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Fighting Against the End of Facts

Remember when this was a funny introduction to Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update?

“I’m Norm Macdonald, and now the fake news”

Not so funny today.

There are two different things today: the fake news isn’t funny, and a lot of people (apparently, at times, including the President-elect) don’t know it is the fake news. Consider a Trump surrogate’s statement that “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.” Or BuzzFeed’s analysis indicating that more fake news than real news was passing through Facebook prior to the election.  Or the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology tweeting forward a Briebart story claiming that global temperatures have plunged. Strong indications of foreigners creating and amplifying false news with an intent to do damage are worrying.

Part of this is the fracturing of news sources. There is no successor to Walter Cronkite, the “most trusted man in America.” The blurring between news and entertainment long ago has led to the embarrassing situation where viewers of a comedy show might be better informed than those watching a news channel. People often can’t figure out who is telling the truth, so they give up and just listen to the voices that say what they want to hear.

As a scientist, this is terribly distressing.  There are indeed facts, many of which are crucial to understanding and choosing between different policy choices.  Now some of what we are seeing is a return to what we had more than a century ago, when yellow journalism distorted or fabricated the news; such behavior was capable of driving the nation to war, an outcome fatal to many soldiers in the past but potentially fatal to civilization today. “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.” was said more than 300 years ago by Jonathon Swift and variants of “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on” has made the rounds for more than 150 years. But, you know, there were facts and there were lies, and now we are being asked to accept that neither really exist anymore.

This is pure crap.

This mindset is so contrary to science, so contrary to the creation and execution of any plans, whether they be business plans, holiday plans, or government initiatives, that it corrupts anything it touches and must be fought. So, some suggestions, though GG guesses readers of this blog hardly need them. Feel free to pass them on.

Subscribe (meaning paying money) to some news organizations that practice actual journalism (you know, the one where there is checking on multiple sources, etc.).  Dead tree or virtual, makes no difference. You can pick from left-leaning and right-leaning publications, from local news organizations to international ones, from specialty journals to general news outlets. If the money isn’t there, real journalism won’t happen. You can also support sites like factcheck.org and politifact.com. (Factcheck has a special science check section). Yes, GG pays for three daily newspapers (local, regional, national), two weekly newsmagazines and two monthly specialty magazines.

Challenge your representative(s) in government when they are promoting lies and misinformation.  Demand that they support the freedom of the press. Congratulate them when they do stand up for facts.

Avoid forwarding click-bait stories or email rumors without checking them out yourself. Snopes.com is one excellent place to check on these. Don’t succumb to the “I will educate myself through Twitter (or Facebook)” notion advanced by a Trump voter in Boulder; social media is great for learning about friends’ activities but an ill-considered source for actual news. If you can verify that the information somebody has sent you is wrong, send back a polite note with the links to information showing how the meme is incorrect.

Read real journalism that challenges your world view. Be curious while remaining skeptical.

We stand on a pair of precipices.  Nuclear war, while distant now from minds accustomed to a post-Cold War globe, can end civilization in minutes.  Mindless nationalism has fueled avoidable conflicts between countries before. Global warming might or might not cripple civilization, but it is hard to see how increasing droughts, increasing extinctions, ocean acidification and rising sea level will not provoke conflict. The denial of facts makes it easier to assert a cause for war or a denial of any need to change behavior or incentives. Denial of facts, in essence, prevents intelligent reaction to the world we all inhabit.  You know, that world the fake news tries to hide from.

What does it take?

Recently The Daily Show had their correspondent Jordan Klepper talk with some Trump supporters and his discussions led him to ask them “What would Donald Trump have to say for you to change your mind about supporting him?” Many answered that there wasn’t anything he could say that would change their minds. Arguably you could have done something similar with the most rabid of Bernie Sanders’s supporters, many of whom still deny that Clinton greatly out-polled Sanders in the primaries, so this is not necessarily a right wing/left wing kind of thing. Unfortunately, the same lack of logic seems present in confronting issues like climate change, GMOs, and vaccines.

