Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Discussion on the problems of misinformation

So, there was quite a bit of discussion generated on my facebook wall and in multiple discussions about my initial post (as well as my first draft at a possible solution). Since none of these comments made it to the blog, let me transfer the discussion, in bullet-point form, for the sake of facilitating a broader discussion. To see the evolution of the solution draft, see this post.
Creating a Discussion

Apologies that this looks like a wall of text. I tried to break it up into bullet points for you, so that it's easier to follow. You should read the two posts above to get the feel for what is being discussed, and I also re-propose my solution for misinformation at the end.
  • The common response was that this is a big problem, with some responses to me in person or by phone even commenting that they were a little disturbed at what Ms. Attkisson discussed.
  • Several felt that there was no good solution or that it is basically "a nearly insurmountable problem."
  • A graduate of journalism and psychology commented that she was disgusted by major news outlets, and how they "have done everything to *encourage* misleading stories rather than standing out as credible, serious reporting", casting the blame for future generations' likely inability to know what to believe or to be easily mislead on the news outlets approach today.
  • Several commented on the need for intuition to discover bad information, which is based on an understanding of the core principles of a topic. For example, I personally look up the physics involved in some event (like global climate change), and check reports against the math, since it's much harder to fake math.
    • However, this requires a lot of work, and so a possible aid to overcoming misinformation could be something very similar to wikipedia, but focusing on just the basics of a subject, or the core pieces of understanding that would be needed to put new information in context. In essence, making it easier to find the core principles to a given topic.
  •  A discussion with a friend brought out the usefulness of enthusiast forums, because their authority arguably often matches or even exceeds that of experts, and there is no argument that they are more helpful to newcomers than experts are.
  • Many people I spoke with about how they sort through knowledge also touches on revelation, or utilizing spiritual means, citing things like, "by the power of the Holy Ghost [I] may know the truth of all things."Basically, God knows all things, and knows truth, so we can ask Him for guidance on what is truth, and He promises answers to such prayers.
  • A friend heavily involved in journalism and politics discussed paywalls, noting that publications and creating knowledge do cost money. She argues that we do not have a right to information per se, and access to good information can justifiably be expensive.
    • First, I must admit that it is true that we do not have a right to all knowledge. For example, a medical resource called Up to Date puts published research for medical online pretty much the day it's published (hence the promise in it's name), and provides many tools for medical professionals. This is an incredible, indispensable resource for properly practicing medicine, but is very expensive to run and upkeep, and so they can justify higher access fees, because they actually add value to the information.
    • However, I generally think along the same lines as Mike Taylor's post: that it is immoral to post your research behind a paywall. Basically, researchers research to add to the general body of knowledge, and by locking that away, they are working counter to their very purpose of making new information available, and allowing conversation about their work. Plus, it costs human lives to have certain research blocked by prohibitively high paywalls (as noted in the first paragraph of another post of mine), and as previously noted, most publishers add no extra value to the information, since peer-reviewing happens free of cost, and the publisher basically only disseminates the information. Charging for the physical copy, or even individual articles can make sense, but the current costs are much higher than actual costs to run, and these costs can be deferred to the ones trying to publish the work, as Mike notes, the typical fee is a small cost added to a proposal, and facilitates better circulation of that knowledge.
    • I also feel that locking research and validated information like academic research or careful journalism behind a paywall actually plays a big role in the overall misinformation problem of today--if the research paper that debunks my wrong ideas about global climate change cost me several hundred bucks to get access to, it's easier to keep believing that it's a conspiracy, because the average citizen of Earth doesn't have thousands of dollars to buy access to the scholarly work on topics to know what's true and not. Even those who want to know the truth must rely on 2nd-hand accounts of others reading the research.
  • The same friend heavily involved in journalism noted that I didn't address presenter bias. This was an oversight on my part. Bias is present both in the presentation and consumption of information, and there is no good solution for this, as it is impossible to fully remove bias. The journalism and psych grad I mentioned noted that good journalists are trained in how to be careful of bias, and to double-check their work for bias. Another friend of mine noted that "one of the fundamental problems with information is that it relies on humans, which always have biases...and also can be corrupted or have conflicts of interests."
    • He continues, "were there a way to remove the human element of information, I believe we would find it to be much more reliable." Which on the surface seems good, but I think would be very difficult in practice. Google News, for example, added an "Editor's Picks" section to it's automated news feed, and when it was released, I heard many of my colleagues mention how much more valuable they found these human-selected pieces.
  • My journalism friend further challenged me, asking "who should write the more simple article? Who defines to what level it should be 'dumbed down'? For example, I'm not going to be able to understand medical terms in an EMS journal at the level [my husband] will, but I will have an understanding that you might not. So how simplified do we go? And if a reader wants to understand, isn't it incumbent upon them to get to know the industry well enough to be able to read the journals?"
    • The answer to the first few questions is tied to information I didn't really disclose. A professor that I work with has received an offer of sorts from the Nuclear Energy Institute, through which most money in nuclear flows, to create a nuclear PR lab that focuses on creating simple-to-understand, factual information about nuclear. They did a study which showed that after a few minutes of discussion about the benefits of nuclear, the majority of survey takers looked more favorably on nuclear. Thus, a lab that focuses on putting out good, interesting, sharable PR for nuclear very well could dramatically shift public opinion of it. They have more than hinted that such a lab would be well funded, and not all funds need to be used for the creation of nuclear PR.
    • So, part of the lab could be working on complimentary research in the best way to present information from various fields, providing a national outreach center that could produce simplified versions of articles, easy-to-digest videos, and other media that better fits how people are consuming information today.
    • The aforementioned Up To Date database is a good example: it provides three levels of explanations on medical conditions and treatments: a simplified one for patients with no background, a slightly more technical, but still fairly easy to understand version for educated patients not familiar with all the medical jargon, and a professional version that uses all the precise medical language that makes it unambiguous to somebody trained in that sort of stuff. So a pattern already exists, and their research could be used as a starting point, but the answer is: research would be conducted to find the right level of simplification needed for different topics, and I suspect that some common principles for simplification will be found.
    • The answer to the last question, placing the burden on the person trying to be informed, is likewise somewhat accurate. But the simple fact is that many people will not educate themselves, and many of these people are loud and mislead others because they sound like they are informed, and it makes it harder for people who want to know truth to find it. Additionally, there is no reason for a profession to increase barriers to entry. So, providing some tools and help for getting into a topic would be helpful. Two stories to illustrate:
      • I study things in multiple fields: mechanical engineering, of course, but also linguistics, biological sciences and biomedical engineering, physics, chemistry, mathematics, computer engineering and programming, film, etc. I can't know all the terminology for all of these fields, and so reading research is slow, painstaking, and some of it is still lost on me. I studied the motion of helicase, for example, and the papers were rife with special microbiology terms that were not necessary for the information that I was interested in, but which I had to spend about 20 hours total looking up and coming to understand to know that I didn't need it. I would have gotten a lot more research on what I cared about done if I could find a paper just a hair more generalized.
      • I'm in a STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), and we're constantly talking about how we need more people interested in STEM, and participating, but our research is locked away, and we often basically treat newcomers like idiots, mocking them for not understanding basics of heat transfer, thermodynamics, etc. This is a huge disservice to the fields, and creates an arbitrary barrier to entry. Making these principles more understandable and providing an easier entry point than having to dive into the laws of thermodynamics would help more people get involved.
Once again, I'm interested in your thoughts and comments, but this time in this post. Thanks!

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