dental school he learned that there were 48 chromosomes in a human cell. This was regarded as an established fact. But in 1956 Joe Hin Tjio and Albert Levan discovered using an improved and more accurate technique that there were only 46 chromosomes in a human cell.

It is the nature of science that facts change. Scientometrics is the field that studies how these facts change. The rate of change will likely surprise you. Thierry Poynard and his colleagues measured the churning of facts in two medical fields in which they specialized. Cirrhosis and hepatitis are two liver diseases. They took almost 500 articles in these fields from over a period of 50 years and gave them to a panel of experts to review. Each expert needed to rate each paper as to whether it was factual, out-of-date, or disproved.2 They discovered that 45 years after publication, 50% of journal articles had effectively decayed. They concluded that these articles had a 45 year “half-life.” Another study came to the same conclusion in a review of studies on surgery.3

The above studies were extremely pain-staking to conduct, so another method is used, and that is how long it takes for researchers to stop citing the average paper in the field. This technique is not as good as the failure to cite a paper does not necessarily indicate that the findings of the paper are no longer true. It could be that there are more recent and up to date papers, or that the journal’s focus has moved on to other topics. Nevertheless, this technique does provide an approximation. A study of Physical Review journals found that the half-life in physics is about 10 years.4 Half-lives also vary as a function of publication formats for different fields. In a study of scholarly books, physics has a different half-life (13.7 years), economics (9.4 years), which is longer than half lives of mathematics, psychology, and history.5 However, in journal articles, as opposed to scholarly books, the frontiers of hard science are overturned more rapidly than the frontiers of the social sciences.

The estimates of half lives and the rates of turn over in different publications and in different fields, although interesting, are not the main point here. The main point is that facts change and they change rapidly. For many years the Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) was strongly recommended for all men over a certain age. Now it is only recommended for high risk groups and even then, only after consulting with their physician. I have been through many different ideal food groups in my life. At one time dairy products were supposed to be nature’s most perfect food. At another time the US had four basic food groups. Then there was a food pyramid that underwent multiple changes. Now there are five food groups. Advice on the consumption of fatty foods, carbohydrates and many other things change.

The purpose of this blog post is not to discredit science. At any given time, science provides the best facts for that time. But science is in constant flux, and what is factual today might not be factual at some future date. So remember that some of what you learned during your formal education might not be true today. This underscores the importance of lifelong learning, and lifelong learning fosters healthy memories.

1Arbesman, S. (2012). Truth Decay. New Scientist, 22 September, 37-39.

2Annals of Internal Medicine, Vol 136, p.888).

3The Lancet, vol 350, p.1752.

5College and Research Libraries, vol 69, p 356.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.