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Saturday, December 05, 2009

"Can Science Fight Media Disinformation?"

Is better science education the answer to our "media disinformation" problem?:

War Is Peace: Can Science Fight Media Disinformation?, by Lawrence M. Krauss, Commentary, Scientific American: ...The rise of a ubiquitous Internet, along with 24-hour news channels has, in some sense, had the opposite effect from what many might have hoped such free and open access to information would have had. It has instead provided free and open access, without the traditional media filters, to a barrage of disinformation. Nonsense claims had more difficulty gaining traction in the days when print journalism held sway and newspaper editors had the final word on what made its way into homes and when television news consisted of a half-hour summary of what a trained producer thought were the most essential stories of the day.
Now fabrications about “death panels” and oxymoronic claims that ”government needs to keep its hands off of Medicare” flow freely on the Internet, driving thousands of zombielike protesters to Washington to argue that access to health care will undermine their fundamental freedom to have their insurance canceled if they get sick. And 24-hour news channels, desperate to provide ”breaking” coverage at all hours, end up serving as public relations vehicles for any celebrity who happens to make an outrageous claim or, worse, decide that the competition for ratings requires them to be anything but ”fair and balanced” in their reporting.
“Fair and balanced,” however, doesn’t mean putting all viewpoints, regardless of their underlying logic or validity, on an equal footing. Discerning the merits of competing claims is where the empirical basis of science should play a role. I cannot stress often enough that what science is all about is not proving things to be true but proving them to be false. What fails the test of empirical reality, as determined by observation and experiment, gets thrown out like yesterday’s newspaper. One doesn’t need to debate about whether the earth is flat or 6,000 years old. These claims can safely be discarded, and have been, by the scientific method.
What makes people so susceptible to nonsense in public discourse? Is it because we do such a miserable job in schools teaching what science is all about—that it is not a collection of facts or stories but a process for weeding out nonsense to get closer to the underlying beautiful reality of nature? Perhaps not. But I worry for the future of our democracy if a combination of a free press and democratically elected leaders cannot together somehow more effectively defend empirical reality against the onslaught of ideology and fanaticism. [full version]

There was plenty of nonsense long before the internet and 24 hour news, but it's probably true that these developments helped to amplify and speed the spread of nonsensical claims, though I'd assert that 24 hour news (plus radio to some extent) is more responsible than the internet.

As for solving the nonsense problem through better science education, I do agree that better critical thinking skills would be helpful, that's true by definition I suppose, but that's not enough. Nobody can be an expert on health care, global warming, and all the other important issues they face. The underlying scientific, economic, political, sociological, etc. issues are too difficult (in some cases even for the experts). To overcome that, we have to rely upon people we can trust, often experts who can help to guide us to the correct decisions, but sometimes it's a trusted intermediary. Critical thinking skills can help us determine who to listen to, but it still comes down to trusting that you are getting the best possible analysis of the problem

For good or bad -- I'm still making up my mind about that -- I think that a trust that was once there is gone, at least to some degree. People believed Walter Cronkite, they trusted scientists, Dr. Spock had all the answers about how to raise your kids, but trust in the media, scientists, politicians, doctors, and so on has eroded (yes, economists too). I'd cite 24 hours news and its ilk as part of the reason, but I'm not sure that's been the fundamental driving force behind the change.

Maybe people are right to be more skeptical of the information they receive -- maybe they trusted too much in the past (and there could be an overreaction during the adjustment, causing trust to fall even further). If so, then the increase in uncertainty brought about by declining trust in experts and other sources of information would be consistent with the appearance of more nonsense in the public discourse attempting to fill the void.

    Posted by on Saturday, December 5, 2009 at 12:09 AM in Economics, Media, Science | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (89)


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