Why bring this up here? Because there should always be the possibility that there is evidence that could change your mind.That is arguably the part of the “scientific method” that everybody should learn. Admittedly at times it can be hard to put a pin in what, exactly, it might take to overturn well-established theories.  For instance, what would it take to toss geological history as we now understand it and accept Noah’s Flood as literally true and the cause of all the geology we see? It is hard to comprehend the full list, but for starters there would need to be strong evidence that radiometric dating is wrong, that interpretation of geological facies is wrong, and that you can create angular and buttress unconformities with unconsolidated sediment.  However, at the cutting edge things get tidier.  What would it take for GG to believe that the High Plains rose in the past 5 million years? Perhaps a mechanism with relevant observations to support it. The development of a robust paleoaltimeter showing such a result. Maybe there is a way to show that incision of the High Plains cannot be the product of changes in climate.

If close-mindedness is a problem when it affects voters, it is an absolute plague when it infects legislators. The idea of a representative democracy is that the representatives will take the time to fully evaluate the relevant facts before deciding on a course of action; since it is their job, they should be able to understand issues more completely than their electorate.  Ideally they should be able to communicate back to their electorate why they might be voting differently than their voters back home think they should vote. (Does this happen at allanymore?). In such a world, we would not be seeing arguments about the existence of human-caused climate change, we would be seeing arguments on how to address it (How much should we rely on natural gas as a bridge fuel? Should nuclear energy be a part of the mix? Is there a role for carbon capture? Carbon tax, or cap and trade?). Those kinds of arguments are quite amenable to compromise; denying factual evidence, on the other hand, is a stonewall.

And so, perhaps, one of the things we in the scientific world should emphasize is that we do change our minds when the evidence demands it.That, perhaps, is the greatest good we can do for the public at large, more than any research finding we might make.

Inoculating against bias

Awhile back Dan Kahan of the Yale Law School came and spoke at CIRES here at CU about how opinions on a politicized topic like global warming tracks more with political identity and actually can harden with greater scientific literacy. It is a depressing feeling as most of us feel that the cure for people not agreeing with the science is to get them to understand the science; instead it seems that the ones best equipped to reconsider their opinion use those tools to justify their opinion rather than reconsider it.

So it is with something of a sigh of relief that some recent work by Kahan and colleagues points toward a crack in the facade of denying the science (thank you, BBC for noting this). Adding to their previous measure of scientific literacy, they created a measure of scientific curiosity. This in and of itself is rather innovative, but then they find that members of both liberal and conservative tribes are more open to considering evidence against their tribe’s opinion if they score higher on the curiosity scale.

Unfortunately this is a somewhat secondary effect.  While scientifically curious conservatives are nearly twice as likely to think global warming is mostly due to human carbon emissions, this is still only getting from 20% to 40% while political affiliation is a far stronger predictor of an opinion. Still, this points to the people on the opposite side of the political fence you have the best chance of convincing. In a sense, you are looking for people who like to have their world view challenged.

Of course Kahan et al. note that this is a pretty early part of this kind of research and so the results might change, but it is certainly intriguing. It suggests that if we worry more about encouraging students to look for stuff they don’t believe in, we might get a public more capable of absorbing new results from the scientific community.

Alien Bait

OK, while pondering the bizarre motivations for evil alien monsters (must…destroy…schoolbus…which can dodge plasma blasts even as fighter jets cannot), GG wondered, why would any alien civilization want to conquer or destroy Earth?

Arguably the most likely reason would have something to do with our biosphere.  Maybe there are cool new medicines to be found–the cure for some intergalactic plague.  Or maybe they really are into zoos (hmm, didn’t Kurt Vonnegut go there?).  Our biosphere is presumably highly unique and probably pretty rare (current enthusiasm for planets possibly harboring life not withstanding).

Not knowing anything about alien ecosystems or diseases or the like, can’t really go any further.  Is there anything else special about Earth?  In the past, movies and some science fiction have used the water on Earth as a main motivation (see Oblivion for a recent example).  But water is simply hydrogen–which is widespread–and oxygen, which is also pretty common.  If you have the muscle to move spaceships all over the place, making water is probably not that hard to do.

Oddly enough, one possibility is one that feels more like motivation for a spy movie and not for some extra-terrestrial invasion: gold.

Now gold on Earth isn’t the most common thing, but the funny part is that there is a lot more of it near the earth’s surface than you’d expect.  If you make Earth by condensing all the material in the solar nebula at about this distance from the Sun, you kind of expect the gold to all end up in the core [woo-hoo! Another motivation for a movie about the core–travel there to get gold!]. Although this difference might be related to other elements present in early Earth and issues with experimental simulation of the partitioning of gold between core and mantle, if this is real, a decent proposal is that things like gold and iridium were emplaced on the earth’s surface in the Late Heavy Bombardment period just under 4 billion years ago (a review of much of this can be found here; a popular science story here and a 2011 Nature article providing observational support is here). What this might mean is that the earth might be uncommonly rich in metals like gold.  And if our solar system were unusually rich in gold to start with (the production of gold in stars requires either supernovae or even more exotic events), we might be quite unusual. So maybe a good ET movie might combine sci-fi and a Ft. Knox heist….

Of course you’d have to have some big reason for wanting gold (hint: probably not to make coins with).  But gold is exceptionally malleable and resistant to corrosion; it is also an exceptional conductor.  Perhaps there is some kind of gold-based superconductor out there (so Earth could be Avatar’s Pandora for some other species).

GG will wait for that call from Hollywood….

Core Fixations

Honestly, how did the mild-mannered core become the focus of so many disaster movies? Having one–The Core, which was laugh-out-loud bad–would have seemed to have exhausted that particular aspect of earth disasters (we are still awaiting The Landslide–who knows, maybe the sequel to San Andreas can do that).  But no, then we had the reboot of Star Trek drop “red matter” (or maybe we misunderstood–perhaps it was “read matter” as in science books they chose not to read) into the core to cause planets to implode. Why did you have to reach the core, anyways?  If this made black holes, wouldn’t it be enough to just pitch it onto the surface?

But now, after 20 years of gestation, we get the core as once again the weak link in life on Earth.  [Spoiler ahead–arguably the only thing you might not guess from ads or reviews]. Read More…

“Is Science Bullsh*t?”

John Oliver’s answer was an emphatic “no,” but he went on to show how much of science reporting is–nothing surprising to those here, one presumes, but it is worth going to YouTube (or HBO) and seeing how he does a nice job showing how off target this reporting can get: (as usual with HBO these days, some language not for sensitive ears).

(GG is most fond of Oliver showing a morning show host saying that you should just wait for the study that agrees with what you want to do, a behavior Oliver declares is not science, it is religion). Now while this is immensely entertaining and hits the target rather solidly, Oliver notes that replication studies are really important, but is that really the case?

Read More…

Earthquakes are so passé…

Yeah, it is now time for Hollywood to move back to that old favorite, volcanoes! What is this?  Well, it appears there will be a sequel to San Andreas that apparently takes the cast out to “when the notorious Ring of Fire in the Pacific Ocean erupts” as the ScreenRant story says. Given the excesses that San Andreas had compared to older earthquake-driven disaster movies, just how over the top can this one go compared to, say, Volcano or Pompeii? Will the volcanoes erupt one by one, heading for some major metropolis like a string of firecrackers? Will the whole thing erupt and spawn a new moon? (Oh wait, that’s been done already). Will The Rock rescue people on a giant surfboard as he uses the successive tsunamis to race ahead to save distant relatives?  Feel free to speculate; it will be awhile before we find out what awaits…